'Fields of Dreams': Amos Field, others keep baseball alive across region

From left, umpire John Harris Jr., Starz coach and catcher Keith Johnson, Joe Amos, umpire Sterling Davidson and Cardinals coach Sonny Williams meet at home plate to go over ground rules prior to Sunday's game.
Staff Writer

It's one of the best-known sports movie soliloquy's of all time.
"And they'll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon.

They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away like flies...

"America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.
"This field, this game -- it's part of our past...It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again."

James Earl Jones' impassioned plea convinced Kevin Costner to stick with his "Field of Dreams" and the rest is movie -- and baseball -- history.
 But it wasn't just an era gone by.

Dozens of those "Fields of Dreams," maybe not quite as elaborate or as well manicured, dot the landscape across rural Mississippi.

They once attracted dozens if not hundreds, of fans to weekend games between neighborhood teams.

And they still do with groups like the Algoma Sluggers, Springville Cardinals, Snowtown Starz, Verona Black Sox and two other teams from Pontotoc and Holly Springs that make up what now is called the Tombigbee Waterway Baseball League, which has been around in some name or another for 45 years.

In addition to league games, they play other teams from Starkville, Columbus, Sessums, Artesia, Bethlehem and other communities south of the Highway 82 corridor.

Sunday, the Cardinals and the Starz squared off in a battle for first place in the league on the Joe B. Amos Field in Tibbee.

A little worse for wear, especially after a storm rattled through a few years back damaging the lights and knocking out the electronic scoreboard he bought when New Hope High got a new one, the field remains one the best, if not the best, of its kind in North Mississippi.

And it wasn't the first.
Amos' relatives, Ben Bennett and his son, Adell, had a field a little piece down the road for years before Amos took up the legacy and built the current diamond.

"We used to draw big crowds," Amos said, sweeping his hands across the landscape toward the concrete bleachers that remain under large shade trees and the metal frames of other bleachers pushed along a fence line.
"We built the bathrooms and had running water, the whole nine yards. It was quite a place.

"People used to come from all over to see games out here. Way back when on the Fourth of July, it would be standing room only. It was the only thing people had to do. There was only one channel on the TV for years and not much more on the radio," Amos recalled.

He's been a player and coach through several generations and was one of the first coaches to integrate his team, taking on "the Henley brothers in the early 1970s.

He continued to play and coach up until two years ago. In fact, at age 80 when he was about to have to forfeit a game, a grabbed a glove and played right field two years ago.

"They were talking about us having to forfeit. I said count again, we got nine players," the 82-year-old smiled.

Amos hasn't had a team the last two years and Sunday's was the first game played at the field, which matches the dimensions of any Major League park at 330-feet down the left field line, 350-feet down the right field line and more than 400 feet to center.

The game was a tribute to Ruben Mozell "Loverboy" Culberson, a baseball legend in Tibbee and the region who also had such nicknames as Hawkey Baby, Ol Pitcher and Cool Papa.
Culberson died in March 2016 at the age of 71.

"He thought he was better than Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle," Amos said of the man who was more of lover of the game than an actual player.

The Starz won Sunday's game 10-6 to move into a tie with the Cardinals at 5-1 in Tombigbee Waterway league play.

The Cardinals struck first with a run in the top of the first, but the Starz answered with three runs in each of the first three innings and the Cardinals couldn't make up the difference.
The league champion will be decided with a season-ending tournament in August.
The teams are made up of players between the ages of 15 and 33 or so.

Many were high school stars; some still are.

Others played college ball at places like Mississippi College, Itawamaba Community College and East Mississippi Community College. Some even had stints in minor league ball.

Sunday's pitchers were both high school stars -- the Cardinals' Lynn Dillard played at North Pontotoc and the Starz' Josh Curtis played at Shannon and then EMCC.

Curtis finished the day with double-digit strike outs.
Both teams have their own fields, the Cardinals in the Springville community southwest of Pontotoc and the Starz on land in Okolona.

Both fields were built by early organizers of the league and have been maintained by the next generation of coaches and players.

"My cousin built our field in 1973 or 1974. I played on it as a teenager and just kept up the legacy," said Springville coach Sonny Williams, who turns 61 in October.

"My uncle said we could build a field on his land in Okolona and keep it as long as we wanted. His sons grew up playing in the league, his six boys, they all played college ball, too," explained Starz Coach Keith Johnson, who at age 50, is the league's oldest player and still can hang with the youngsters.

The Starz' other catcher was out last weekend and Johnson caught nine-inning games Saturday and Sunday.

"Our regular catcher works for the fire department and had to work this weekend. I'll feel it this week. But I try to stay in pretty good shape," said the 1976 Shannon High graduate whose 15-year-old son is on the Starz and also plays for Shannon High now.

As James Earl Jones said in the movie, the league is about preserving the national pastime.

"These guys play for the love of the game. It's that simple. They could be doing other things, we all could," Williams said of the players who come from Grenada, Holly Springs, Tupelo, "all over."

"It's like a travel team for all ages. It's a chance to give people who didn't quite make it to the next level a chance to keep going, to enjoy their passion, to show themselves they still have it," Johnson added. "And some younger players get to see good competition, good pitching. And they get to see good fans and bad fans, that everything is not always going to be good."

At one time, the league had as many as 18 teams but is down to the current six. It's harder and harder to get players with softball being the biggest competition.

And as can be expected, keeping players together and fielding a team each weekend can be tough.
"But these guys love it. I can't say that enough," Williams surmised, noting both teams had key players missing for Sunday's game.

"I'm recruiting all the time. If I see a guy in the grocery store with a baseball hat on who looks like he can play, I ask him. I asked a guy the other day and he didn't but he gave me the names of his two sons," he laughed.

"We just have a heart for it. A lot play softball, the diehards play baseball," echoed Johnson, whose favorite pro team is the Atlanta Braves, who have built a team of young players back to prominence this year.

Johnson sees some similarities between that rebuilding process and his league.

"I've got one guy who has been with me 12 or 13 years. And this group right now has been together five years. We've been fortunate enough to be near the top every year. It's hard to keep teams and players together, but they like winning," he explained.
"These guys tell me when I quit, they'll quit. I tell them they better plan on staying around awhile. Got to love this game," he added.

Amos agrees. He could have let the field go.
"I love the game, I just love the game. There's nothing like it. I don't want this place to turn into a cow pasture, not going to let it happen. These fields mean too much, I want to keep the flame going," he concluded, his voice rising in pitch for emphasis.