Washington Park has solid history with the game of baseball, and unlike many other city parks it continues to attract a steady flow of serious ballplayers to its ball fields.
Washington Park has solid history with the game of baseball, and unlike many other city parks it continues to attract a steady flow of serious ballplayers to its ball fields. This summer the Zapata and Intergenerational baseball leagues, under the direction of the Kirby Puckett Boys Club Inc., have competed in the park. Many of the players in Zapata have an impressive baseball resume that spans decades, while others in the Intergenerational League are still honing their skills. Playing baseball allows men from different eras to come together and learn more about the sport and each other, said Leroy Bowers, director of Intergenerational Baseball and manager of the Marlins. “Intergenerational is an important concept, and we go from age 17- to 77,” Bowers said. “Baseball helps bridge the generation gap between the guys, and the baseball field is somewhere we can all meet on common ground.” Bowers has played baseball on the South Side and in Washington Park for over thirty years. He is especially proud of the time period in the mid and late 1970’s when baseball flourished in the Black community, and was much more popular than it is today. Bowers, and the baseball enthusiasts in Washington Park are firm in their belief that baseball is a great sport – especially for character building. “Baseball gives young men and ladies a professional attitude that’s less cocky than the attitude in basketball and football,” Bowers said. “The fundamentals of baseball gives you the discipline to be a man,” said Zapata manager and player Shaun Hardison. Hardison has played baseball for over twenty years on the South Side. He’s played in the Zapata league for about ten years, and the primarily Hispanic league has given him a chance to play baseball in a competitive league as interest waned in the African American community. But Hardison, and other coaches and players in Zapata want to start their own league next year. It’s something that needs to be done to keep the legacy of baseball in good hands. “We’re trying to build it back up to where it used to be and keep kids off the street,” Hardison said. Ruben Santacruz, a baseball coach at Kenwood high school, spends a good deal of time teaching the game to players in Washington Park. He took note of the game’s dramatic drop in popularity compared to other sports. “At one time African Americans played the game of baseball, and played it well, but after a while they left it and started playing basketball and football. African American kids used to play this game and they should still play this game,” Santacruz said. Playing the game of baseball can give a young man, or young lady, in the case of Intergenerational fast pitch softball, a big boost in their overall development, said Bowers. He points out that Intergenerational league players have done exceptionally well in school and socially. “The girls that have played have been beautiful. We have a 100 percent high school graduation rate. We didn’t see any of those girls drop out of school or get pregnant,” Bowers said. Several young men in the intergenerational league and Zapata have also received athletic scholarships to college, and parlaying baseball talent into success in the classroom is a big part of the baseball philosophy in the park. “Our number one thing is use baseball, don’t let it use you,” Santacruz said. “Use the sport to graduate from college – get a degree and then get a career.” League organizers and players would also like to see more cross-town competition on the baseball field. “We want more teams from the West Side,” said Rickey Grant, who plays in Zapata and coaches in Lawndale on the West Side. “I just want to make the new league competitive.” The players in Washington Park baseball display a passion for the game in the way they play on the field. They go for the win with everything they have, and enjoy themselves while doing it. “I just love the game and I just want inner city kids to play more baseball and stay off the streets,” Grant said. “I really love the game.” Ziff Sistrunk, who founded the Kirby Puckett League several years ago in honor of the late Major League Baseball All-Star and Chicago native is also eager to see baseball used as a tool to help in violence prevention and to keep kids involved in something constructive during the summer months, concept he thinks Puckett would have appreciated. “We play from the time school is out, until school is back in,” Sistrunk said. “Kirby Puckett’s dream is being carried out by this league, and his legacy lives on with the youth in Washington Park.” Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender