On a cold day, a hidden gem has warmth in his heart

January 23, 2004|By Michael Olesker

ON BALMY mornings such as this, with the temperature practically skyrocketing out of single digits, a young man's fancy turns lightly to thoughts of softball games.

This young man is Lou Karpouzie. He is 77 but approaches all life with the enthusiasm of the schoolboy athlete he used to be. He's out there in the cold at Lombard and Kane streets, where the city's rowhouse east side turns industrial before melting into Baltimore County.

He's staring at a couple of baseball diamonds that bear his name: Lou Karpouzie Fields. A raw wind that feels like a knife whips across the grass, blowing Karpouzie's hair all around and rattling a wire backstop in need of slight repair. It's a reminder of money that has to be raised for all the ballgames of next spring and summer.

The fields' name did not come from just anybody. Karpouzie is one of the Baltimore area's hidden gems. Such people don't make headlines. You don't see them strutting around Annapolis. All they do is hold communities together.

For years, Karpouzie has organized Thanksgiving dinners in Patterson High School's cafeteria for hundreds of the east side's elderly and poor. Years back, he set up a scholarship for the school's standout graduating senior who was in need of help with college money. He's organized countless athletic leagues, wheelchair basketball tournaments to raise money for the mental retardation unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and reunions every year at the big Steelworkers Union Hall on Dundalk Avenue where hundreds of east-side guys gather.

And then there's the Lou Karpouzie Fields, named by city leaders not only for Lou's labors, and his abundant cheer over the generations, but specifically because it was Karpouzie who led the effort to create the diamonds out of what had been a massive dumping ground of trash and tires and car parts at Lombard and Kane.

He rented a tiller and carved out an infield, bought shovels and rakes and put down sod, and when it was done he put together a softball league with 50 players, and then came more leagues and still more. At which point Lou moved to the other side of the lot and built another diamond. Today, maybe 5,000 people use the fields each year.

"My inspiration is just keeping people together," Lou was saying now, pulling his coat collar close around his neck to ward off another frigid blast of wind. "That's it, that's the whole thing. They come here from Dundalk, Highlandtown, Joppatowne, all kinds of leagues playing softball and soccer.

"You oughta see 'em. These young guys today, they're like weightlifters, they're so bulked-up, they're hitting balls out onto Kane Street with the industrial trucks going by. I'm afraid they're gonna hit one of those cars. And the girls! You know, we got girl leagues, co-ed leagues. Some of these girls, they play in bar leagues. And they're good, they hit the ball and run like crazy, and when the games are done, people hang out together till dark."

He laughs delightedly. Put an elf's cap on Lou and he'd look a little bit like Chico Marx. But, to a lot of east-siders, he seems a vision of selflessness.

"There are so many people out there who don't get involved, and here's a guy doing good things for the community all the time," says Roger Burch. "That's why we try to help whenever we can."

Burch is with nearby Hopkins Bayview's maintenance department, where a whole bunch of employees have donated their efforts in recent years to help keep the Karpouzie fields in shape. It's a labor of love, particularly with city maintenance crews sometimes a little too overburdened to help out.

For Karpouzie, it comes out of a lifetime in the heart of East Baltimore's tight-knit rowhouse neighborhoods. In his schoolboy days at Patterson, he starred at halfback for the football team. His family owned the little Deluxe Grocery Store in the 500 block of Oldham St. The whole human race seemed to drop in, and Karpouzie reveled in it, and cultivated a sense of extended community.

That's why the ballfields are more than just ballfields. They're gathering places. You see him out there now, on a freezing winter day, because he's worrying how to raise a few bucks to keep the field maintained, to keep equipment in shape.

You see him out there on hot summer days, getting the fields ready before the first ballplayers show up. Twice in recent years, he passed out from exhaustion. And you see him out there when the ballgames are over, and twilight has turned into darkness.

A little light comes into Karpouzie's eyes as he tells the story. The games are over, the daylight has fled, and he's cleaning up the ballfields on a summer night.

"And I hear voices in the dark," he says. "It's some of the ballplayers. They're saying, `Mr. Lou, we're leaving now, see you next time.' They've been hanging out after the games, drinking a few beers to cool off, but mostly hanging out just to be around each other."

That's called a community. Lou Karpouzie's right there at the heart of his. On mornings such as this, with the temperature just below acceptable, his fancy's already turning lightly to thoughts of springtime gatherings.

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