Baseball has been a staple of early life for generations of American youths, but in some inner-city neighborhoods many children never get a chance to get in the game.
In communities where parents sometimes struggle to keep their kids in school and off the streets, extra-curricular activities like baseball have often taken a backseat.
“Baseball has slipped through the cracks,” said Mike McKeown, the director of recreation at the Cruz Recreation Center in Ludlow and home of the Cruz Cardinals 14-and-under baseball team.
For the most part, inner-city baseball has struggled just to survive in neighborhoods like Ludlow. Recreation centers across the city have battled to keep the sport going in neighborhoods where children are often more accustomed to roaming the streets unattended than listening to the instructions of a long-haired baseball coach like George Jones, who formed the Cruz Cardinals after he began working at the center two years ago.
Thanks to the efforts of recreation centers like Cruz, organized baseball is enjoying a resurgence in Philadelphia’s communities. Aided by organizations like Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, teams like the Cruz Cardinals are beginning to establish a significant presence in neighborhoods across the city.
Playing on the team gives neighborhood kids a chance to learn the game in an organized environment, and also provides an opportunity for parents to come together to support a common cause.
The team is now in its second year, and both McKeown and Jones admit that the experience has had its ups and downs.
“The baseball team has been a struggle,” McKeown said.
He and Jones undertook the difficult task of teaching baseball, starting with the basics, to kids who had never played the game before. Not surprisingly, success did not come quickly for the Cruz Cardinals.
“I started off with the bad news bears,” Jones said, admitting that the Cardinals had been the victims of several blowouts early in the season, “but now I’ve got a competitive team.”
Ludlow isn’t your typical little league environment. The neighborhood is a little tougher. The crowds are a little more outspoken. When games go badly for the home team here, the umpire should probably think about leaving the premises quickly.
“We had a couple of ugly nights,” McKeown said, recalling several instances early in the season when the crowd responded to what
they saw as unfair umpiring with some carefully chosen verbal treatment.
But for all its rough edges, Ludlow is beginning to support its team with a passion that both Jones and McKeown say is pivotal to success. Each week more parents and friends come out to support the players as they face teams from other recreation centers in the area.
“We can’t succeed without it [parental support],” McKeown said.
Now the team is beginning to get that support, and their coaches say that it is having a direct impact on the team’s performance on the field, making them more competitive and causing them to have more fun.
Involved parents say they help out with the team because they understand the benefits of keeping their children involved with positive activities like baseball that teaches players important values like teamwork and sportsmanship while steering them away from darker paths.
“I volunteer because we have to keep the kids off the streets. That’s what is important,” said team parent Shyvonne Natson.
It’s a common sentiment among parents here. Most have seen firsthand how young lives can be swallowed by the streets, the worst fear of parents in troubled urban communities..
But when the kids of Ludlow take the field in their scarlet uniforms, there is hope that something special is taking root here. Parents expressed optimism that the baseball team is only the first of a wide range of activities to be offered at Cruz.
But for now, Cruz’s leaders are focusing their efforts on the game at hand.
“I just want to do the best job we can with baseball,” McKeown said. While there has been a significant improvement of late in both team performance and community support, both coaches know their work is far from done.
“I feel good about the whole thing, but we have a long way to go,” McKeown said. “This needs to be a growth project.”
There are still the expected minor problems. Sometimes the players don’t get along. Sometimes an angry group of parents curse out an umpire. Sometimes a player sucker punches a teammate and gets kicked off the team.
But the kids of Ludlow are playing baseball. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. But regardless of the game’s outcome, the Cardinals’ coach hopes his team’s players learn something every time they take the field.
“I want them to learn from their defeats as well as their triumphs,” Jones said.
With plenty of baseball still ahead, it appears they will get their chance.