In Little League, no two words sound sweeter than “play ball.”
The announcement of that treasured phrase Saturday morning signaled the beginning of the Johnson City Major Little League’s 2012 season. About 215 players and their parents gathered at Arthur Lady field for opening ceremonies.
“I think this is one of the most special days for Little Leaguers,” said John Mashburn, a Little League umpire who was recognized Saturday for 40 years of service. “They get their name introduced and you see the enjoyment and expressions on their faces. It’s time to play ball when we have this opening day and that means they’re getting ready to go.”
Each Little Leaguer from tee-ball to the majors was dressed in full uniform. Those who couldn’t contain their excitement performed little dances and jumped up and down while waiting for their big introduction and the opportunity to run into the infield and tip their hat to the crowd.
“For the little kids, it’s a big deal for them because they’ve never been out on the field,” said 11-year-old Drew Keith, a member of the Merrill Lynch Reds. “Getting their name called out to everyone is a big deal to them.”
Players from the tee-ball and instructional divisions do seem to show their excitement a little more willingly than the older ones, but 11-year-old Patrick Brown did admit that he still “gets pumped” whenever his name is called over the loudspeaker.
“It’s hard to describe how it’s the greatest game,” said Patrick, who plays for the Merrill Lynch Reds. “It’s fun because it takes a whole team to win games, not just an individual guy.”
Patrick and his teammate Drew are hoping they can become leaders who set an example for the younger players on the Reds. Their team manager, Randy Gentry, will make sure they do so. His 2011 team, the Civitan Red Sox, was presented with the Vince Sikora Sportsmanship Award at opening ceremonies.
“They were a very deserving team,” Gentry said. “I was very proud of the players for working together and encouraging each other and not getting down on others when they messed up.”
With their first game several hours away, the Reds were giddy about also being the first ones to play on Arthur Lady Field this season.
“We could use some more practice, but we’re in the same boat with all a lot of other teams,” Gentry said. “We’re loose and ready and we’ll get out here and do our best.”
Drew will also do what he likes best, batting.
“I just like hitting the ball and feeling that tingle whenever you hit it and it goes into the outfield,” he said.
At almost 65 years old, Mashburn will continue to officiate for another season of the Major Little League.
“It grows on you and you keep going and the years have gone by fast,” Mashburn said with a grin. “I love the game. I played baseball and I injured myself so that’s why I started calling ball.”
Mashburn says he’ll be busy from now until August, as will other officials from the American and National Little Leagues in Johnson City, which also held opening ceremonies Saturday.
“Little League is community- based and all the kids can play,” Mashburn said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”