COLUMBIA — The verdict is in: The young men of the southern Boone County under-13 baseball team have declared the two baseball diamonds of Columbia's new Thomas E. “Country” Atkins Memorial Park to be totally sweet.
Officially dedicated Monday night, the two fields have been in almost constant use since they were opened on April 1, officials said. The fields are the first step in a long-term plan to transform the 80-acre parcel directly north of the Boone County Fairgrounds into a 10-field complex, complete with restroom facilities and concessions, for youths of all sizes.
Further progress on the plan to develop the lot is "up to the citizens" and how they vote on the renewal of the 0.5 percent park sales tax in 2010, Mayor Darwin Hindman said. Grass has already burst through and covered the land in the rolling hills, graded for future athletic fields, with a robust emerald toupee.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said that the destination of sales tax funding was up to the City Council but that more parking funding was "certainly one possibility."
According to city documents, $1,025,000 of the $1,435,355 project was funded by the park sales tax, with $220,355 coming from recreation services user fees, $103,995 coming from Boone County, $76,005 from a land and water conservation fund grant and $10,000 from the Diamond Council, the league that hosts the southern Boone team.
"The grass infield is sweet," said third baseman Lucas James, 13.
Kaleb Nichols, 13, said the expansive outfield scoreboard — which showed his team was leading by five runs at the time — and solid square bases were "really cool."
"I've never played on a field with that good of bases before," Nichols said.
Right fielder Aron Manns, 13, agreed that the field, where the team plays a few times a week, had a pretty "sweet scoreboard."
Assistant coach Lloyd Bill explained that the team plays many of their other games at venues with the entire inside of the baseball diamond covered in dirt or the glorified gravel known as "sport aggregate" and that with the neatly trimmed grass inside, the new field "seems more like a major league park."
Bill, whose son, Calvin, plays a number of positions for the team, said the covered, enclosed dugouts were about four times larger than those of other fields they'd played on.
"The dugouts are awesome," pitcher and catcher Brice Mueller, 13, said. "They're huge."
Behind the scenes of the park's construction, Hindman said, "was an enormous job" with "tremendous amounts of earth-moving involved."
Hindman praised the Parks and Recreation Department for persevering in the park's construction.
"The weather was just terrible for the kind of work they were trying to do," Hindman said, clutching the commemorative miniature baseball bat he and other officials had been given for the occasion.
"We've had a lot of wet weather," Hood said. "It's been kind of hard to finish this off. If you'd been out last week, you'd have see a wet muddy mess."
Hood said the city's 2002 park master plan called for the additions, which will complement the city's 17 baseball and softball fields, in order to accommodate population growth and the booming popularity of youth sports and activities.
The bleachers that were filled with hollering parents and the fields that were packed with young ballplayers who didn't let a little wisecracking and strutting get in the way of sportsmanship and fair play were just what Tom Atkins had in mind when he donated the land in 2002 with the stipulation that it be used for youth activities.
Atkins got choked up during the dedication ceremony as he remembered his father, a Hickman High School graduate, athlete and baseball fan whom everyone called "Country" and in whose honor the park is named.
"They just did a wonderful job," Atkins said later. "I'm sure he'd be pleased."
"We appreciate everybody's cooperation and help," he added, praising the city and county for cooperating on the project.
Hindman said the gratitude ran both ways and that he wanted Atkins to know "how much I appreciate what the Atkins family has done for the community with this location."