Long before the first pitch was thrown, Dashawn Vickers had a pretty good idea how he wanted to spend the summer.
After playing for the Jackson Park Youth Baseball League in 2017 he wanted to get in on the action again.
“I just like the coaches and the style of how they teach us,” says Dashawn, 12. “I just like baseball. “This is one of the best things around Flint, so I decided to come back.”
Marking its one-year anniversary in Hardenbrook Park, also known as Jackson Park, at 310 East Jackson Ave., the league is entering a second season. With support from community volunteers and parents the program’s goal is to re-introduce local youth of color to a sport they’ve tended to overlook in recent years.
About 100 youth are expected to participate, joining several teams this season. Registration has been extended to June 9 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the park, located on Flint’s north end. The cost is $20. Coaches and other volunteers are needed.
“It’s showcasing the kids,” says Ronnie Russell, league president. “Where in Flint do you see 100 kids trying to play baseball?”
Born and raised on the north side, Russell remembers playing as a child in the 1960s when there were leagues “at all the baseball diamonds in Flint.” His team was sponsored by the former Max’s Barber Shop.
“Our goal was to play for the city championship,” he says. “Then you went into the state championships.”
But in later decades, baseball became less prominent among youth sports programs in many urban communities, trailing in popularity behind basketball and football. Willie Anthony, vice president of the league, cites the lack of sports programming in schools as one reason.
A friend of Russell’s since they were third-graders, Anthony joined last year’s effort to expose youth to the community athletics he and Russell remember from their childhood.
“The purpose was just to give kids the opportunity for recreation,” Anthony says.
Having adopted Hardenbrook Park nine years ago, he and a group of other residents organized the annual “Love Thy Neighbor” community gathering, a free event featuring giveaways and festivities for neighbors, held in August. Russell, Anthony and the other league coordinators decided the park was a great place to add youth baseball to its regular activities. Last season’s success led them to continue the program for ages 4 to 12, including t-ball for younger children, and open to boys and girls.
“They don’t know baseball, they don’t play baseball,” says Anthony.
Along with teaching fundamentals of the game, the league’s objective is to help prepare Flint’s children for future athletic opportunities in high school and college. Professional baseball, Anthony adds, generally pays more than pro basketball and football and presents less risk for injury than other sports.
“They’re having fun,” Anthony says. “It’s new to some of them, but they keep coming back.”
Apart from regular practices and games at Jackson Park, league participants have enjoyed support from Major League Baseball, including 60 free tickets to a recent Detroit Tigers game at Comerica Park in Detroit. The league assists Jackson Park Youth Baseball, under the Flint RBI program banner by admitting children to events and donating playing equipment through the Detroit Tigers Foundation, an affiliate of Ilitch Charities.
“The Detroit Tigers are proud to support the Flint RBI program and to invest in the Flint community through the game of baseball,” says Jordan Field, director of player relations and the Detroit Tigers Foundation.
Russell expresses gratitude for the Foundation’s assistance and that of World Baseball Outreach, United Way of Genesee County, and Ruth Mott Foundation.
“I’m a spiritual person, and when you pray on things they materialize,” he says. “I think if you’re committed and you stay, people invest.”
Also filling roles as coaches and groundskeepers, Russell and the other league officials invest time and energy toward maintaining Jackson Park.
“It’s one of the cleanest parks in the city,” Russell says. “We work at it because we believe in these kids. We want to give them the best of everything.”