Baseball has small town twirling

Tournament: To the cheers of townspeople, a team from the Shore advances to the Little League World Series.

August 19, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

PRESTON -- The 566 residents of this former railroad stop, which rises like an island in a sea of Eastern Shore corn and soybean fields, weren't kidding when they dubbed the place "the biggest little town in the U.S.A."

Preston has a two-lane main drag, a blinking caution light, one restaurant, one pharmacy, two convenience stores and a giant home-grown car dealership.

And now it has a team in the Little League World Series.

There's hardly a soul around who wants to talk about anything except the odds that this group of 11- and 12-year-olds, which also has players from nearby Federalsburg, will win the 16-team tournament that begins this weekend. The competition in Williamsport, Pa., includes some of the best teams from the United States, Mexico, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Ask anybody about Sunday's game, in which 12-year-old pitcher Robbie Payne not only mowed down the opposition from Hillstown, Pa., but blasted two homers in a 4-1 win that secured Preston's title as Mid-Atlantic champions.

"People all over town were watching it [on ESPN2], and it was 10 times better than the Super Bowl, at least in Preston," said Dave Wilson, a former Little League player and coach who built the Preston Automotive Group into the Shore's largest dealer. "It's just the neatest thing to see it all come together like this. When it's kids and coaches you know, it's really something to see," he said.

What might not be obvious are the changes in Preston, once a gritty transportation hub that lost its signature business in 1999. The 67-year-old Preston Trucking Co. took 295 jobs when it closed.

Town Manager Ann "Mimi" Willis says more than 14,000 cars a day roll through town, many driven by beach-bound tourists and others by commuters who were attracted by the area's affordable housing.

The 1990 census showed a majority of the town's residents were age 59 or older. By the 2000 count, an influx of young families made the 39-to-59 age bracket the largest.

"You can still buy a nice house here for $150,000, and a lot of people are willing to [travel to] work in Easton, Annapolis or even Baltimore and Washington," Willis said. "Our median household income is about $48,000 now."

The other little secret, which could become evident to teams that take the small-town Preston boys lightly, is that this group pretty much lives and breathes baseball.

Two years ago, the same group of kids and their coaches won a state championship in the 9- and 10-year-old category. This time, Preston not only won a state crown, but it is the first team from Maryland to make it to Williamsport since 1986.

The Field of Dreams and the Chicken Coop have a lot to do with it.

Next to Ray Bennett's house near Federalsburg is a miniature ball field, complete with its own scoreboard.

He built it for his three sons, including 12-year-old Hunter, who is the starting second baseman for Preston.

Bennett, a snack food route salesman, Steve Blanchfield, a mail carrier, and others also have converted a 200-foot-long chicken house into a cold-weather baseball academy -- complete with pitchers' mounds, batting cages and pitching machines. There are even some old grandstand seats.

"We have a core group of about 25 or 30, all the way from Little League to high school and college age," Blanchfield said. "It's heated, it's free. It's nothing fancy, but it works well for our small community."

All over town are signs praising the team, which will stay with its coaches in dormitories at the Little League complex in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania.

Outside Pam Payne's Italian restaurant, a sign says, "Awesome Baby, Going to Williamsport."

Next to it is a display of $20 T-shirts she is selling to help raise money for the team, which is led by her husband, manager Curtis Payne, and stepson Robbie. So far, she has raised about $400.

"This is doing wonderful things for the whole town," said Pam Payne, who arrived back in Preston from the regional championship in Bristol, Conn., about 4 a.m. Monday, time enough to catch up on work and open the restaurant for lunch and dinner. "I must have had 100 phone calls, mostly from people wishing us well or wanting to help out financially," she said.

Fund raising is an issue, parents say, even though area businesses have donated freely since the postseason began. All summer, parents have racked up a lot of expenses, not to mention being away from their jobs and burning up vacation time.

For the state championships in Hagerstown, the Preston team, parents, siblings and others spent more than $9,000 for hotel rooms.

Many parents are heading to Williamsport for a meeting tonight and opening ceremonies tomorrow. Fans have booked two charter buses to get them to the ballpark in time for Preston's first game against Owensboro, Ky., Saturday at noon.

For those who can't go, a local radio station carries Preston's games and ESPN will televise them. Every team is guaranteed three games. If they continue winning, they'll be in the championship game Aug. 29.

"Everybody's so happy for these kids and the town," said Diane Lathman, the bookkeeper at the Southern States farm service store. "They're all so cute."

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