Fields of Dreams: The history of Lower Sussex Little League
Every August, hundreds of softball players from around the world — and some ESPN camera crews — travel to the Pyle Center in Roxana for the Little League World Series. The event has certainly become a staple of the area and put Roxana, and Delaware as a whole, on the map.
However, before there were six state-of-the-art fields, the Walk of Fame, the bright lights and the concession stands — before ESPN knew where Roxana was, and before the Pyle Center was synonymous with baseball and softball — there was just corn fields, and a vision.
“There are some better ballparks, but there isn’t a better ballpark, in my opinion, that’s not county-funded or state-funded,” said Lower Sussex Little League Vice President and longtime President Bruce Layton. “This is the ultimate ballpark that the fans have built. I don’t think there’s any question.”
While the Pyle Center that stands today wasn’t built until 1995, it was in the late 1970s that the plans for the original three fields started to unfold. One night, former managers Wayne Breasure and Frank Esham were talking about where they could find some land to buy for fields. Esham’s then-wife, Rae Weising, worked at the Pyle Center and suggested they talk to Pyle Center Manager Jim Raymond about it.
“We were talking one night. She said, ‘Well, what about the Pyle Center? They got plenty of room out there,” Breasure recalled. “It just progressed from there.”
Raymond took it to the State and, soon, what would become Lower Sussex Little League had 3.5 acres of land for baseball fields.
After the first three fields — which still stand today, as Memorial Field, Fenway Park and the Tee-Ball field — were built, Lower Sussex held their inaugural season, in the spring of 1980. There were only six teams, and the league only offered baseball.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that softball was incorporated, and as the program expanded, it called for more space. Even with starting games as early as 8 and 9 a.m., with only three fields and growing numbers, games would be played all the way until dark.
In 1991, in Layton’s third season as Lower Sussex Little League president, he went to the Pyle Center board and asked if they could help buy the 14.5-acre property next to the ball fields.
“They said, ‘It’s yours. Build it,’” Layton recalled of the 50-year renewable lease. “They just wanted to see the kids have fun.”
Receiving no county or state funding, the LSLL Board relied solely on grants, donations and fundraising to build the new complex. They started raising money in 1992 and by 1995 had raised more than $850,000 to build the facility that still stands today. It was a community effort, with companies including Bunting Construction building the facility at cost, and Tom Ford Land Design laying out the whole complex for free.
“The neat thing about this complex is it’s paid for — there’s no debt owed on it. We’re proud of that,” Layton explained. “There are just so many people to thank. The timing was just right, the economy was good and they just came together and they wanted it.”
Just as generous as the companies helping build the complex was, of course, the Pyle Center itself, which leases the property to LSLL for just $1 per year — a fee that Layton never paid during his time as president. According to him, however, Pyle Center Chairman — and grandson of Edward Pyle — Roger Vandengrift doesn’t seem too concerned about collecting the “debt.”
“He came up to me during the World Series. He says, ‘By the way, you owe me $18,’” Layton recalled with a laugh.
After the new facility was built, Layton saw even more potential for it — this time in regards to its potential use as a venue. In 2003, he decided that the complex should go after hosting a Little League World Series.
“We were standing over by the building one day,” he recalled of a conversation with District III Coordinator Martin Donovan. “I said ‘Martin — I think I’d like to have a World Series.’ He looked at me. He said, ‘You’re nuts! You’ll never be able to get one.’ I said, ‘Do me a favor, Martin: You’re the District III guy — call Williamsport and see if we can get one.’”
Within about 10 days, Donovan called Layton with good news. Kalamazoo, Mich., had just given up hosting the Senior League Softball World Series, and if they wanted it, it was theirs.
Bruce Layton had heard the whisper from the cornfields. He had built it, and the rest of the world was on their way.
“The timing was just incredible,” Layton said, unable to further explain the seemingly fated situation. “We had been to Williamsport. We had been to the World Series up there and had seen it. I said, ‘We’ve got a beautiful ball park. Why not use it?’”
