As a small island, St. Thomas is far removed from the money- and celebrity-driven world of big-time college and professional sports. As a tourist destination, it does not greatly emphasize sports activities. But there is a world of local sports that helps give St. Thomas charm and a feeling of community that is increasingly difficult to find on the mainland.
Tourists tend not to come in contact with these sports because they are often being played in out-of-the way locations, early in the morning or after dark. Whatever the sport, the athletes make up mini-communities, each with its own flavor and character.
As I am a former baseball player, one of my favorite St. Thomas spots is Emile Griffith Park. Often when running along the waterfront at night, I will stop "for a minute" to watch either a game or batting or infield practice. The minute almost always stretches into half an hour.
The play is of a high quality. But beyond that, it is a pleasure to observe the by-play among the players and between those on the field and the spectators. People frequently stop by to say hello to the umpire or one of the players. When young people are playing, admirers of the opposite sex usually hang out behind the backstop. All of this is taking place on a beautiful warm night with the lights of Charlotte Amalie sparkling just beyond the outfield and the lovely harbor in view just across Veterans Drive.
There is also a wonderful continuity to this scene. Year after year, even though some of the players change and there are new – and ever wilder – team names (my current favorite is "NuTing"), there is the same rhythm and the same joy of playing and watching the perfect sport.
Another cool thing about sports on St. Thomas is that sites are often tucked away, so that coming upon them, especially at night, is a pleasant surprise. The best example of this is the tennis courts in Sub Base. This area is largely deserted at night, but there is almost always someone playing on the courts, bathed in a rectangle of light almost like boxers in the ring. Usually these are good, solid veteran players, so stopping "for a minute" tends to get extended here as well.
As a long-distance runner, I sometimes do hill training on the steep hill just behind the Sub Base courts. The players, and sometimes the spectators, glance over as if they are watching a madman. By the time I finish, I often agree with them.
Several years ago, I began watching the cricket players at the University of the Virgin Islands field next to the airport, another wonderful spot. Games go on with great intensity as jetliners and smaller planes come and go just on the other side of the fence.
I don't understand cricket, but I increasingly appreciate the skills involved, as well as the camaraderie among the players. Watching these players and those on St. John led me to read C.L.R. James's excellent book about West Indian cricket and society, "Beyond a Boundary." It opened up a whole new world.
This same field is used by baseball teams and, increasingly, kids' soccer leagues. When I was a youngster in Milwaukee, soccer was played almost exclusively by new immigrants from Eastern Europe. There was a general feeling that they would soon get over it, and most of them did. But now it is back to stay, and it seems to be booming on St. Thomas. It sure makes a lot more sense than American football in full pads in the tropics.
What strikes me about kids' soccer on St. Thomas is that it seems less strident and less aggressively competitive than the sport does on the mainland. The parents also seem less nuts. As with other sports on St. Thomas, you get a strong sense of community and sharing. It is a cool thing, something not to be underestimated.
And then there is my sport: long-distance running. When I first came to St. Thomas, some 25 years ago, there were no runners. There was just a solitary race-walker who was widely viewed as being insane. Today there is a thriving running club.
Several months ago, at the urging of the publisher of this paper, I ran the St. Thomas 10-K, an annual 10,000-meter race from the car wash at Four Winds to UVI. There were 20 runners, all of whom, except for me, knew each other. One of the volunteers, whom I had never met before, picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the start. This does not happen everywhere.
The race started at 6:30 a.m. to beat the heat. Good luck. The course, up and down Raphune Hill, along Long Bay Road and the waterfront, and out to UVI, is an absolute nightmare of hills, concrete and heat, with the steepest downhill I have ever run. Pedestrians and drivers looked on in either shock or some weird form of admiration as we hammered those hills.
I racked up my worst 10K time ever, but it didn't matter. My fellow runners and the organizers made the whole hellish experience a joy. Everyone shouted encouragement, with the exception of the old guys playing dominoes on the waterfront. They had to inform me that I was being passed by a woman. (It's a terrible thing when your own age group turns on you.) At the finish, everybody was cheering those coming in. Once again, it would be a mistake to underestimate what a neat thing this is, and how hard it is to find these days.
Then, for the final great sports event, a swim in Magens or Lindbergh Bay or some other bay at sunset, when the only thing that comes into your mind is Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is president of the Human Services Management Institute, a consulting firm. He has served as assistant commissioner of health for the City of New York and founded Comprehensive Medical Management Inc. He is the author of "Cutting and Coping," a how-to guide for managing retrenchment. He has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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