NEW TAMPA — Longtime baseball enthusiast Harald Stone recently read a story in The Tampa Tribune about retired Major League Baseball nine-time All-Star Gary Sheffield’s new part ownership in Pasco Sports, a company that has partnered with Pasco County to build a multi-million-dollar baseball complex in Wiregrass Ranch.
The project — which is dependent on more public seed money being raised as a prerequisite to the county holding up its end of the deal — would likely contain nine Major League regulation-sized fields, a stadium and 10 fields appropriate for little league play.
While Stone, a New Tampa resident, is grateful to Sheffield, a Tampa native, for investing in the venture, it got him to thinking. He thought about a local couple who devoted untold hours toward the success of what was called, in the early 1990s when it was formed, the Northeast Little League. Today, it is known as the North Tampa Athletic Association, an organization composed of several area little leagues.
Dick and Kathy Eber were instrumental in its founding and, according to Stone, forged ahead through myriad obstacles to bring such an experience to area children.
Their intention was to build a baseball complex in the then-sparsely developed community of New Tampa, but Stone said the county was hesitant to allocate money for it. At the time, the area six miles north of Tampa Palms was devoid of street lights and only a couple of stop signs existed on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Instead, the Ebers — he a postal worker and she a stay-at-home mother of three who sometimes worked a part-time job — along with the others who helped organize the league, settled for a small field behind Mort Elementary School on Bearss Avenue.
They raised enough money to buy a small building that served as a scorers/announcers booth, a concession stand and storage unit.
Parents transported their children from New Tampa to play alongside children from the surrounding low-income neighborhoods, whose registration fees were often absorbed by the league. That gesture, Stone said, was an act of compassion initiated in large part by the Ebers.
“Dick and Kathy Eber were the catalyst of this effort and served in positions including league president, coach, fundraiser and field maintenance to mention just a few,” Stone said. “It was their dedication that kept the league strong.”
Dick used personal days off work and the couple devoted family vacation time toward helping the league succeed. Dick, in fact, continued to manage and coach even after his son aged out.
In 1998 the league moved to its present home on Kinnan Street north of Cross Creek Boulevard in New Tampa.
Stone, along with several others involved in the program, including Baseball Hall of Famer and Tampa Palms resident Wade Boggs, met earlier this year with Hillsborough County officials to discuss the feasibility of having the site named in the couple’s honor.
“Many of us feel that without the Ebers’ guidance and leadership the current league would not exist,” Stone said.
County commissioners shared those sentiments.
In February, the board voted to name the commonly called “park at Kinnan Street” Eber Park.
The Eber Park dedication will take place at 6 p.m. May 17. Stone is hopeful many of the league’s former players and parents turn out for the celebration.
Jack Carlisle, the director of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, has known the Ebers for many years. His son played Little League at Mort Park where he was coached by Dick Eber. Kathy Eber is an employee in his department.
“I think it’s wonderful the county is honoring the hard work of both of them and it was wonderful for me to be able to deliver the news to Kathy.”
Retired University of South Florida Head Baseball Coach Eddie Cardieri also knows the Ebers well. His two sons played baseball under the direction of “coach” Dick, and his family and others associated with the league have remained close friends even though their children are now well into adulthood.
“Kudos to them for their vision to see the need for a little league when there wasn’t one and to go through the whole process and to see how it’s evolved,” Cardieri said.
Kathy said when she and her family moved to the New Tampa area from New York there was an abundance of cow pastures but no designated recreational areas for her youngsters to play baseball.
“NELL (Northeast Little League) is one of the reasons my family is as tight-knit as it is,” she said. “My children grew up at that park as did Dick and I.”
And they continued to donate their time to the league long after their children moved on because, in her words, “We loved what the concept of Little League Baseball was about — life lessons, respect and family.”
Their daughter Jennifer “Jenny” Eber said she is proud of her parents for their hard work and longtime dedication to the league.
“They didn’t do it just for Richie, Chrissy and me,” she said. “They did it for the hundreds of other kids that needed a place to play ball.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at joycecmckenzie @gmail.com.