With the arrival of a new chapter for youth baseball in Columbia comes the end of another. As the community awaits the opening of the new Columbia SportsPlex next spring, many have begun reflecting on all the timeless memories that have been made at Duckworth Park.
Though many throughout the community have contributed to making the opportunity for kids to play at Duckworth possible, few have invested more into the process than Rev. Larry Jenkins, who came to Columbia as a student teacher at East Marion many moons ago and helped establish a league that would allow local youth to enjoy the game of baseball.
“Back in the late 70s and early 80s, we had teams in each community,” Jenkins recalled. “And there were so many kids that every community pretty much had their own team in each age group. Instead of playing at different places throughout the communities, we came here to play at Duckworth, and we formed a league.”
Within just a few years, the volunteers at Duckworth partnered with Dixie Youth Baseball. Jenkins still remembers the very first game that was played against another local Dixie Youth team from just down the road at Dean Griner.
“As you can imagine, there were people everywhere. I believe it was our 9 and 10-year-olds. Ryan Stringer, the principal over at West Marion, was the pitcher for Dean Griner, and we had a young man named Todd Daniels from Foxworth who was pitching for Duckworth,” Jenkins recalled.
“Those two dueled it out for six innings. Under Dixie Youth rules, that was the most you could pitch. The game went into extra innings, and Dean Griner won 3-2. Our shortstop and third basemen collided going after a fly ball, and they scored the winning run. It was such an exciting game to watch.”
Year after year, the league at Duckworth continued to grow. Dugouts, a press box and an additional field — which bears Jenkins’ name — were added in pursuit of the goal to host tournaments, the first of which was hosted in 1996.
At the peak of its popularity, roughly 400 kids were being given the opportunity to compete — an opportunity that, for many of them, would not have existed without the willing volunteers at Duckworth Park.
“This park and this league were pretty much created to offer underserved and underprivileged kids an opportunity to participate in organized sports,” Jenkins explained. “When they didn’t have those opportunities, we were here for them. If a kid’s family didn’t have the funding, we didn’t deny him the chance to play. Every child deserves the chance to take part, make memories and learn the valuable lessons that this game has to offer.”
Although the 2022 season has served as a curtain call for Dixie Youth competition at Duckworth, the park will remain open to the public, and plans are in motion to add a walking track to the grounds. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Columbia SportsPlex, Jenkins said he does not view this new chapter as an end to Duckworth but rather an extension of the goals they were striving for when their league first took form.
“I’ve lived long enough to understand that the only thing constant is change. I’ve also learned that if you are not open to change, you get left behind,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been at Duckworth for some 35 years, and I don’t see this as an end to Duckworth. It’s an affordable opportunity for all of our children in Columbia and Marion County to play together at a state-of-the-art facility and have something to be proud of.”
Though he is thrilled for what lies ahead for local youth at the new sportsplex, Jenkins believes he and many other volunteers will always look back with pride on the impact Duckworth was able to have on countless kids who just needed to know they were worth investing in.
“What I’ll remember most, without a doubt, is the impact that the coaches and the people in this community were able to have on those youth,” Jenkins said. “When they had no opportunities, we made one for them.
“To see those children mature, to see a change take place in their lives and to see the young men and women they have become has made it more than worth all the effort and time we put into this league. No one person made it happen. It was a community effort. Through that effort, we were able to create a lot of special memories here at Duckworth.”