Houses built after World War II in the 1950s surrounded the vacant land in my Kentucky neighborhood. At the end of every other street, kids built their own ball fields – no parents were involved. Some kid borrowed his dad’s lawnmower and we scratched out foul lines and played ball. We learned from each other, playing ball morning to night during the summers. The most trouble I got into was when a great aunt would pass by the field on the way to a relative’s and I wouldn’t acknowledge her from a distance. Then I would hear about it from my mother.
Today playing baseball has risen to a new level. Kids only play where adults have organized their “playtime” and at 8 years-old, they’re “supposed” to “play” 55 games for the beloved travel team on a manicured field. That’s the kids in the suburbs. Unfortunately kids in the urban areas don’t have the fields to play on and where they may exist, violence is always around the corner.
The number of kids of color playing baseball in our country has dropped to an all-time low. Football and basketball are the dominant sports for those fortunate enough to stay away from gangs. I’m told gangs start recruiting as early as 8 years-old. And even if they aren’t with a gang, our urban areas are treacherous for kids to maneuver. And in more recent years the relation of cops and kids has deteriorated, remember Ferguson and Baltimore.
Major League Baseball and Little League Baseball are very much aware of this trend. Both have initiatives to attract African-Americans and Latinos in our country to play baseball. And they have built some ballparks in a first step toward accomplishing these goals. But there are not enough and they have left out an important player: the men and women who service our urban areas: police, fire, rescue, and other service responders.
Think about this: what if starting at 6 years-old, kids and service providers built ball fields together in the urban areas like we did when we were kids? Nothing fancy! With all the vacant lots in the cities where foreclosed and abandoned houses are torn down, we could build probably 60 fields in Cleveland alone. And with that, these kids who lack family role models can get to know local cops, they’ll have something to do in the summer, something other than joining gangs. And when that 6 year-old is 16 and walking down 105th street, officer Mack will recognize him and say: “Hi, how are things going in high school. And which colleges are you looking at?” Think about it. It worked decades ago, and it can work again today.
- Ron Schmidt