Fred Crabtree learned the value of baseball during World War II.
As an Army engineer stationed in the Pacific theater, Crabtree helped build a baseball diamond for his fellow soldiers in Okinawa, Japan. Each day, he would set up the field. Each night, the Japanese would bomb it.
"Every night, they would drop a string of bombs right on the damn field," said Crabtree with a laugh. "They would drop a whole string."
Although the field wasn't perfect, the soldiers didn't have proper uniforms and the professional baseball players in the service monopolized playing time, that baseball field was a piece of home for the troops. That piece of land was important.
"We had a pretty good baseball team," said Crabtree, 94, while sitting on his back porch in Vienna last week.
Nicknamed "Mr. Baseball" in Vienna, Crabtree has spent most of his life fighting for a place to play. After joining Vienna Little League in 1956, Crabtree began systematically snatching up pieces of land to turn into ball fields.
A board member of the Fairfax County Park Authority from 1969 to 1992, Crabtree was instrumental in acquiring, expanding and developing numerous parks and facilities, including Fox Mill District Park, Peterson Lane Park, Nottoway Park, Frying Pan Park, Clarks Crossing Park, Floris School Site, Baron Cameron Park, Lahey Lost Valley Park, Lake Fairfax Park and many others in Fairfax.
"God knows how many kids he has reached out to and made a difference [to], either directly or indirectly," said Bill Cervenak, chairman of Vienna Little League. "He's been a manager, coach, umpire and administrator. He has been involved in every aspect of baseball that you can think of."
Crabtree grew up in Dunn, N.C., between Fayetteville and Durham. His earliest baseball memories involve sneaking into ballparks to watch larger-than-life players, such as Walter "Big Train" Johnson, play.
After four years in the Army, Crabtree returned to North Carolina and lived at Fort Bragg. Tiring of early morning wakeup calls and Army life, Crabtree settled in Northern Virginia, took a job in the advertising industry and got involved with the Vienna baseball program and the Fairfax County Park Authority.
As a coach, Crabtree always fielded a competitive team.
"Everybody wanted to beat him because he always had good teams," said Sam Savia, Crabtree's friend and one of the founding fathers of Vienna Little League. "He always had a competitive team."
Crabtree was a volunteer in Vienna Little League for more than 50 years, serving as president, chairman of the board and sports field manager.
"I was surprised by how many people knew him and how many people loved him," said Bill Levitt, Challenger director for Vienna Little League, who met Crabtree in 1995. "He is certainly well-known for what he's done and what he's accomplished."
Crabtree started the Challenger program -- a baseball league for children with special needs -- in 1989.
"Little league is one of the best things in the world for young people coming up," Crabtree said. "I felt so sorry for those kids [who didn't have a baseball team], so I started up a baseball program for them. You're talking about liking to play ball, those kids really do."
Four years ago, Crabtree received the ultimate honor for someone who has spent his life building baseball diamonds -- he had one named after him. Fox Mill District Park was renamed Fred Crabtree Park by the Fairfax County Park Authority in July 2006.
"It makes me so happy, it really does," Crabtree said of having a park in his name. "You feel like you accomplished something and I know that I have."
Declining health has prevented Crabtree from being more involved in the day-to-day operations of Vienna Little League, but "Mr. Baseball" still finds a way to get involved.
On April 10, Crabtree was on hand during the Vienna Little League Opening Ceremonies at Yeonas Park. More than 100 teams comprising more than 1,100 children, ages 10 to 12, celebrated the start of another baseball season.
"It seems like it just continues to get better," Savia said. "Boys get older and move up and a new crop comes in. [Thanks to people like Fred,] Vienna has been able to support the growth. It just keeps getting better."
Despite a lack of mobility, Crabtree rarely misses an opportunity to attend an opening day ceremony.
"He is a champion of kids," Cervenak said. "When you see him around kids, you know that that is his element."