September 14, 2013

Building diamonds, life skills: League 42 gives inner-city kids a chance to play baseball

Durell Gilmore didn’t have a chance to play baseball as a kid.

Durell Gilmore didn’t have a chance to play baseball as a kid.

Growing up in Wichita’s inner city, he said a neighborhood team wasn’t an option.

“Not in our neighborhoods,” said Gilmore, 26. “Football and basketball were heavily promoted. Not baseball.”

It’s still that way.

“I would have loved to have played baseball,” said Gilmore, who went on to play basketball and football, “but the chance wasn’t there. At least that I knew about. I couldn’t afford to play in the suburban leagues.”

His son, Durell Jr., 7, won’t miss out.

A grassroots effort is starting a league designed to serve any disadvantaged children who want to play baseball in Wichita.

The idea was spawned by Bob Lutz, sports columnist for The Wichita Eagle, when he posed a question on his Facebook page asking whether anyone would be interested in such an effort.

“I have felt for a lot of years that kids in Wichita’s inner city weren’t getting the opportunity to play baseball that kids in the suburbs do,” he said. “Every kid should get that chance. They may like it, they may not. But they should at least have the opportunity.”

A handful of people came together for that first meeting in early July. Josh Schepis, supervisor of umpires at Westurban Baseball and a middle school teacher, that night nailed the name: League 42, selected for the number worn by Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who in 1947 became the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

Since then, the league has grown to about 40 volunteers and has involvement from such community organizations as Boys and Girls Club of South Central Kansas, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Northeast Optimist Club.

It has gained support from the city, which has agreed to let the league use the two fields on the north end of McAdams Park, at 17th and Wabash, for its games starting next summer.

To help jump-start interest, League 42 will hold a camp Sept. 22 at McAdams. Tabor College coach Mark Standiford, a former star player at Wichita State University, will conduct the camp for youths 7 to 12.

The group got a significant boost when it joined forces with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a Baltimore-based group named for the man who spent 37 years in the Orioles’ organization and the late father of Hall of Famer Cal Jr.

The foundation is in discussions with League 42 about how it can help finance a major renovation of at least one of McAdams’ baseball fields.

The foundation’s main mission is the same as League 42’s – bringing baseball to disadvantaged kids and using that platform to help the youths develop life skills.

“This is about more than baseball,” Lutz said. “It’s about life, about mentoring. Baseball is the tool that we’re using to develop relationships.

“There are social aspects of League 42 that go far beyond the game.”

And that suits City Council member Lavonta Williams just fine.

“This is about helping kids get along with other kids,” said Williams, whose district includes McAdams and who has attended some of the league’s weekly meetings.

“It’s about helping to improve academics. It’s a proven fact that if you surround kids with good mentors, the character of our young people improves and they do better in school.”

Baseball and life

Brian Hoy knows about being mentored.

He grew up in Wichita’s suburbs, in the northwest near Central and Maize, and played in the long-established Westurban league.

Baseball is his game. Even before he made The Eagle’s All-City baseball team as a senior at Northwest High in 2002, he gathered with neighborhood kids to turn a cul-de-sac into a baseball field.

An orange plastic bat and tennis balls. Driveways as bases. Knocking the ball over a certain house counted as a home run.

Like Gilmore, Hoy is African-American. He’s helping run the operations side of League 42 with Matt Baty, a standout player at Maize High and the University of Kansas.

His parents were always there to take him to practice and games and pay the cost of playing at Westurban, which now runs about $200 per player.

But he also had mentors beyond his family.

When he was about 11, there was Bryan James, an All-City center fielder at Heights.

“First older black athlete I knew who played baseball,” Hoy said. “He gave me batting gloves and wooden bats. He played the position I played.

“He also taught me how to stay out of trouble, how to act when we’d go to tournaments out of town. That’s who I wanted to be like.”

Later there was Jerry Stine, another All-City performer at Heights and a former WSU player who became Hoy’s summer league coach when he was in high school.

Hoy remembers sulking one night at a fast-food restaurant, picking at a hamburger after playing a horrible game in Nevada, Mo. Across the room, a youth with significant physical handicaps waited for his order.

“See that kid over there,” Stine told Hoy. “You’re disgusted with yourself because you dropped a ball, and he would die to have a chance to play. Appreciate the chances you have. Stop moping.”

Hoy learned a new perspective that night.

“And I never forgot it,” he said. “It was completely out of the realm of baseball.”

