Community Rallies For Little League Stars

BERLIN — After cinching the town’s first-ever state title, the Berlin Little League (BLL) All-Stars team needed to raise more than $10,000 in less than a week to finance their trip to represent Maryland at the East Regional Championship in Rhode Island next week. Thanks to overwhelming community support, team officials say the goal has been surpassed.

“We’re going to make $12,000,” said Berlin Little League’s Bill Wheatley. “That is amazing in six days.”

When the team of 9-10-year-olds secured the Maryland Championship last Thursday, victory celebrations carried an edge of concern over what would come next. According to Wheatley, some on the team expected to see an asterisk next to their state title saying that they couldn’t defend Maryland at the regional match-up because they couldn’t afford to get there. Wheatley admitted that he personally was worried, since the trip to the state championship had already cost the team thousands of dollars, most of it out of the pockets of parents.

However, within hours of learning that the All Stars would represent Maryland at the East Regional, Wheatley revealed that donations and offers of help began pouring in from the Berlin community.

“It has been overwhelming … Everyone is trying to help us,” he said.

Wheatley explained that whenever the BLL needs to raise money, officials generally go through a structured, albeit slow process of sending letters to the community. But with the six-day window, the only option was a flash fundraiser, one that Wheatley says has caught fire around Berlin.

“This community has really come together,” said BLL President Nornie Bunting.
Representatives of the team were also surprised by where all of the donations are coming from.
“It’s been across the board,” said Team Administrator Jocelyn Smelsire.

She noted that the team is receiving attention from local businesses, community organizations like the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, and private residents.

“We’ve been able to hit a lot of places,” said Smelsire.
One business in particular, Seacrets of Ocean City, received special thanks from the BLL.

“[Seacrets owner] Leighton Moore has always helped out Berlin Little League,” said Wheatley.

Besides making a donation himself, Moore allowed the team to raise money at the entrance to Seacrets twice over the last week and encouraged his staff to collect donations for the team.

Another business that jumped into the effort was Pizza Tugo’s restaurant in Ocean City, which hosted a fundraising dinner for the team on Wednesday that raised about $1,200. With all of the support, Wheatley admitted that his biggest fear is forgetting to acknowledge someone who helped.

“I’m scared we’re going to miss thanking somebody,” he said.

Even the town of Berlin itself got into the charitable spirit, making a $2,000 donation to the team from its special allocations fund. Mayor Gee Williams admitted that, while the town making a short-notice donation to a sports team was unusual, the circumstances justified the expense. As mentioned previously, the All-Stars bringing home the state title is a first for the town since BLL started in the 1950’s.

“This is the first time in over 50 years that we’ve had a Little League team do this,” said Williams. “I think it’s another source of genuine community pride.”

With everyone from private donors to entrepreneurs chipping in, representatives are optimistic about generating enough funding to pay for the team’s trip to Rhode Island.

“I don’t know how much we’re going to raise,” said Bunting, adding that the initial $12,000 goal would be just enough to cover basic expenses and travel costs and that he hoped to go beyond that figure.

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the unprecedented outpouring of donations and support would not have been possible if people didn’t believe in the team and the sport itself.

“Little League is kind of like motherhood and apple pie,” joked Williams, adding that there were few things as genuinely American as baseball.

“I think a lot of Little League captures the imagination of people,” added Wheatley.

There’s an obvious nostalgia factor as well. In the six decades since its founding, more than a few residents in Berlin remember their own days in Little League, including both Williams and Wheatley. Another point most agree on is that the All Stars have a solid chance of winning the East Regional, which for their age bracket, is the highest level of competition available.

“This is basically their Little League World Series,” said Smelsire.

The team will be heading to Rhode Island with a 10-0 record. Between district and state games, the team scored a total of 134 runs, with a team batting average of .450 in state games and .470 in district.

“I think Berlin has a great chance,” said Bunting.

While the record is impressive, Williams asserted that it was how the team played more so than how well they played that earned them the respect of the community.

“When they win, they win with humility,” he said.

Even on the few occasions where the team was almost faced with defeat, Williams revealed that the players kept their resolve at all times and conducted themselves with perfect sportsmanship.

In acknowledgment of that, Berlin will host a parade for the team on Aug. 14, after they have returned from the July 31-Aug. 6 East Regional. The parade will begin at 11 a.m. on Tripoli St. Williams added that, even if Berlin doesn’t win at regionals, the parade will still go on as planned.

“These young men have already shown that they have the right stuff,” he said.