By TIM GAYLE
Stanley Thomas has worked tirelessly with Dixie Baseball’s Southern League for years, but had never experienced anything quite like the sight before him.
Championship trophies were scattered throughout the parking lot, broken into pieces by the same thieves that robbed the league’s fieldhouse at Seth Johnson of its baseball and softball equipment and restaurant equipment that provides food for players, parents and fans.
“We’ve had break-ins before but nothing like this,” Thomas said. “Some of the stuff they stole, like the electric grill top, was so we could eliminate cooking outside. The city council gave us funds to go buy the electric grill top and the deep fryer. They didn’t get our deep fryer, but they got the electric grill top, the popcorn machine, the pizza machine. It just doesn’t make sense.”
It was difficult for Thomas to put the robbery in perspective. During his time as a coach, commissioner and a member of the board of directors, he has tried to instill a feeling of family in the league. Every year, as an introduction for new participants in the league, there were free hot dogs, hamburgers and inflatable games for children to enjoy. The league buys bulk popcorn seed to provide free popcorn to Southern League fans at games, figuring the cost of popcorn was insignificant compared to the camaraderie it generated among players and parents.
Now, as he surveyed the scene – which included the theft of the popcorn seed – he came to a realization.
“I know some of the same kids that stole our stuff came over there and ate and played and enjoyed themselves with us,” Thomas said.
The league had just purchased new equipment for the players. While many players supply their own gloves or cleats, the more expensive or unique items such as catcher’s gear, bats and batting helmets, as well as the baseballs and softballs, are provided by the league. Now, everything was gone, an estimated $20,000 worth of equipment.
“It’s heartbreaking to know someone would do this and take away the joy from these kids,” Thomas said.
But even though Thomas didn’t know it at the time, the story had a happy ending. One Dixie Baseball league’s misfortune was another one’s calling. Ashley Aaron, a past commissioner and member of the board of directors for the neighboring AUM League, heard about the theft and called other leagues for help, including Southeastern League and American League.
“All of us officers and commissioners in the city, we know each other,” Aaron said. “I saw what happened and I reached out to Stanley. Then I reached out to fellow (Dixie Baseball) officers and let them know what happened and reached out to corporations that I knew were community friendly and we rallied together and had an equipment drive.”
Dixie Baseball received equipment help from Strike Zone, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the HF Foundation and used Milo’s as a drop off location for any used equipment.
“The area really came together to help,” Aaron said. “Montgomery American, Southeast and AUM youth baseball programs lead the charge with Milos, Strike Zone, Dicks Sporting Goods and The HF Foundation supporting the cause as well. Sports have no barriers. Some of the best lessons in life you will learn will be while participating in sports. We are all one community and in times like this we need to support one another as much as we can.”
While not all of the equipment is brand new, Southern League is now fully stocked for the 2019 baseball and softball season with as much or more equipment than they had prior to the theft. The equipment is being stored by the city until Southern League makes a determination whether to put it back in the Seth Johnson location or put it in the fieldhouse at Peter Crump.
“Their coaches and their players are fully stocked for the spring season,” Aaron said. “All baseballs and softballs have been purchased, all tees have been purchased, they have enough (batting) helmets and catcher’s equipment for all of their leagues and they’ve got plenty of bats and gloves if anybody needs those.”
Christmas came early for the Southern League and those people associated with the organization won’t soon forget how the community rallied to turn a disaster into an act of generosity.
“This kindness and generosity shown by the community is appreciated and will not be soon forgotten,” said Betty Palmer, a member of the Southern League’s board of directors.
Thomas, an outgoing personality who truly epitomizes the spirit of Dixie Baseball and Softball, was almost at a loss for words in describing the community spirit displayed in the wake of the theft.
“I’m truly grateful,” he said. “Mr. Aaron and Milo’s and East Montgomery and (American League at) Ray Thorington, I can’t name them all, I don’t know them all, but a lot of people contributed and our league will continue to run and I’m grateful for what they’ve done.
“He could have called and said ‘I’m sorry,’ but he took the bull by the horns and ran with the project and made sure that when the season opens up, the Southern League will continue to go forth.”
Thomas hopes city councilman Fred Bell, whose district is comprised of Southern League parents and players, will help in replacing some of the stolen restaurant equipment. Bell has provided financial help to the league before and Thomas has a renewed spirit after witnessing how a devastating setback to one league turned into a rallying cry for others.
“God still has a plan and something good is going to come out of it,” Thomas said. “I’m just so grateful for Mr. Ashley Aaron. He’s been a blessing.”