Far beyond the outdoor stage where a bluegrass band was setting up, past the American flag that has been stuck in the ground in the same spot for the last eight Independence Days, just within smelling distance of the long row of brightly colored concession stands, a bunch of girls in softball uniforms are oblivious to the whole scene.
This is the Lee District Park Fourth of July celebration, and the girls are all-stars from the Pioneer Girls Junior Softball League (9- to 12-year-olds), carrying on one of America's favorite traditions: softball on the Fourth of July.
When the ball is in play, the field is a blur of color. On one team is the green (Hayfield) and yellow (Bush Hill) jerseys. Across the field is the dark blue (Metro), light blue (Franconia) and red (Clermont). With an odd number of teams in the league, its top squad -- Metro -- was teamed with the bottom two. Hayfield and Bush Hill were the No. 2 and 3 teams in the league.
But that's all secondary. What's important is when the umpire says "Play ball!" and that's what the all-stars do. It's not like tee ball, where every hit ball is an adventure. This is fast-pitch softball, and if you're scared of diving after a ground ball, you're not an all-star.
"It's amazing," says Ed Hottle, coach of the Metro Blue Sox, the league's regular season champions. "At the start of the season, half the girls can't even throw the ball. It's just amazing to watch them progress each day."
The Blue Sox are swarming with Hottles. Ed's wife Donna is an assistant coach, as is his daughter Patti. In fact, Ed coached Patti and another batch of Blue Sox to the senior league (15-19) title in 1985. This year, the player is daughter Sarah, 11.
Across the field, Jeff Harte and Mike McDonough coach the green and yellow squad. Harte's Hayfield Hawks beat the Blue Sox in the tournament championship game just Tuesday night, after losing to them three times in the regular season.
What was the difference this time?
"I know how to motivate my players now," said Harte.
"Screaming, whooping, and hollering."
One of the problems for a softball coach is keeping his players' attention on the game. A 12-year-old girl can get bored in a hurry. So the teams spend their dugout time shouting peppy cheers to their teammates at the plate. "H-O-H-O-M-H-O-M-E-R-U-N . . . homerun . . . Amy!" Batters in the on-deck circle practice their baton-twirling with a 29-inch aluminum bat.
For seven innings and two hours on a sunburnt Northern Virginia afternoon, they go at each other until, finally, the green and yellow team squeezes out a 16-15 victory.
Melissa Bonifer is the gold-haired heroine, bashing a two-run homer in the fifth inning and then pitching the last two innings to save the win. With the tying run on third, she retires the last two batters on tap-outs to the mound.