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Cubs Charities Diamond Project a Home Run for Neighborhood Baseball

Sean Ortiz has big plans for Davis Square Park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Sean Ortiz, the superintendent at Davis Square Park, plans to apply the tricks of the groundskeeper trade he learned at Wrigley Field to his park in in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Gordon Walek

Now that he’s been blessed by the Chicago Cubs with new equipage and some fresh ideas on how to use it, the park superintendent figures they’ll double the number of boys and girls playing organized baseball and softball there.

“This is a major big deal for our neighborhood,” said Ortiz, looking a bit wide-eyed as he stood on the lush turf near home plate at historic Wrigley Field.

Ortiz was among some 50 recreational managers and community leaders invited to the ballpark Sept. 25, the day after the Cubs final home game of 2014, to get professional advice on turf and clay grooming at a field maintenance clinic.

The biggest deal, he explained, is that Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council is among eight community organizations that are sharing $331,000 in grants awarded by Cubs Charities Diamond Project. LISC Chicago helped the Cubs develop a framework for the program, market the opportunity and select the eight applicants that best fit the project’s goals.

The winners are a mix of organizations that LISC knows well through long-standing work together and groups that are establishing a new partnership with LISC. They were recognized at a pre-game ceremony prior to the Cubs-Dodgers game Sept. 18. Some 18 kids and coaches got the thrill of walking on to a major league infield and acknowledging fan applause.

“Our mission with the Diamond Project,” explained Laura Ricketts, chair of Cubs Charities, “is to address the shortage of clean, safe and accessible baseball fields in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods… so all Chicago youth have an opportunity to pursue their love of baseball.”

Roger Baird, left, Wrigley Field's head groundskeeper, and assistant Justin Spillman, discussed the finer points of turf maintenance with Diamond Project grantees.

Gordon Walek

Indoors & outdoors

Some of the groups are using their grants to purchase indoor equipment such as pitching machines, sliding mats and motorized, drop-down net batting cages. Last winter’s arctic grip, which didn’t let go until May, convinced many youth baseball leaders they need safe indoor practice areas.

Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), for instance, is investing indoor training amenities in five of its high schools and 23 elementary schools spanning 16 Chicago neighborhoods.

Others will use their grant for the fields outside. General field and stadium support for Chatham’s South Side Little League program includes benches, dugouts, resurfacing the infields and extending one field.

The twin diamonds at Davis Park in Back of the Yards are about to get real clay pitchers’ mounds, two sets of bases, four sets of ADA accessible bleachers, a set of field grooming tools and, most exciting of all for the kids, electric scoreboards.

Tom Krier, right,  of Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club in the North Center neighborhood, examines clay mix recommended by Brandon Van Landuyt.

John McCarron

Typical of most everything LISC does, the hardware comes with hands-on technical assistance. The end-of-season clinic at Wrigley Field, sponsored by Cubs Charities and Major League Baseball’s Baseball Tomorrow Fund, was offered for the first time and open to Diamond Project applicants and other long-time partners of Cubs Charities.

Jennifer Dedes Nowak, manager of Cubs Charities, guided the clinic’s “students” to their box seats on the home side of the Cubs dugout; whereupon Connie Falcone, director of community affairs for the Cubs, introduced Head Groundskeeper Roger Baird and assistant Justin Spillman.

Their presentation ranged from how – and how often – to fertilize and aerate the turf to how best fill in the potholes that inevitably develop in the batters’ box and pitchers’ mound. Students then toured the infield, where equipment vendors demonstrated products ranging from puddle-drying clay mixtures to gleaming Toro and John Deere rider mowers.

The latter might not fit in a park or school budget, Baird acknowledged, but “for $3 worth of nails and plywood you can make a spike-board like ours” to drag the infield clay.

JRW an inspiration

As they examined the gear, several coaches and park supervisors mentioned the boost that youth baseball in Chicago recently got from the success of the U.S. champion Jackie Robinson West Little Leaguers.

“Shows you what can be accomplished with the right adult mentoring and support,” said Tom Krier, executive director of the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, whose teams play at Revere Park in the North Center neighborhood.

Their Diamond Project grant will equip an indoor baseball training center in the club’s gym, complete with a drop-down batting net, pitching machines, tees and a small library of instructional books and videos.

Krier said NBGC has 700 kids involved in their “building better men and women” programs, a majority in the kindergarten to fifth-grade age group, many of whom will be drawn to that batting cage because “if you build it, they will come.”

Diamond Project grantees learn about the field maintenance products that give the Friendly Confines such a refined and dignified appearance.

Gordon Walek

All of which fits squarely into LISC Chicago’s overall strategy to point kids toward positive, healthful, self-affirming activities – and away from the negative sort of things that can attract idle hands and minds.

“These baseball fields and facilities are more than just places to practice,” said Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director. “They’re bringing positive change for youth, for neighborhoods and for the city of Chicago as a whole.”

But first there must be careful planning and attention to the administrative details. While coaches and facility managers inspected rider mowers and clay mixtures, Keri Blackwell, LISC deputy director, was also quietly working the infield, going over purchase and installation information with park and school officials.

“This is the first year for the Cubs Charities Diamond Project,” Blackwell said, “but if we execute, if we make it a model public-private partnership, I don’t think it will be the last.”

Posted in Placemaking, Albany Park, Back of the Yards

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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