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Opening Day: Cubs/LISC Help Ripken Foundation Create 'Freedom Field' in Marquette Park

The new Freedom Field in Marquette Park on Chicago's Southwest Side is a welcome amenity for local schools, residents and anyone else looking for a good artificial turf surface on which to play baseball, soccer and other sports.

Photo by Gordon Walek

“Their faces just lit up.”

Jessica Reisner, principal at Tarkington Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, knows her kids. So when they charged onto the synthetic turf playing field newly installed along southern edge of sprawling Marquette Park – shouting for joy, wearing their fresh-out-of-the-box Freedom Field tee shirts – she couldn’t help gushing a bit herself.

“We’re all so excited,” Reisner explained, “to have a fun, safe and clean place to play.”

That sentiment echoed, as well, inside the ceremonial tent set up in one corner of the combo baseball/soccer venue. It even seemed like executives gathered there on Sept. 29 to mark completion of the baseball/soccer venue each had something to celebrate beside the obvious fruit of working together.

The hosting Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, which contributed to the project’s $800,000 cost, was celebrating Freedom Field as its 50th “youth development park” since the Foundation began the effort five years ago.

“Baseball is magic,” declared Cal Ripken, Jr., the ex-Baltimore Oriole Hall-of-Famer who helped launch the charity in memory of his father, the late Cal Ripken, Sr., the former Orioles manager. “The biggest kid often gets first in line to hit,” said Ripken, who broke the major league record by playing in 2,131 consecutive games. “But often it’s the little ones who do the best.”

Cub pride

Representatives of Cubs Charities also had a special glow, what with the team completing a 97-win season, winning the “wild card” game, and moving on to the National League Divisional Series. Not bad for just the fifth year of a top-to-bottom rebuilding effort by the owning Ricketts family. Cubs executives say they’re just as proud, though, of the performance of Cubs Charities, and especially its Diamond Project, which made a challenge grant toward creation of Freedom Field.

“Our goal,” said Cubs Charities Chair Laura Ricketts in announcing that first round of eight Diamond grants totaling nearly a half million dollars, “is to ensure that all Chicago youth have the opportunity to pursue their love of baseball.”

Keri Blackwell, left, LISC Chicago's deputy director, connected Cubs Charities with the Ripken Foundation and its principal donor, Under Armour sportswear, to come up with the money to build the field. Cal Ripken, Jr., center, was on hand to cut the opening day ribbon.

Taking risks

The biggest smile under the tent, though, likely belonged to Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director. All she did to make it all happen was orchestrate the marriage between Cubs Charities and the Ripken Foundation and its principal donor, Under Armour sportswear, as well as its steady construction contractor Fields, Inc.

The Freedom Field project was especially satisfying, Blackwell acknowledged, because the Chicago Lawn neighborhood did not have as strong a youth sports infrastructure – such as an established Little League affiliate – that has helped speed the grant application process in other neighborhoods.

“This one shows we have to be open to taking risks and to providing opportunities where few exist,” said Blackwell.

Doubtless Blackwell was pleased, too, that the Cubs Charities Diamond Project, with technical assistance from LISC Chicago, would soon announce winners of its second round of grants. That’s 10 additional youth baseball facilities across the city receiving grants that, once again, total nearly a half million.

But for sheer joy and historic significance, it will be hard to top Freedom Field.

The Freedom Field moniker isn't an abstraction. It's grounded in the past, as one of several memorial plaques at the site indicate.

MLK legacy

Why historic? Because in August of 1966 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march through Marquette Park as part of what was called the Chicago Freedom Movement. His march against housing segregation was met with jeers and rock-throwing, yet it helped convince City Hall to reach a Summit Agreement that promised significant open housing reforms.

“It is our great hope,” said Ripken Foundation President Steve Salem on behalf of everyone involved in Freedom Field, “that in some small way we can help carry out Dr. King’s vision. These ballparks transform communities. Relationships develop. And, in time, the community changes.”  

Out on the field, meanwhile, Ryan Hoskins and Joshua Rodriguez, both 8th graders at Tarkington Elementary, weren’t waiting. Hoskins is a football/basketball guy who says he’ll use Freedom Field for wind sprints and conditioning. Rodriguez is a baseball right-fielder and already was practicing pivots and quick-starts in pursuit of imaginary fly balls. He liked that the bases and home plate are painted on the turf “so we don’t have to set up anything.”

“This is a really big deal for this neighborhood,” said David McDowell, an organizer there to represent the LISC-affiliated Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). “Stuff like this lets kids know somebody cares.”

Not only cares, he might have added, but in true LISC fashion is capable of forging the sustainable partnerships needed to get things done.

More information:

Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago,

Jennifer Dedes-Nowak, Cubs Charities,

Posted in Placemaking, Chicago Lawn


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