Little League initiative has big challenge in Baltimore

Commentary

July 03, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

The latest effort to bring baseball back to life in America's blighted urban neighborhoods and their residents couldn't have picked a better city to start.

There's no concrete evidence that Baltimore needs help in this area more than anyplace else. Nor was that specifically why Bank of America's fundraising campaign for the 7-year-old Little League Urban Initiative kicked off at Camden Yards on Thursday, with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield doing five hours' worth of print and broadcast interviews next to the Orioles dugout.

This much is true, however: Later that afternoon, the sponsor staged a mini-carnival in the plaza in front of Gate C, to attract fans heading into the game against the Philadelphia Phillies to the matching-funds project. Thousands, representing both teams and cities and including plenty of children, streamed through to play speed pitch and peanut toss and get their faces put on trading cards.

Of that throng, not many more than a dozen were African-Americans.

The absence of baseball opportunity for youth in deprived areas of Baltimore isn't the only reason for a scene like that - but it doesn't help.

"You guys are not unlike a lot of other cities," David James, the director of the initiative since its inception in 1999, said last week from Little League International's headquarters in Williamsport, Pa.

It's not a new story. Baseball requires resources: places to play, equipment to play with. If kids have neither, they tend to find another sport to play. The city of Baltimore can't afford to do much to help either condition.

When the neighborhood youngsters actually get to play, then, it tends to be almost miraculous. Take Forest Park, for instance, as described by longtime area youth baseball official Dick Miller, now Little League's administrator for the district that includes Baltimore.

"Forest Park is a place where there are so many kids who just need financial help," Miller said. The fields tend to be in poor condition and unsafe: "Sometimes during games, you have to call the cops to run some of the drug people out of there. If we can get kids to do something like [youth baseball], we can save them.

"I'm one of those guys that figures, I don't care if they play Pony League or Babe Ruth or Cal Ripken ball, I just want the kids to have the opportunity to play ball, have fun and learn something they can use in their lives even when they've stopped playing baseball."

Yet it has been a perpetual scramble even to figure out whom in city government, if there is anybody, to talk to about bringing in Little League and other organizations. Even if that were resolved, money would not be any less scarce.

Thus, the disconnect with baseball grows. African-Americans stop playing, stop attending and all but disappear from the majors. The sudden void shocks adults who grew up loving baseball above all other sports.

"We'd play in the alleys, with a wrapped-up ball, a broomstick and a telephone pole or a coffee can top as a base," remembered Winfield of his youth in St. Paul, Minn. "Or we'd use a bag, with a rock on top of it so it wouldn't blow away. There's been a regression."

"We've started to see, for lack of a better term, holes in our coverage," James said. "Places where there were not many teams, not many leagues, not many players."

The attempts to reverse this have been late, but earnest. It's sparked in part by the realization that Major League Baseball, its teams, the youth organizations and the cities can't do it alone.

The Little League Urban Initiative has partnered with baseball (about $500,000 since it started in 1999) and corporate sponsors (Bank of America's project, in which it will match funds from its "Keep the Change" account holders' savings program, is expected to raise $500,000 this summer). The money goes to building or renovating fields, training volunteers and awarding cash grants to teams and leagues.

Former and current players have gotten involved. Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Harold Reynolds are promoting the Bank of America project. Orioles reliever LaTroy Hawkins (one of the team's two American-born black players) is among eight major leaguers who have helped send teams to Little League's annual Urban Jamboree, which was held last month in Williamsport for the third straight year, and to visit the Little League World Series next month.

The Urban Initiative's efforts have spawned new fields and teams, James said, in areas such as Tampa, Fla., Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, N.M. (where American Indian leagues have sprung up).

Baltimore will be a lot tougher. It will help that the World Series district tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds will be at Leakin Park next weekend and the state tournament in late July is in Arbutus, which Miller hopes will bring attention to the game and what it needs to thrive.

It needs a lot. The evidence was seen - actually, not seen - at Camden Yards on Thursday.

david.steele@baltsun.com

For more information about the Bank of America/Little League Urban Initiative program, visit www.littleleague.org/programs/urban.asp, or call David James at 570-326-1921, ext. 217, or Dick Miller at 410-761-3455.

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