Ocracoke's Field of Dreams

Sundae Horn

Go ahead. Give in to the urge to say, “If you build it, they will come.”

Ocracoke's Field of Dreams

I know. It seems too easy to steal the line and conjure up visions of Kevin Costner and his Iowa cornfield of baseball legends. I really was resisting the temptation, until the site plan for Ocracoke’s proposed ballfield arrived in my email’s inbox. There it was on the document’s name: proof that even the ballfield’s planning committee calls this project “The Field of Dreams.”

It’s official title is Ocracoke Community Park, and it’s an idea that has grown from the need for a practice place for the Ocracoke Raptors to the dream of a multi-use park for all island kids and adults. The plan includes a soccer field, walking trails, and a track and field area as well.

Ocracoke Community Park will have concession stands and restrooms and maintenance buildings. It will be able to host community events limited only to our imaginations. If we build it, they will come – and “they” are not just the baseball fans, but soccer moms (and dads), runners, nature-lovers, music fans, and more.

Remember that line about how nothing good ever came out of a committee? Don’t believe it.

This Field of Dreams got its start about two years ago because a group of parents – Vince O’Neal, Garick Kalna, David Scott Esham, Brian Samick, and Melinda Sutton– formed a committee, and set out to make their dream a reality.

Their first task was to find a piece of Ocracoke that was big enough for a regulation-sized ballfield. That’s a big plot of land on a tiny, well-developed island. Did the Park Service want to share some of its bounty with local residents and permit a field on federal land? Well, no. Park officials decided that a recreational field is not in their mission. Strike one.

On to private property… How much land is left that is big enough – and high and dry enough – for a ballfield? As the committee members suspected, their possibilities were limited. 

With help from Robin Payne of Ocracoke Foundation, they got to work looking for a suitable space. First they found an aerial photo of the island, and collected more information from geography doctoral student Brian Pompeii, who was working on a mapping project. Brian had mapped out all Ocracoke property, and marked what was public land or private, and whether each parcel was residential, rental, commercial, wetlands, and/or buildable. His map helped the baseball committee identify the last places that could work for a ballfield.

Some options were eliminated quickly. A tract of land behind the lighthouse was big enough, but, said Vince, “It would be a crime to cut down those old live oaks.” Barbara Jemison was generous in the offer of her land, but it, too, had old trees and some wetlands issues. The Pamlico Point subdivision behind Howard’s Pub was a likely bet until one of the lots sold. Strikes two and three! But there was still hope for a last inning home run.

“We ended up back where we started,” said Vince, “looking at the ‘Burrus Island’ tract.”

Owned by Darren and Dal Burrus of Hatteras Island, the property is a five-acre parcel with some wetlands and one good, solid piece of high ground that’s just right for the Field of Dreams.

“When you see the aerial photos, it looks like a ball diamond already,” said Bill Rich, who’s helping with the real estate transactions. “The layout is perfect.”

Ocracoke's Field of Dreams

Bill helped negotiate the deal with the Burrus family, and then the committee approached the Hyde County Board of Commissioners with a request that the county buy the land and build the park. When they struck out with Hyde County, the group sought out the Ocracoke Youth Center to join forces with an established non-profit.

OYC has been on hiatus for the past two years, but they are now back in the game. Becoming actively involved in the Field of Dreams project has given OYC a new direction. OYC board president Bob Chestnut welcomed new members to join the board, which now includes Melinda Sutton (treasurer), Paula Schramel, Gwen Austin, Tyler Gilbert, Bill Cole, Vince O’Neal, John Giagu, Brian Samick, David Scott Esham, and Garick Kalna.

Bob also mentioned many other helpers on this project.

“Bill Rich is helping us with the real estate deal and with fundraising, and Greg Honeycutt’s helping with fundraising,” he said. “Robin Payne has helped in an advisory role form the beginning, and Ed Norvell has given us legal help. Garick has done all the drawings and figured out all the engineering aspects.”

The property will be owner-financed. Bob says the Burrus family is “all about the civic benefit” to the community, and is happy to play ball with OYC.

