Sandlot facility, teams crafting Vicksburg’s next great generation of sports talent and leaders

Published 4:00 am Saturday, June 29, 2024

Just inside the door of The Sandlot sports training facility, more than a dozen rings earned from the outstanding tournament finishes by its two youth baseball teams are on display.

“It’s 14 rings in 18 months. Something is working,” said Sandlot owner Roosevelt Brown, who also coaches the teams.

Rings aren’t the only thing at The Sandlot, however. Brown views it as much a mission to help Vicksburg’s youth as to build the next generation of outstanding baseball players.

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The Vicksburg native and former major leaguer is using baseball and his training facility to instill a strong work ethic and character traits into his players. By providing structure, discipline and accountability through baseball, he’s hoping to transfer those traits to their everyday lives.

“Our boys are developing well. Our 10U group is really developing some social skills. That’s one of the main things we’re trying to get, because one day they’ve got to be employed by somebody and they’ve got to know how to deal with people and have good people skills,” Brown said.

Brown, a 48-year-old Vicksburg native, played four seasons in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs from 1999 to 2002, and then two more seasons in Japan. He moved back to his hometown in the late 2000s and it wasn’t long before friends convinced him to start coaching their children’s teams.

That eventually led to the idea for The Sandlot, which opened in 2021 in the former GymSouth building at 3412 Wisconsin Ave. There are six large batting cages inside, with an artificial turf floor, and the space is large enough to conduct fielding drills as well.

In addition to baseball, it has become a popular place for softball and soccer players to hone their skills either with individual work or private lessons with a coach.

“We work on a lot of stuff in here. It’s not just ‘get in the cages and let them hit off the machine,’” Brown said. “I can simulate every situation in here. We can work on pickoff plays and everything.”

It hasn’t taken long for Brown, and co-owners Pierson Waring and Anna Burnett Tillotson to grow the Sandlot’s footprint. There are currently two tournament teams under its banner — one in the 8U age group and another in 10U — with tentative plans to add two tournament softball teams and one or two more baseball teams in different age groups for the 2025 season.

Brown has also leveraged his contacts from nearly 20 years playing and coaching in professional baseball to enhance the training regimen. Former college and pro players have come to the Sandlot for stints as guest coaches. Last year, he organized a camp in Jackson that featured instruction from more than a dozen former major leaguers and drew 150 young players.

Brown said hitting, fielding and pitching tips are a small part of bringing in big names, though. He said it also exposes his players to the mindset it takes to push themselves to higher levels of the sport and life.

“It runs hand in hand because most of those guys I bring in understand the culture of a locker room. They understand holding each other accountable. So my kids get that from them,” Brown said.

Brown added that one of his bigger on-field goals is developing a strong feeder program for Warren County’s high school teams, similar to the way training facilities in the Jackson Metro area have sent players on to strong high school teams like Northwest Rankin, Madison Central and Brandon.

Strong youth teams formed the core of Vicksburg’s baseball golden age in the 1990s and 2000s, when the city’s four high schools combined for 10 state championship appearances and five titles in a 10-year span. Brown is hoping to reinvigorate that level of the sport locally.

Over the past three years, several of Brown’s individual athletes who train at the Sandlot have signed with college teams.

“The teams over there in Jackson have these facilities and it’s hard for us to keep up from a competition standpoint. They just have more schools so they have more good teams. We only have four schools. We need to build a feeder program,” Brown said. “The football teams are good because you’ve got the Ravens and the Packers. They’re feeding the football programs. We’ve got to try and create that same environment here.”

When the Sandlot opened in 2021, Brown started the Legends team as an 8U group. While several players have rotated in and out, the core of this year’s team has stayed together and turned a big corner this spring.

As a 10U team, the Legends won three of their eight tournaments, finished second in two others, and capped things off with a third-place finish in the USSSA Grand Slam regional tournament last weekend in Gulfport.

Team members Oakley Flowers, Blake Muirhead, Laken Trim, Greyson O’Briant, Conner Minton, Bentley Brown, Eli Frazier, Ayden Bell, Maddox Gipson, Fin Reeves and Cain Conner have become a formidable force on the field by developing a strong mindset, Brown said.

Conner pitched a no-hitter during the Grand Slam tournament.

“Every Sunday we competed from the fall to now, you’re going to beat us by one run — if you beat us,” he said. “It didn’t matter who we played, what level we were at, you punch them and they’re going to punch you back. It’s fun to watch.”

Fun and satisfying for Brown. Where he once got enjoyment from smashing baseballs and playing the game, he now gets it from watching his young charges learn and grow. In the process, he hopes, it helps make Vicksburg a better place by creating leaders and bringing people together.

“With good people, it’s like God said, one man can’t do things alone. But people who hold hands can move mountains. That’s what the concept is for this is,” Brown said. “If I complain about it and don’t get in the fight, then I don’t need to be complaining. So I decided to get in the fight and impact some kids’ lives.”

• Tryouts for the Sandlot of Vicksburg’s 7U through 13U tournament baseball teams will be held June 29 and 30 at the Sandlot of Vicksburg, 3422 Wisconsin Ave. Players will be tested in a combine-style workout on a variety of baseball skills.
• The tryouts will be held from 10 a.m. to noon on June 29, and 3 to 5 p.m. on June 30
• Players should bring their own bat, glove and batting helmet
• For information or to register, call Roosevelt Brown at 601-456-9992.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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