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Liberty City example of inner-city programs shaped by feminine touch

Shirley Presley just wanted to find an afternoon activity for her children 25 years ago. She eventually settled on a Little League program in Liberty City’s Charles Hadley Park, unaware of how the program would affect her children and how her family would come to shape the organization.

Five-year-old William Lamb joined first, but his younger sister Kelley showed up at the park every day too. She wanted to play, and eventually the coach let her become the league’s first female player.

William is now serving in the U.S. Army after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His mother credits the discipline he learned in Little League with helping him succeed in his career.

Kelley is back at Hadley Park. After playing baseball with the boys, she transitioned to softball in high school, and went on to earn a college degree in filmmaking. She got homesick though, and decided to return and give back.

Now 28, she is the commissioner of the Little League program in Liberty City. Her mother has been a coach there for 20 years.

A thousand miles and two decades away, a similar small cascade of events started when a Philadelphia coach noticed 7-year-old Mo’ne Davis throwing a football in the park. Now she is a 13-year-old Sports Illustrated cover athlete after becoming the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series, guiding her team to the U.S. semifinals.

Also making it to this year’s Little League World Series, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League squad became the first from an underserved area — as identified by Little League International — to reach the stage in more than 10 years. They will play for the Little League World Series championship against South Korea at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Little League ESPN aired for the past two weeks played a world away from the one Lamb runs. You will not find the packed stands, piles of fresh equipment and goofy mascots of South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, at Hadley Park.

Still, the two worlds spin to a similar rhythm. Baseball’s cosmic patterns guide both, or at least they used to. Changes are coming.

THE CYCLE

Baseball is a game of cycles. Players round the bases, but the recurrent nature of the sport is larger than that too. Let Justo Jay explain it. He’s a coach at Overtown’s Gibson Park program and the father of Major League Baseball player Jon Jay.

“Baseball is a game that’s played with your father,” he said. “It’s not that complicated. You have to toss the ball all the time.”

“Endless Summer” is a cliché used to describe the joyful time spent on the diamond. But really it is a continuous cycle of summers that only looks endless. It’s a cycle of sons becoming fathers with sons, with the diamond always there.

Many in Liberty City do not know that cycle, though. Some kids do not have active fathers. Others do not have baseball. Instead, they know another cycle.

Shanton Crummie, now a coach in Overtown, grew up in that other cycle. It starts with leaving the diamond on the park for the diamond of sidewalk corners, he explained.

“I was on the street selling drugs, getting into whatever,” he said. “People around me were going to jail, getting killed.”

Early parenthood often fuels the cycle, and Crummie’s oldest child is only 14 years younger than him. But Crummie took his six kids to the park to protect them from the cycle. They all went on to graduate high school.

Crummie said the organization has helped parents as much as children.

“Not only am I saving their lives but they are saving my life,” he said. “That’s why I’ve poured my heart into it.”

A new cycle is developing, sparked by one man’s work.

In the beginning, there was Sam Johnson. He had been the father of the Hadley Park baseball team going back to the 1980s and was a stand-in father for many of his players.

When he died in December 2011, some worried that his work with the baseball program might come undone.

“I thought, personally, it might fall apart,” coach Alfonso Gomez said.

Gomez grew up in a mobile-home park on Northwest 36th Street, where Johnson would pick him and others up for either school or practice.

“He was like a father figure for me,” Gomez said. “I had to step up to the plate and try to carry on what he worked so hard on.”

Now, Gomez hosts two or three kids at his house each weekend during the season.

Kelley Lamb also was motivated by Johnson’s passing.

“I just think, ‘Where would I be if I didn’t have that program?’ ” she said. “Where would the kids be if they didn’t have Coach Sam?”

Lamb slowly took on more responsibilities with the organization after Johnson’s death and served as commissioner for the first time this year. She said she wants to get the program back where it was under its founder, but added, “I know Coach Sam was on a whole nother level.”

