By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Millington Alderman Al Bell is no stranger to big-time baseball in Flag City.
During his days as a police officer, he stood guard outside of the Cuban National Team’s locker room at USA Stadium during the 10-year stretch of the USA Olympic Team calling Millington home.
Now a National Urban Professional Baseball League team will call USA Stadium home in the spring of 2018. Thursday afternoon the NUPBL joined forces with the city of Millington, Millington Area Chamber of Commerce and local businesses like Patriot Bank, Splash Plumbing and the Holiday Inn Express to celebrate the arrival of the league to Flag City.
Bell said Millington pulled out a huge welcome mat from 1986 to 1996 to baseball teams and guests. Now the Alderman said the grand weekend to celebrate the NUPBL will leave a similar impression.
“If they keep their eyes open and look around, they can’t do anything but speak highly of Millington when they go back home,” Bell said. “It reminds me of the days when the Olympic teams where here and the teams from the foreign countries. That’s how Millington got on the map. They went back home and talked about Millington, Tennessee.”
Millington made a good first impression on many of the officials of the NUPBL earlier this year leading to the agreement to bring the professional league to Flag City back in April. Millington Mayor Terry Jones said the arrival of the NUPBL is a jewel in the crown of 2017 for the city.
“It’s been a really good year for Millington. In 2017 we’ve added 17 new businesses,” he said. “We have a professional baseball team coming to Millington. With the grants we have coming in, we’re just excited about what’s to come to Millington.
“It’s exciting to have these young men come out to play in a professional baseball league like this,” Jones added. “Everybody I’ve talked to has been excited about it. Hopefully we can keep building and kindling that fire. What’s more American than baseball and apple pie, with American players playing.”
League representatives said the Urban in the name means returning the game to American cities to showcase home grown talent. Two cities represented this past weekend were Austin, Texas with Andrew Ybarra and Southaven, Miss., with Kristofer Lowery.
“It’s honestly just a blessing,” Ybarra said. “I’m out here for the experience. I just love it. I saw the field yesterday and just got chills. ‘Oh, it’s here. It’s here. It’s here.’”
Ybarra has done his research on the rich history of baseball at USA Stadium. He knows Hall of Famers like Frank Thomas played there.
“It’s going to hit me that all these Major Leaguers have set foot here,” he said. “I can leave my mark here. It’s a huge step for me.”
Ybarra, 22, started playing baseball his freshman year in Austin. The infielder continued to play the game once he graduated leading to him earning a spot in the NUPBL.
“This is going to help a lot of people get exposure and get a chance to showcase their skills,” he said.
Lowery agreed that the league is a chance for good players to play at a higher level.
“We’re representing this League,” he said. “It’s something very important to be a part of. I’m happy to have the opportunity and be a part of this.
“It feels lot better hearing you say it,” Lowery added. “I’ve been saying it in my head and in the mirror. ‘Wow, I’m really doing it.’ But to hear somebody like you in the media say it. I’m here really doing it. I’m not sure I have the words to describe it. It’s amazing to know you’re one of the first people. It’s up there.”
Lowery, 21, played for the Southaven Chargers as a pitcher and outfielder helping the team reach State. Now he has gone from playing Club Ball at Ole Miss to stepping on a professional field in Millington.
“To combine the list of Negro League players and the players who played at USA Stadium with the Olympic Team other there,” Lowery said, “I’ll be in that dugout. I’ll be in that outfield they stepped in. I’ll step in the batter’s box thinking, ‘Wow, Alex Rodriguez and Frank Thomas stood here.’ The dirt might be different but the atmosphere is still the same.”
Jones said that atmosphere has remained in great shape because of the team at USA Stadium led by director Johnny Ray.
“They’re awesome guys and top-notch professionals,” he said. “Other baseball teams have played there like Southwest Tennessee and other tournaments. They’ve been doing a great job of keeping that field and being so professional.
“There have been a lot of people involved to get these things done,” Jones continued. “We have a good City Manager right now and we’ve got a good recreational director now. All those things work together once you get the right people in the right places.”
MAHS incoming senior Devarius Hickman was in the right place Thursday as he performed the first National Anthem for a NUPBL event.
“This will be my first time singing the National Anthem in front of a lot of people on a big stage,” he said prior to his performance.
Hickman attends Christian United Missionary Baptist Church where he sings on request. He was honored by the request to sing the first NUPBL National Anthem to honor America, past Negro League players, past USA Olympic stars and all who made it possible for opening weekend.
“This means a lot to me,” Hickman said. “I know about a lot of those players. And just to be able to sing the National Anthem, it’s like a No. 1 for me.”
Some who helped make it possible for Hickman and the players to take the stage were local businesses. Cody Childress, owner of Splash Plumbing, stood next to other contributors like Thomas Page, Lillie Stollings, Robbie Spearman and Dianne Baker with smiles as the players were escorted to USA Stadium.
“Makes you proud that an organization thought enough of Millington to bring their game to town and they have enough faith in us that our area will support their product,” Childress said.
“I enjoy giving back to the community,” he added. “When I was a child, the community gave back to me with baseball and other avenues. It’s indicative of the business people to give back to the community. It shows you want to invest in the community. You want the community to thrive. Whatever is good for the community is good for your business. Whatever is good for your business is good for the community.”
Childress said he hoped all involved in the opening weekend celebration got a boost.
“I hope it’s an explosion for everybody,” he said. “I hope it hits the airwaves and get the media attention. I hope the young fellas have the time of their lives. I hope they are exposed to an atmosphere they have never seen before.
“I hope they have a chance to have a platform to showcase their skills and ability,” Childress added. “For the city of Millington, it’s entertainment. I hope Millington comes out show how we excel here.”
Ybarra said the opening weekend had several big moments but the little things will make the lasting impression.
“I love the jersey,” he concluded. “I have a hat and it’s my number on the back of the jersey. So people will know who I am. That’s all you can ask for.”
By Thomas Sellers Jr.