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Wineka column: For ‘godfather’ Jim Solomon, the kids come first in China Grove Youth Baseball

CHINA GROVE — Most summer evenings, a little after 5, Jim Solomon slides into his golf cart, steers it onto Main Street and takes off for the ball fields.
The golf cart and Solomon usually don’t return home until about 10 p.m.
Ask him, and Solomon probably will tell you this summer routine of going to the games, watching all the kids play and putting out small fires as they crop up is probably one of the more enjoyable aspects of his longtime job as president of China Grove Youth Baseball and Softball.
He parks the golf cart under a 4-year-old maple tree in back of the senior league diamond. From here he can see parts of three fields and follow the crowd reactions to big hits or great plays on defense.
Friends slide into the passenger seat beside Solomon for conversations. Others walk up to him with questions, suggestions and complaints or to retrieve a key they need to collect some drinks.
Solomon’s wife, Tamara, keeps the official scorebook and operates the new scoreboard for the senior league. She’s closeted in a tiny building right behind home plate, and through the backstop wire she carries on conversations through the night with umpire Todd Bare.
“She was doing that when I played here,” Bare says, laughing, “and that was in the mid ’70s.”
Tamara Solomon realized long ago if she wanted to spend any time with her husband, she would have to become immersed with youth baseball.
Their involvement, particularly Jim’s, now approaches close to 40 years. Jim, 73, has survived open-heart surgery and, battling diabetes, he has lost six of his 10 toes. That’s why he depends on his sporty golf cart.
“He’s the golf-cart man,” Tamara says.
“If you’ve got a problem,” Jim adds, “see the man in the golf cart. That’s the standard answer.”
Today, he oversees a program of 38 teams and 36 sponsors with 435 to 450 boys and girls participating on four different fields, all squeezed in between Harris and Bostian streets.
He is pretty much the godfather of China Grove baseball.
“This is not a job for one person,” Solomon protests. “I have had some great help.”
He ticks off names such as Terry Thomas, Ronnie Overcash, Dale Keiger, Robert Long, Terry Welch and Michelle and David Gay and, of course, Tamara.
And Solomon says you can’t write about youth baseball in China Grove without giving a huge amount of credit to J.W. Safrit and Everette Wagoner, men who started the program and built the first field around 1956.
Each year, plenty of financial support comes from merchants, civic clubs and churches that provide sponsorship for teams. The Civitan Club mans the concession stand every night, and Solomon praises the town of China Grove and its all-out support in mowing the fields, paying the light bills and providing police officers and Fire Department volunteers.
Solomon made the mistake one winter of arriving late for a youth baseball board meeting, and the other guys around the table elected him president.
His re-election has pretty much happened by acclamation every year for decades since then.
“Really, no one else will take it,” says Keiger, owner of Dale’s Sporting Goods and maybe the one person who has been involved with the league longer than Solomon.
“Jim does a good job of keeping things in order.”
Long played baseball on these same fields, and now he has a third son playing youth baseball in China Grove.
“It’s a revolving circle that goes round and round, and Jim just happens to be in the middle of it,” Long says.
Long oversees the 9- and 10-year-old division and looks after maintenance issues on all four fields. In the past couple of years, he sometimes intercepts aggravated parents heading to Solomon, “because I respect him that much,” Long says.
“He is a unique individual,” Long adds. “He just loves to do this for the community.”
Keiger describes Solomon as a patient person who puts the kids first. Overcash agrees.
“It’s a tough job,” says Overcash, commissioner of the senior league and vice president of China Grove Youth Baseball, “but it’s really rewarding when you see all the kids come through the program and go on with baseball. … What drives him is the love of youth sports and giving back to the community.”
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The work for Jim and Tamara Solomon begins in January with the new season’s first meetings. Team drafts and tryouts soon follow, and players and coaches are on the fields by mid March.
The spring games and division champions are all crowned by mid June. All-star games and Cal Ripken Baseball-sanctioned tournaments follow before fall baseball starts.
By the end of October, the Solomons finally can pause for a winter break.
