Ancient soil is everywhere during kids' tee ball season

When the popular "Peanuts" character Pig-Pen was picked to play the innkeeper in the Christmas play, poor red-haired Frieda balked at the idea of playing the innkeeper's wife because he was so dirty.

Charlie Brown quickly came to Pig-Pen's defense, saying, "Don't think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great, past civilization."

If getting dirty does, in fact, put you in touch with humanity, then no one is more in touch than a group of 6-year-olds playing tee ball.

"They love to play in the dirt," said Shannon Nardelli, She and her husband, Tony, coach tee ball at Sherrills Ford Optimist Park. Their team is the Hurricanes, ages 4 to 6.

Before the last regular-season game, their younger son, Brock, warms up with his older brother - also named Tony - and sister. He lobs a ball that nearly clears the fence and barely misses his sister's head.

"Why can't you throw like that in the game?" asks the younger Tony.

Shannon sighs and smiles.

"Yes," she says. "There's a lot of that."

Brock plays both tee ball and football at Sherrills Ford. Tori, 14, is on the volleyball team, and Tony, 10, plays baseball and football.

At the beginning of the season, the tee ball games can look a lot like football. The third baseman stands on the baseline from second and blocks the runner as he goes for third, knocking both of them to the ground.

"Teaching them to stay in their assigned position is a challenge," said Shannon. "They sometimes forget that they are on the same team, and they often end up wrestling each other for the ball while playing defense."

If the kids understand anything about baseball, it's that sliding is part of the game. It's no wonder everyone gets so dirty.

For the Nardellis, the dirt is worth it.

"Being involved in sports has taught our family many valuable skills and traits," Shannon said. "As coaches we have learned to have more patience and how to better communicate. Our kids have learned ... to be supportive and also to show good sportsmanship toward the opponent."

With everyone in the family involved in sports, the Nardellis have to rely on some careful planning and a little help from the kids' grandparents, Tony and Linda, who calls herself the "rootball" of the family.

Between games, the group - including all three Tonys - finds a spot at one of the park's picnic tables, where they grab a snack, laugh and relax.

The tee ball season ended June 3 with a special "all-star" game at dusk. Instead of playing on the smaller grass fields at the park, where they had been for most of the season's games, the players got to play under the lights on two of the larger dirt fields.

The season had started with all players hitting from the tee. As the season went on, they gradually built up the skill to hit a pitched ball. By the end of the season, few were using the tee. Even fewer were still tackling each other in the field.

But while the players were staying cleaner, their little brothers and sisters made dirt castles just behind the dugout. The parents, who had long since given up on keeping anyone clean, took pictures and talked with new friends.

"We have made some wonderful friends at Sherrills Ford Optimist," Shannon said. "It is truly a pleasure to watch the kids grow and develop a love for the game."