Even with Lamb, Gomez and others dedicating themselves to preserving Johnson’s goals, the same central challenge persists.

“[People are saying,] ‘Come on, you want to buy something? You want to roll something up? Let’s go get this gun.’ At every park that’s what we battle with,” Lamb said.

ON THE SAME TEAM

In the past few years, Little League International’s Urban Initiative Program has helped Liberty City in that fight. The program provides some grants, but mainly works to get volunteers trained and connect leagues in similar situations. It also has hosted a Florida tournament, fully funding the trip for Miami players.

“That was a great experience for the kids,” Lamb said. “Just to see the looks on their faces, their amazement.”

Many of the children had not left Miami or stayed in a hotel before, Lamb added.

Demiko Ervin, who directs the Urban Initiative Program, said his mission is to get the nearly 200 leagues he works with, including the Jackie Robinson West league in Chicago, to the point where they no longer need him. He would like to see them break out of the cycle of struggles.

“I try to look at it as my goal is to put myself out of a job,” Ervin said. “I want to get all the leagues to the point where they are self-sufficient.”

“But that’s never really going to happen,” he added.

Tropical Chevrolet in Miami helped the league this year, too. For years, sales manager Reubin Williams has donated equipment to local leagues through a national General Motors program, but he often noticed that the equipment was not fully appreciated.

Williams was born in Liberty City, so he decided to reach out to the league there this time around.

The Miami Marlins’ RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program is involved in the same fight.

Hundreds of kids play on teams across the city, and an All-Star collection of players 15 years old or younger won this year’s RBI national championship in Texas.

That said, developing major-league talent is a secondary goal to creating “major-league citizens” for Juan Garciga, who runs it from within the Marlins organization. He helps set up scholarship opportunities and career workshops for players.

Even with all of the allies, Justo Jay says both Lamb and Overtown Optimist Club executive director Emmanuel Washington are still “swimming against the tide.”

For the past two years, Overtown has been unable to fund an end-of-year banquet for its youngest players. Coach Connie Caffey still struggles to tell her 4-, 5- and 6-year-old players that they will not get any trophies this year, even though the season has been over for months.

They keep asking.

PLAYING TO WIN

Despite continuing issues, coaches in Overtown and Liberty City harbor grand visions for the future.

Gomez would like to take some players back to his home country of Nicaragua for an international game. Crummie aspires to see an All-Star team from the inner city take on more affluent suburbs and even make the Little League World Series one day.

Lamb wants a similar future. She says watching kids from Philadelphia and Chicago make it to the world stage has pushed her to work harder for her kids.

“I do not want to be just a local sensation,” she said.

Women will remain vital to the effort.

Baseball is a male-dominated sport, making Davis’ run in the LLWS a spectacle, but women dominate behind the scenes. Mothers outnumber fathers on game days, Lamb said, organizing to make sure there is food for the kids after the game.

Still, she said her gender hinders her management efforts.

At a recent league meeting, she walked in to curious looks from the male attendees.

“People judge a book by its cover, saying ‘OK, you look like this, you shouldn’t know about this,’ ” she said. “They see me as a female and maybe they don’t think I can get the job done and the respect isn’t there, but I’m not there for those people. I’m there for the kids.”

Gomez said Lamb has overcome the stigma and become a good role model for both girls and boys.

Since Kelley played as a kid, many other girls have come through the program, though Liberty City did not have any in the competitive leagues this year.

Still, one girl did catch Kelley’s eye this year: Overtown’s Janay Quinn. The 11-year-old helped gather friends and classmates to make sure there even would be a team at that level, and went on to pitch for the squad. Crummie said she had one of the best arms on the team, and there were not any issues with her playing.

With her and many of her teammates returning next season, Crummie is excited about the team’s future.

Quinn could be the next Mo’ne Davis or the next Kelley Lamb. She’s change and repetition — another girl in a new cycle.

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