NORTH LITTLE ROCK — The contrast was both comforting and eerie.
Vilonia and Mayflower played baseball played on an invigorating, beautiful and delightful “Let’s Play Two” evening at Dickey-Stephens Park.
It was an evening to celebrate life, survival and revival.
Fewer than 10 days before, on an ugly, tense, horrific, devastating night, most of the players and their supporters were in life-or-death situations, huddled with loved ones in whatever shelter they could find, hoping and praying that they would see sunlight again. All about them — their towns, their structures, their vehicles, their homes and their way of life — were blown away by an EF4 tornado. Lives were changed forever.
Highlighted almost magically by gorgeous twilight, (and later with lights flashing Mayflower and Vilonia colors) on the nearby Arkansas River Bridge, a baseball game led to a joyous, emotion-laced carnival of the goodness of humanity, the resilience of communities, accented with recurring jolts of state pride.
During the fundraiser to “Rebuild the Eagles’ Nest,” folks discovered a family tree, scarred, but rooted in fertile soil.
There were beauty queens at every turn, Gov. Mike Beebe, and other state and local government officials, Arkansas head coaches Bret Bielema and Mike Anderson, three different kinds of T-shirts for purchase, American flags of all sizes, a live bald eagle, joint choirs singing the National Anthem and representatives of about every media in the area.
“I was just wondering what we could do for Senior Night next year,” quipped Vilonia coach Brad Wallace.
Officials set a goal of 10,000 fans for the game in which all proceeds would benefit recovery efforts in both communities. Realistically, some confided that they were hoping for five to six thousand.
Arkansas Travelers workers had clickers at every gate and recorded the official attendance at 8,014. The crowd overflowed to the berm and people stood two- and three-deep along the concourse.
Admission was free but cheerleaders greeted fans at each gate with a human tunnel with buckets for donations.
And folks didn’t just toss in bills with pictures of George Washington. One man walked through the line, deposited a $100 bill in the bucket and walked away without seeing the game. Several people contributed big bills. Officials said more than $100,000 was raised just on donations at the gate. From the long, jammed lines at the concession stands, manned by volunteers and coordinated by Arkansas-Pine Bluff athletes, those funds will also soar despite no beer sales.
In addition, one man pledged $1 for every person who entered the gate up to $10,000. Other individuals made large donations and Traveler officials, who devised the idea for the special fundraiser, are expecting in the next few days more corporate contributions from those who could not attend the game.
Professional and high-profile athletes from Arkansas delivered encouraging messages on the video board. Major League pitchers Cliff Lee, Travis Wood and Drew Smiley have pledged a portion of their salaries to be given to relief efforts for every batter they strike out this season.
“We are not able to do much, but we can put on a baseball game,” said Russ Meeks, president of the Travelers.
Several school buses, with players from rival schools of Mayflower and Vilonia, were spotted in the parking lot. Several of those schools have already made donations from collections for their athletes.
“The Arkansas coaching community is a tightly knit group,” said Mayflower coach Joe Allbritton. “We go to each other’s clinics and we learn from each other. Coaches have called us asking, ‘How can we help?’ Then, you look up in the stand and you see Bauxite and Lonoke and other teams. It’s neat.
“Looking around that crowd, you see the effect of people pulling together and how popular high school sports is.”
The players normally play before crowds of 50 to 100.
Tuesday, they were treated to the experience of a professional locker room, a pro-style batting practice and the second largest crowd in Dickey-Stephens history (next to a Razorback game last year).
“The adrenaline was high,” said Wallace. “You look at the stands and the officials on the field and you see a community, it’s just fantastic. I was impressed with how the players displayed honor and respect for their community.
“I’m from Arkansas and will be here all my life. It’s great to see what this state does for people, how it unites for people. They don’t want to see this state go down. I can’t speak enough about Arkansans and what the state has done for us and how people have reached out to us.”
“When you go home, home hurts; this was fun. It made you feel good,” said Mayflower’s Garrett Taylor, whose family lost their home in the tornado.
“It was a bigtime atmosphere,” said Wallace. “I got to coach in a professional park, something I never thought I’d get a chance to do. This was Major League for a night. This was fantasyland for me.”
After the game, the teams and spectators hugged, took pictures and exited that fantasy world with smiles into a reality of long-term challenges.
But they saw the balm in Gilead:
Two communities are forever linked because of a natural disaster.
Two communities that are forever bonded by their resolve and spirit.
Two communities that are inspiring examples of what make this country great.
A state that has again spotlighted the richness of community by an unselfish response to suffering people, many of whom they would not otherwise know.
A baseball game that again illustrated the unifying nature of sports.
Hope, so buried just a few days earlier, soared on the wings of Eagles.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)