Friday, August 15, 2014

Baseball. Boys. Sunflower seeds. A field. And dreams.

The Sweet Season

Part I
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team recently captured the national Little League World Series title, each year boys—and girls—play the game on local diamonds in seasons filled with life's lessons, with hopes and dreams.

The Sweet Season begins in Ford Heights
This is the first in a series
By John W. Fountain
  The Sweet Season. It is a time when graying or balding men—even men in their twilight years—still remember like yesterday. It is a time we all remember. A time when little boys—and girls—are innocent and free, to a certain extent, no matter what cruelty their eyes might already have seen. A time when smiles curl easily at the edges of their faces and joy shines in their eyes like the glint of sun on polished chrome. A time when boys aren’t ashamed to hug each other. When a bag of potato chips and a pat on the back from a coach are still sufficient prizes.
The Sweet Season. A time in our lives when disappointment and pain over a loss can dissolve as quickly as a two-run lead in one inning. A time when the fate of a season can hinge on one last at bat. One last hope.
It is a time when there’s not much sweeter than the sound of a bat smacking a fastball, the sight of it sailing into centerfield for a  bases-loaded-clearing hit. Or the pop of a catcher’s mitt and the yell of “Streeeeeiiiike threeeeee!!!” by a giant-sized umpire, leaping from his crouch.
Or a sip of cold water on a sun-drenched summer’s evening at the end of a sweaty game or practice, the mix of chatter and laughter of little boys rising like crickets as they their collect bats and gloves against a purplish sky. 
The Sweet Season: Baseball. Boys. Sunflower seeds. A field. And dreams. Little League Baseball teams.
This is the story of a team of boys called the Cubs, most of them from Ford Heights—a forlorn south suburban hamlet of 2,787, about 30 miles south of Chicago. It is a story about boys, who, this summer, would discover baseball. The story of a group of men with a passion for hardball and also for trying to save black boys at risk to gangs, homicide and prison—at a time when baseball has waned as the sport of choice among African Americans.
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team is currently playing in the Little League World Series, each year boys—and girls—play the game on diamonds that, despite the environs, can be fertile ground for life’s lessons and also for dreams. This is their story. The story of a season filled with challenges. A season beyond their wildest dreams.

There is something about baseball.
...Something about playing beneath a 
baby-blue sky kissed by marshmallow clouds.


In Ford Heights, there is no supermarket. No bank. No police department. No library. No Little League baseball. Once dubbed the poorest suburb in America, not much has changed in this town, once a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Today Ford Heights’ version of Main Street is punctuated by signs of liquor, lottery, vacant lots and crumbling housing that symbolize the poverty and sense of hopelessness in this village that years ago vanquished its police department because of corruption and also because it could no longer financially afford one. The park district’s lone baseball field sprouts with wild grass and weeds—a symbol perhaps of the rich history and potential buried within this town that was once a stop for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
George “Kirby” Green, 52, remembers. One of the town’s Park District trustees, Green is a longtime youth sports coach, though within this town where he grew up playing baseball, the love for the game and the funds to support it dried up long ago. For years, he’s had a dilemma: Plenty of boys but no baseball. A few miles west in Olympia Fields—a middle class suburb of tree-lined streets and emerald fields—Kelvin Oliver, 58, had baseball but not enough boys. Fate and a phone call would bring them together.
 Their team is the MOF Cubs, a group of boys, ages 8 to 10. And theirs is a story that emerges amid the backdrop of Chicago, where murder, gunplay and gang activity have become a pastime for too many city—and also suburban—boys. It is the story of a season filled with challenges, with highs and also with lows, and with unforgettable moments. A season filled with baseball. The sweet season.

Sweet Dreams
There is something about baseball. Something about the elements. The dirt. The field. The air. Something about playing beneath a baby-blue sky kissed by marshmallow clouds.
There is something about the sensation of gripping a baseball by its threads and firing it hard with your own power. Something about getting a hit and rounding the bases or  stealing home. Something sweet about the thrill of the game and simply being a part of the team. Something about getting better in time, something about learning to no longer be afraid of the ball, about learning to stand unflinchingly in the batter’s box and swing for the fences.
Something about baseball that after all these years still makes it shine like the sun off a helmet, something about baseball’s roots that run deep to the heart of the American dream like no other sport. There is something sweet about baseball. Something mighty sweet.

Bridging the Gap
It was April and the clock ticking with Oliver hopeful of still being able to field a “Mustang” team in the South Suburban Little League Baseball conference. Mustangs are the youngest Little League division. Oliver, a clean-shaven father of three grown children who works downtown as a public service administrator, got his start coaching many years ago when his son, now 20, was just a tyke and playing T-ball. For years, Oliver coached Little League but retired a few years back after his son stopped playing. The way he figured, another parent with kids on the team would be smitten by the coaching bug and would simply carry the torch. But it didn’t happen that way.
Coach Kirby's van is loaded up for the trip home after practice
Kirby is round, 52, a jolly man with silver and black hair, coffee-bean brown. He is jovial with a smooth tenor voice that floods with booming bass when he is shouting instructions or disciplining his players. He doesn’t shout, he says, he sometimes talks real loud. Oliver is balding, a middle age man who keeps in shape by running a few times a week. He talks to the boys like a patient and also philosophical field general with the disposition of a motivational speaker. The boys call him Coach K. Kirby is the statistician, though not dispassionate. Coach K is the visionary. Together they are the soul of the team.
Intent on fielding a team, Oliver got on the phone to friends in surrounding suburbs and his hunt for boys. Call after call. Still no boys. One day, Green got a call from a fellow Ford Heights Park District trustee who had gotten a call from a coach named Kelvin Oliver. The fellow trustee explained the situation. No problem. Green said he could provide the boys. He rounded up a group of 11. There was only one more problem: Transportation. He figured his large, red passenger SUV would have to suffice. The boys piled in and their makeshift team bus headed west to Olympia Fields and baseball dreams.
About 6.6 miles separate the two suburbs but they are worlds apart. It has been penned as one of the wealthiest “majority black” communities in the nation. Its golf course has been host to two U.S. Open championships. A village of about 5,000, more than half the homes, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, were headed by married couples living together, with female-headed households amounting to 11 percent. The median income for a family was $88,839. In Ford Heights, children 69.2 percent or about 7 out of 10 children under 18 live below the poverty level.
About 6.6 miles separate the two villages. It is a 6.6-mile divide between the haves and the have-nots and symbolic of the gulf  between the American dream and the American dream deferred. That divide is less one of race and more one of class and the division that exists between those who, in a post-urban renewal, post-Great Society plan, moved to the head of the class and those who have become the forgotten class, perhaps the abandoned class.
As the van rolls, Kirby listens as the boys play a game of calling out luxury cars as their own. They point at houses, some too large and fancy to imagine… “That’s my car…” “Ooh, that one’s mine” They spot another, shiny and expensive: “That’s mine!” The boys gaze at manicured lawns and pristine blocks of pristine homes and circular driveways, of homes recessed in wooded lots and finally a pedicured field of green with a pampered baseball field that is theirs for the taking.
Now, if they only knew how to play baseball.