That beautiful ball park received a new name for one of its fields in 2010, when the main field for the complex was unveiled as Bruce M. Layton Field — honoring Layton’s more than 20 years of dedication to the Lower Sussex Little League.
“To be honest with you, I cried on opening day,” he said of the honor. “After you put your life into it, 20 years as president — this is my 27th year here doing it — so, yeah, it meant a lot. I still can’t figure out how they pulled it off, but opening day, I didn’t see [my kids] and they called me out on the field, and next thing I knew my kids were there.”
After 20 years as president, Layton had stepped down in 2009, remaining on the board as vice president. Doug Hudson would take over as president for a year, before current LSLL President Tracey Littleton was named to the position.
“Coming up through the system with my kids, I just knew that I wanted to get involved and so [did] my wife,” Layton explained if his and his wife, Arlene’s dedication to LSLL. “When you see a parent stay with a program after their kids have left, that means something. It’s just something I’ve enjoyed.”
While Layton has certainly been one of the most influential figures in getting the Lower Sussex Little League program to where it is today, he maintains that it has been a community effort and that, without the right people in place, none of it would have been possible.
Without people such as Arlene Layton, serving on the board for 18 years and designing and running the concession stand for more than 10 years; without trusted treasurers such as John Pittman and J.S. Evans; without the Pyle Center’s support and the generosity of a community donating their time and resources — Lower Sussex Little League simply would not exist.
“If you don’t have the volunteers, it’ll never succeed,” Layton explained. “I’ve been very fortunate, had a great Board of Directors, the fans — moms run the concession, dads do the fields… It works. We try to make the right decisions. So far, it’s worked out for us.”
In 2012, the board made the decision to bring in yet another World Series, after Williamsport, which is the Little League headquarters, asked them to take the Big League Softball World Series on short notice.
“We had a couple of people — travel ball — about three weeks ago… They found me and they just could not believe how wonderful this ballpark is,” Layton said. “So when you get those kinds of comments from people outside your district, outside your state and then the World Series people come here — I mean, what more can you say? That’s the ultimate compliment.”
After almost 25 seasons of Lower Sussex Little League, the Pyle Center has seen 10 World Series. It’s seen ESPN cameras and seen cornfields turn to state-of-the-art ball fields. It’s seen Indian River vs. Sussex Central rivalries and first-time Tee-Ball players grow up through the program to one day come back and coach their own children as first-time Tee-Ball players.
It’s seen J.S. Evans go from a kid knocking the ball out of Fenway Park “almost every time,” according to Breasure, to an adult who holds what Layton considers to be the most important position on the board. It’s seen it’s dirt drenched with the sweat of Jamie Jarmon as he worked his way to becoming a second-round draft pick for the Texas Rangers and drenched with the blood of Rachel Hudson — who nearly had her pitching career ended there, only to battle back from injury and win a World Series for Millsboro on the same mound.
It’s seen thousands of players and coaches and fans and volunteers start there, and it’s always seen them come back.
“The kids are coming back. Their grandkids are coming back,” said Layton, explaining what keeps him returning every season. “How many ballparks have a Walk of Fame? I love it all. My wife tells me when the season starts, she says, ‘Well, I’ll see ya in August.’”
While Layton said that the league does not plan on any future expansions to the complex or adding any more World Series, one of their goals is to establish a Big League and Senior League team for Lower Sussex to be able to have their own team compete in the World Series’ that they already host.
“We’re trying. I know Tracey [Littleton] is really trying to build up the Major League Softball,” Layton noted. “That’s why you bring it here, to get your girls involved. You could get a girl to get a scholarship. It means everything if you can get a team in there. Hopefully, this Major League team will stay together that’s up in Bristol. If we can get them to stay together, that’s the key.”
For Lower Sussex Little League, right now, that goal of getting a team to the Little League World Series at the Pyle Center Complex is just a vision, but then again, before it all started, so was everything else. Once just acres of cornfields and farmland, the Pyle Center, a committed board of directors and a community that just wanted to see its kids have fun have truly made the complex a field of dreams.