Ray Bennett flipped the switch, illuminating a dank chicken house with the stark light of bare bulbs. He ducked under old fishing nets hanging from the rafters to show off what he calls the "poor man's baseball academy."
This coop on a friend's farm, converted into a roughhewn batting cage, is not much to look at, Bennett conceded, but it is what he and other parents could afford. And it is where his son, Hunter, and teammates from Caroline County have practiced during the rain and cold on their way to becoming one of the top 16 Little League teams in the world.
On Saturday, the 11- and 12-year-old boys from working-class families in Preston and Federalsburg, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, will play their first game in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., being shown at noon on ESPN2. For friends and relatives of the players, their success on the field shines even brighter against the backdrop of a community with little to root about lately.
Before the Little League World Series, the biggest news in town was the closing of Preston Trucking Co. five years ago, which eliminated 295 jobs. Preston is a former railroad stop, population 566. In the morning, crop-dusters fly low over corn and soybean fields, and at sundown, field workers hitch rides home on tractors along the shoulder of Dover Bridge Road.
The parents of the young ballplayers work as mechanics and truck drivers, waitresses and secretaries. Some rely on side income selling vegetables or candy bouquets. With the exception of school trips, some players had never left the Eastern Shore until they boarded the bus to Williamsport, parents said.
"Nobody here was born with a silver spoon in their mouth," said Minia Nowottnick, whose 12-year-old son, Nikolaus, is the starting right fielder. "These kids want this so badly. The whole town is buzzing about it."
The buzz began two years ago, when the same dozen boys won the Maryland state championship at the 9- and 10-year-old level. After a tournament victory this year, the local fire department led a motorcade back to town while residents clanged pots and waved to the team. The boys won the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament last Sunday, beating a squad from Hilltown, Pa., 4-1, as pitcher Robbie Payne hit two home runs.
Billboards and plywood signs across town now trumpet their accomplishment as the first Maryland team to make it to Williamsport since 1986. At Pam's Place restaurant, the phones haven't stopped ringing: radio interviewers, former residents proud of the old town, strangers who saw the team on television and just had to say good luck.
"You can't fathom how much this means in a small town like this," said Pam Payne, owner of Pam's Place. She is Robbie's stepmother and the wife of team manager Curtis Payne. "I don't think the kids realize the enormity of it."
Little League is big time in Caroline County. A radio station broadcasts regular season games. A couple of families have plowed baseball diamonds in their bean fields so players can practice close by. Two busloads of fans are leaving for Williamsport early Saturday morning.
In the World Series, the team -- officially known as South Caroline -- is guaranteed three games against other U.S. competitors. If the boys from Preston keep winning, they would face the winner of the international brackets Aug. 29 for the World Series title.
This is the fifth Maryland team to qualify in the tournament's 58-year history. The last team from Virginia to qualify was Central Little League from Springfield, which made it in 1994. No team from the District has been to the series.
South Caroline plays with scrappy determination, coaches said, relying on good defense and pitching. Residents recall a game during the district tournament in which three consecutive South Caroline batters were one strike away from making the final out and seeing their team eliminated. Each batter stayed alive, however, and South Caroline rallied to win.
"As long as there's ballgame left, they feel they're going to win," Curtis Payne said.
But the World Series features a different level of competition. In Saturday's game, South Caroline will face a team from Kentucky whose pitcher struck out 17 of 19 batters in a regional final. "It's going to be hard; some of the [Kentucky] kids are really tall," said 12-year-old shortstop Chad Hicks. "We've got a lot of small people."
Some of the parents have also found tournament play daunting. The boys have been away from home since early August, when they competed in the regional tournament in Bristol, Pa. Paying travel and lodging costs has been difficult, and many parents have long since burned through their vacation days.
The community has pitched in to support the players and their families. Businesses, including the Preston Ford dealership, have donated money to cover expenses. Pam's Place has sold more than 200 "Team Maryland" T-shirts at $20 each. The South Caroline United By Athletics organization, founded by Little League parents, is helping to pay for lodging in Williamsport.
Nowottnick is president of the South Carolina Little League, but she has missed several games this season to make her shifts as a waitress in Easton. She plans to commute five hours to Williamsport between games in order to keep working.
"You do what you've got to do," she said.