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Rays visit hurricane-torn town11/06/2004 5:42 PM ET
By Paul C. Smith / MLB.com
WAUCHULA, Fla. -- All of the trees in this rural town in south central Florida that were twisted and stripped by Hurricane Charley nearly three months ago have started to rejuvenate themselves.
The state and federal governments have come through to help repair the 2,000 homes that were destroyed and get the businesses restarted. This close-knit community of 4,000, with 80 percent of its homes damaged, has started to pick itself up after dealing with, not one, but three hurricanes within six weeks.
"It was like a war zone," said Tanya Royal, who has lived in Wauchula all her life, of the scene after Charley on Aug. 13. "That's exactly what it looked like. You couldn't get around town. All the trees were down."
First Hurricane Charley. Then Hurricane Frances. And then Hurricane Jeanne. The state of Florida had never seen anything like them. And their paths crossed, leaving scars in the soils of Wauchula.
At Farr Field, the storied Youth League baseball park, Hurricane Charley moved the bleachers behind home plate forward a few feet and, about four weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne blew them back into their original spot.
But the rest of the baseball field was almost unrecognizable.
"Everything was in bad shape," said resident Fernando Tatis Sr., father of the former Major Leaguer.
When they were fairly sure there would be no more storms, Tatis, Royal and her husband, David, a city councilman, joined their neighbors in helping to repair Farr Field.
It was tough work. The grass was torn up. The roofs were blown off the dugouts. All of the hurricane fences were knocked down. The scoreboard beyond right field was flattened, and still is. They even had to straighten out the flag pole.
Insurance helped pay much of the bill, but no one can refund the time it took to make the field playable again.
"We lost our (instructional) fall ball program," David Royal said. "Last year was the first year we were able to have fall ball and the kids missed it. The kids were so disappointed they weren't going to have fall ball this year. But there wasn't anything we could do. The fields are just now back to where they can play."
On Saturday morning, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays helped this stricken community celebrate, just a little bit, the fact that their kids are able to play baseball again.
Rays players Aubrey Huff, Doug Waechter and Matt Diaz joined coaches Lee Elia and Tom Foley in putting on skills clinics for about 100 youngsters. Huff and Elia demonstrated the art of hitting; Waechter preached pitching; Diaz coached outfield play and Foley talked infield. And of course, the Tampa Bay mascot, Raymond, was on hand to keep everyone entertained.
The Rays of Hope Foundation also donated $2,500, which Tanya Royal said would go directly toward replacing baseball equipment that was lost in the main storage building.
"This is something the kids will talk about the rest of their lives," Tanya Royal said.
"This is a big deal," David Royal said. "Just for [the Rays] to be here is a big deal. We all know they just finished a long season. The money is fine, but the fact that they came out here is what matters. We didn't ask for money, but the Rays have been very generous."
He added that, despite the way things look around town now, there is hope for everyone.
"We're going to rebuild this community better than it ever has been," he said.
And on Saturday morning, on a field surrounded by houses with blue tarps instead of roofs, a group of youngsters were once again treated to fun and games.
"We need to get these kids back to as normal a life as we can," David Royal said. "I don't know how many days of school they missed. Whenever they would just get back to class, there would be another hurricane on its way."
The storms have moved on now and the families of Wauchula are trying to do the same.
"I think the Devil Rays' presence today is going to lift their spirits," David Royal said.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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