Later, another former WSU player, Billy Hall, taught him about baseball and life skills. Hall also is active in League 42.

“We’re not making major league baseball players here,” Hoy said. “We’re here to try to help make people better for society.”

At a recent weekly League 42 meeting, WSU baseball coach Todd Butler underscored that point when he said, “One of the biggest impacts on a young person is a coach. But it takes time and effort.”

More than diamonds

Cal Ripken Sr.’s sons, Cal Jr. and Billy, were big leaguers. Cal Jr. achieved fame for his record-setting career.

But mostly Cal Sr. was known around the majors for his integrity and how he treated people during his decades as a player, scout, coach and manager.

In 2001, two years after he died, his sons started the foundation to help pass on the life lessons that he taught to disadvantaged kids through baseball, said Chuck Brady, the nonprofit’s vice president who has been working with League 42.

“We’re not about just building baseball diamonds – we’re about building character in kids,” he said.

In the coming months, the foundation will send some of its staff to Wichita to help train League 42 volunteers in mentoring, Brady said.

“It goes beyond sportsmanship and leadership,” he added. “It’s about choosing your teammates well, or more specifically choosing your friends well. It’s about respecting each other.”

The group has worked with about 200 communities in some capacity. The foundation picks up the tab for the training.

About two years ago, the foundation added building baseball fields or revamping existing ones. The cost is about $1 million, which includes artificial turf, lights and dugouts for a youth-size field, Brady said.

“They have all the bells and whistles,” he said, noting that the foundation has completed about half of its goal to build 50 fields.

Brady said the foundation asks the local organizers to come up with 50 percent of the funding, though he said his group helps in raising that support.

“Everything we do, we do together,” he said.

The foundation and League 42 are still working out the details on McAdams’ fields, including whether to do one or both.

“Anytime somebody wants to come in to partner with something and improve conditions, we’re intrigued,” said Doug Kupper, the city’s director of park and recreation. “But the reality is, we need to get the kids back in parks doing something more constructive, doing organized sports rather than playing video games.

“That’s really the most important part of this.”

The city has its own baseball league, which saw 130 kids pay $65 each to play this past summer.

“I could see us partnering with League 42 and play cross-league games,” Kupper said. “I don’t see any downside to this at all.”

Police like the idea, too.

“I really can’t see any negatives to it,” said Police Capt. Rusty Leeds, who heads up the substation in north Wichita. “We’re always glad to see activities for youth that are an alternative to less productive things. There’s always a need for more good activities in the summer.”

Gloves wanted

League 42’s organizers and supporters eventually would like to expand to other fields in Wichita and in Planeview.

“It’s for all underprivileged kids, whether they are Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, African-American or whatever,” Hoy said, “and no matter where they live in Wichita.”

The league expects to have a nominal fee, although it hasn’t been set yet.

“We don’t want to make it free,” Hoy said, “because we want the parents to have some investment.”

League 42’s upcoming camp will be an early gauge of interest. Right now, organizers aren’t sure what to expect.

Standiford will have about a dozen of his Tabor players assisting him, plus other former college players. At least two other camps – one at WSU and another at Newman University – are planned for this fall and winter.

“Obviously, we want them to have fun,” said Standiford, who holds the Shockers’ career and season home-run records. “But we also want them to learn something about the game because many haven’t been exposed to it.”

That also means providing equipment. Organizers say they hope to put a glove on every kid’s hand.

Enough equipment already has been donated to fill a room at McAdams Recreation Center, but more is needed.

“It doesn’t have to be new,” Lutz said, “but we don’t want people to look in their garage and donate a glove that hasn’t been used in 30 years.

“These kids deserve to get every opportunity that the kids in Derby, Andover and Maize get.”

Near McAdams’ big diamond along 13th, where high schools play baseball, is a sign proclaiming the Barry Sanders Football Field, honoring the former North High star who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State University and reach the NFL’s Hall of Fame.

A little farther north in McAdams are the Antoine Carr Basketball Courts, a concrete slab with a row of goals that honor the former Heights standout who played at WSU and in the NBA.

And then you get to the two nameless fields near 17th and Wabash. Mostly softball and plenty of youth football are played there. Rarely baseball.

“I hope that changes,” said Gilmore, who continues to live in the inner city. “I hope League 42 brings baseball back to the neighborhood. My son will be there.

“I asked him what sport he wants to play. He always says baseball. His mom was pushing football, but he wasn’t feeling it.”

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