OYC requested and received funds from the Occupancy Tax Board to get the Burrus parcel under contract. OT funds provide $12,000 this year for engineering costs, appraisals, permits and other development costs. Another $48,000 allotted for the ballfield will pay for monthly payments on the property. OYC hopes to pay for the property in ten years 

Other money will come from donations and fundraising. 

Bill Rich say the fundraising is “coming along pretty well.” He’s hoping to find donors who are willing to make longterm, yearly commitments to the projects. To set a good example, he has made a 10-year commitment himself, as has Greg Honeycutt, who’s also helping with fundraising. They’ve not made a big public effort to raise money yet because, said Bill, “We want to make sure all the permits are in place before we ask.”

The permitting process is “looking pretty good,” said Bill. The agencies involved include the Army Corps of Engineers, CAMA, and the NC Water Quality Association. Bill reports they all have good communication with the committee.

“We’re hoping to close by mid-October, and no later than late November,” he said, although much depends on the permits. Bill added that Darren Burrus, his wife Renee, and Dal Burrus have been “wonderful to work with.”

“Without their generous owner-financing, [the ballfield] couldn’t happen,” he said.

Meanwhile, an August 10th “Give ‘Em a Place to Play!” benefit brought in over $3000 for the park project. Organized by Michael Kalna and his band, The Dye Wells, the concert and fish fry was a fun outdoor event at the Community Square.

OYC will need to raise much more money for the ballfield. Stay tuned for an announcement about their Capital Fundraising Campaign, which will be released shortly. We’ll post the donation opportunities on the Current as soon as we can. 

It may seem like baseball fever is a recent phenomenon on the island, but Vince O’Neal offered some longterm Ocracoke perspective on the ball field.

“This has been a dream of the island’s people for many generations,” he said.

America’s favorite pastime is popular on Ocracoke, too, but the island has never had a regulation field. Island kids played on empty lots, but as development increased, spaces to play were harder to find. 

“For the last 30 years, there’s been no field at all, but that didn’t stop local kids, Vince said. “They just played pick-up games in people’s yards.” 

Years ago, softball was locals’ diamond-based game of choice. Ocracoke School had a team that played against two others: Hatteras School and the U.S. Coast Guard. When Jim Cornette came to teach at Ocracoke School in the 70’s, he helped organize a baseball team that also played the Coasties and the Hatteras boys.

Vince says his mom, Peggy O’Neal, can remember playing softball at school in the early 40’s. Softball and baseball were both popular on the Outer Banks in those days. In fact, Hatteras Island produced one player, Dick Burrus, who made it to the big leagues in the 1920’s, and now has a field in Buxton named after him. Vince said he’d heard stories of Clinton Gaskill and Junius Austin going up to Philadephia to see Dick Burrus play for the A’s.

Vince started the recent revival a few years ago when he got his Cub Scout troop playing softball. Most of the boys had never played even a pick-up game, but they caught on fast. Their interest led Karen Lovejoy (then director of the Ocracoke Youth Center) to organize summer sessions of baseball. Karen recruited Vince, Bill Cole, Brian Samick, and John Kattenburg to coach the boys and girls who wanted to try their hand at bat.

The success of the Youth Center programs led to Ocracoke joining Hatteras Island’s Cal Ripkin league for the last two years. Even without a regulation field to practice on, and nowhere to host home games, the Ocracoke Raptors took the league championship! 

Ocracoke's spring 2012 Blue Claws team
Ocracoke's spring 2012 Blue Claws team

Last year, Ocracoke had a 7-9 year-old team, a 10-12 year old team and a 13-15 year old team in the Cap Ripkin and Babe Ruth leagues, as well as a middle school baseball team. Ocracoke’s teams practiced in the McDermott’s front yard, behind the school, or even in the gym. They played “home” games in Buxton. Once there’s a real field, opponents will come to the island. Varsity baseball will offer sport diversity for Ocracoke high school students.

Vince hopes the teams will be practicing on their new field as soon as possible. 

“We want to have home games in the spring of 2013,” he said. “That’s our dream.”

Keep up-to-date with fundraising efforts at the Ocracoke Community Park website.

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