Local Major League Baseball star Daniel Norris spent the evening in his hometown to help raise money for an outdoor classroom at Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek.
Norris, a Johnson City native and Science Hill High School graduate who pitches for the Detroit Tigers, posed with fans for photographs and autographed countless baseballs and baseball cards before a fundraiser auction began to help collect money for the project.
Norris recalled first hearing the story of the nature park and relating to the idea of pursuing a dream that seems impossible.
“When they first approached me with the opportunity, I was really excited about it,” Norris said. “I love nature and I thought this was a really cool project I could get behind.”
Founded in the memory of a child who died 12 years ago of an E. coli infection, Jacob’s Nature Park is designated on an area of undevelopable land around Sinking Creek. The waters in this area have been declared unsafe by the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation due to high levels of fecal bacteria.
A grant from the Boone Watershed Partnership in 2008 helped propel the project forward, and Saturday night’s auction continued the dream of restoring the wetlands and building a park to educate the community in Jacob’s memory. Francisco said Jacob’s Project has raised enough to begin building a boardwalk around the 28-acre plot of land and that Saturday night’s fundraiser will help create a pavilion to house the outdoor classroom.
“It’s an incredible feeling to see and feel all the support,” he said. “For Johnson City to come out and support Daniel and Jacob like this, it’s just great.”
Local Little League players and friends 10-year-old Jack Harmon and 9-year-old J. Riley Long flipped through a book of baseball cards as they waited to meet Norris. Jack carried one of his baseballs in hopes Norris would sign it, and J sported a Tigers hat.
“He’s coming back to raise money for this park, and he could be doing a lot of other stuff,” Jack’s father, Andy Harmon said, adding that he’s glad his son has a positive, local role model to look up to.
The boys got their photographs and autographs before settling in for the auction. Jack showed off his freshly autographed baseball card of Norris, and J’s Tigers hat now displayed Norris’ autograph right on the front.
“It was pretty awesome,” Jack said with a big grin.
Following the VIP meet-and-greet event with Norris, the auction pulled bidders into the East Tennessee State University D.P. Culp Auditorium for the fundraiser auction. Items up for bid ranged from local restaurant gift certificates to stained glass paintings to a baseball glove signed by Norris.
Francisco gave a short presentation on the project before diving into the auction, and remembered how his son said he was going to be famous one day. Now, 12 years after his death, Francisco said he’s granting his son that wish by making him a legendary hallmark in the community with this park.
“Jacob was a smart, kind, active little boy, and this park embodies how he lived,” he said.
Email Jessica Fuller at [email protected]. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.