Building basepaths on the South Side

Written By BY RICK MORRISSEY | @MorrisseyCST Posted: 06/23/2014, 11:38am
Array Camp participants, from a mix of South Side neighborhoods, take turns in the batting cage. The facility opened in January, funded by donations.  |  Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Not far from the White Sox’ ballpark, maybe the combined distance of several Jose Abreu home runs, is a vast baseball desert.

Drive over the Dan Ryan Expressway, head south and behold a great sport dying of thirst. African-American kids aren’t playing baseball. That’s not breaking news. It’s just sad, ongoing news.

But if you look closely enough at a nondescript storefront at 36th and State streets, you’ll see a flower pushing up through that desert. Better yet, listen. Stand outside the building in Bronzeville, and you’ll hear the lovely sound of bats making contact with baseballs, of coaches barking instructions, of 11- and 12-year-old boys working on being ballplayers and on being kids.

This is B.I.G. Baseball Academy, the dream of Keronn Walker, a former minor-league catcher in the Kansas City Royals’ farm system who wants to see the game grow where it has almost been abandoned.

‘‘Baseball is more than a sport,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s our national pastime. It’s something that’s passed down from generation to generation, which is another reason that the game is declining in our community. A lot of people are introduced to the game by their dad, and when the dad is gone, the game is gone.

‘‘It’s just way bigger than baseball. It requires so much teamwork, so much attention span. It’s full of failure. To me, it’s the sport that’s closest to life, where you’re not going to do well every day, and you’ve got to get over it and get back out there. The kids are learning that through baseball.’’

The beauty of B.I.G., which stands for Best Instruction Guaranteed, is that it brings together kids from poorer sections of the city and wealthier kids from the Near South Side. Besides this place, there are few, if any, batting cages or baseball academies south of Roosevelt Road. B.I.G. throws the players together, and baseball makes them realize they aren’t so different. That is no small thing in a violent, segregated city.

As of Opening Day, only 8.3  percent of the players in Major League Baseball were African-American, compared with 19 percent in 1986. There is a lot of work to do. But B.I.G. is one answer — teaching the game at the grassroots level to children as young as 5. The academy, a nonprofit, gives financial assistance to players whose families otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Basketball is a tough opponent. The Great Lie of hoops in the inner city makes kids think they’re headed for the NBA, when, in fact, they most certainly are not.

Walker, 35, grew up in Kenwood, went to De La Salle and played college ball at Bluefield College, an NAIA school in Virginia. The Royals took him in the 43rd round of the 1999 draft. He spent two years in their organization, then played four seasons with independent teams. When his playing career ended, he coached high school baseball at the University of Chicago Lab School. But his heart was in the streets of the South Side, with kids who needed help and coaching, just as he did growing up.

He started the program in 2006, but without a permanent place to call his own. B.I.G. is funded, in part, by donations from people who see the bigger purpose to what Walker is doing. Many of those people are parents of players he coached at the Lab School. Rawlings has helped. The Royals send him used baseballs every year.

B.I.G. sponsors two teams but has no home field. The academy’s 11-year-old all-star team won a tournament near the Wisconsin Dells recently. It was the first time some of the kids had been out of the city. If there were more money coming in, there would be more players, more coaches, more teams and more trips to tournaments. Walker could spread the gospel of baseball farther and wider.

‘‘I see 20 kids in here right now,’’ he said, looking at the facility’s three batting cages. ‘‘I wish there were 200.’’

One of those 20 is Lee Hodges  III, a 12-year-old from Hyde Park who is hoping to play baseball in high school. The baseball academy is a place to go when it’s 10 degrees outside in February. It’s also a place to escape the other elements.

‘‘There’s a lot of crime and a lot of gun violence where I’m from,’’ he said. ‘‘My parents like for me to play baseball because it keeps me active, and it keeps me out of trouble. I’m getting to an older age, so gangs will try to encourage me to be in a gang with them, but my parents just want me to keep playing sports.’’

The B.I.G. facility opened in January. Walker had hoped to move into a bigger space, but he didn’t have enough funding. He has come to the realization that this is enough, that this is home. He can hear it in the kids’ excited voices. It’s a beautiful sound.

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