Jim solicits the team sponsors and lines up the umpiring. He and Tamara together receive and prepare complete rosters for every team with names, ages, addresses and confirmed birth dates.
That information has to be sent in by computer to state and national Cal Ripken Baseball headquarters for China Grove’s two sanctioned leagues — the 9- and 10-year-olds, and the 11- and 12-year-olds.
“They’re very serious,” Tamara says.
Solomon also is responsible for paying the leagues’ state and national Ripken Baseball dues, based on the number of teams playing in China Grove.
Solomon says one of the hardest things to do each year is organizing drafts and tryouts so the teams are as balanced as possible.
Overall, he sees his mission as giving kids a safe place for recreation and a good atmosphere for playing baseball.
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Keeping the players’ parents happy and under control is usually the biggest challenge for anyone in Solomon’s position.
“He’s probably one of the best diplomats I’ve seen in my life,” Tamara says. “I don’t know what he does, but he has a great way to handle irate parents.”
Solomon remembers one year when a tournament finished up at 1:30 in the morning.
“I got crucified for that,” he says.
Solomon and the other key volunteers with him don’t have much tolerance for parents who can’t control themselves at games. But Solomon says there only have been about five times when people have been asked to leave the fields.
“If they start showing off,” he says, “that’s what the China Grove Police Department is for.”
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Jim Solomon grew up as an only child. He father was a machinist, and his mother worked for China Grove Cotton Mills.
It’s interesting, but Jim never played in an organized baseball league himself. In his day, games were on sandlots, “or whatever we had at school,” he says.
Solomon graduated from China Grove High School in 1958, the same year as Tamara, who says Jim was “one of Mr. Carson’s boys.”
She’s talking about Principal Jesse Carson, the man the newest high school in Rowan County is now named for.
“He knew James was reliable to do anything,” Tamara says. “He was one of his hand-picked favorites.”
Solomon says he was just fortunate to be around Carson and the way he worked with kids. “He was really good to me,” he adds.
In high school, instead of playing baseball, Solomon was a student bus driver. Through the years, Jim worked for Douglas Aircraft in Charlotte, Celanese Corp. in Charlotte, Federal Pacific Electric in Albemarle and ended up joining his dad’s machine shop in China Grove.
It eventually moved to Mount Hope Church Road, and for 25 years, Jim was heavily involved as a volunteer with the Bostian Heights Fire Department. He also served for awhile as the Fire Department’s president.
Meanwhile, Tamara taught school, predominantly high school English, for 42 years, including 31 years at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis.
The couple had one child, son Darren, and they have two grandchildren today. Tamara likes to pick the grandchildren up from school in Concord, so she usually drives straight to the ball fields instead of riding in Jim’s golf cart.
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Jim Solomon’s involvement in youth baseball started as a sponsor. Lorene and Danny Warren, who was a coach, talked him into it, and Solomon enjoyed that first season and thought youth baseball would be something Darren would enjoy later.
Darren served as a team bat boy for a couple years until he was old enough to play, and he participated through each division until aging out at 13.
When Jim started, China Grove Youth Baseball had one ball field and two divisions. Over the years, the league under Solomon’s guidance received significant help from the town and corporate citizens such as F&M Bank and Rowan Savings & Loan in acquiring additional land for fields and getting them all lighted.
Once Solomon became president, he quit being a sponsor, because he didn’t want to be accused of any favoritism. His ascendancy to league president took place in the mid to late 1970s — he’s not sure of the exact date.
But it was long enough ago that kids who were once players are now coaches and umpires — those circles Long talks about.
“They’re kind of amazed that we’re all still here,” Tamara says.
As she keeps score, a boy named Landon, playing for the Diamondbacks, belts a homer over the left-field fence in a playoff game against the Civitan Club Orioles.
Tamara Solomon places a special tab in her scorebook as a reminder for when she does season-ending statistics for all the teams. She can’t hide her excitement for Landon’s first home run. “If you saw that smile — that’s what this is all about,” Tamara says. “For him to get that home run makes it all worthwhile.”
From his golf cart, Jim is smiling, too.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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