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The Hartford He Came Home To Was A Different City

Susan Campbell

April 06, 2008

A cold rain shrouds the baseball fields in the city park. A man hunched into his coat walks by, followed by a billowing plastic bag that looks tethered to him, though it's not.

You wouldn't think so to look at it, but here on the quiet baseball fields of Hyland Park lies part of the answer to the question of Hartford.

Ask anyone who grew up in the capital city. In years past, a kid could rotate from park to park and occupy him- or herself with organized activities for hours. My husband, who grew up a few blocks west of Hyland, talks about the free band instruments the schools used to hand out. You could take home a trumpet or a tuba, and the school band teacher would give you lessons, free. (Ask my husband about his short-lived career playing the accordion. He swears he can still play.) There was basketball, baseball. Batchelder School (his alma mater) hosted long and intense kickball games.

Today? Not so much. A handful of dedicated adults still run some programs, but there's not nearly enough to keep kids occupied.

Enter Benjamin Cruse, a 25-year-old Hartford native who looks through the mist and sees uniforms, kids at play and a too-long-dormant city awakening to its own potential. With the help of friends like Brian Gallagher, a teacher at Classical Magnet, Cruse, Leadership Greater Hartford's director of youth services, is bringing Little League back to the South End after it folded a few years ago.

Cruse remembers all the sports he played as a boy growing up in the West End. He went to Noah Webster, Kingswood-Oxford (where he is now the youngest member of the board of trustees), then on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in history and political science and received one of the school's five merit awards for graduating seniors. From there, he moved to southern Paraguay to start and run a school for 950 underprivileged kids in Tobati.

When he recently returned to his hometown, he realized Hartford "wasn't the same as I left it." Parks were mausoleums. Kids wandered around with nothing to do.

He knows there's no shortage of kids who want to play. Cruse and others just finished running a Saturday basketball program in the West End. They passed out fliers at Noah Webster. They expected 100 kids, tops; they got three times that. The program ran 12 weeks, and at the trophy ceremony, the school's gym was packed with kids and parents.

But those parents don't want to run the programs. They'll participate, but they need a firebrand like Cruse to get things going. Three men formerly involved with Little League in the South End have offered to help, and Cruse is putting out a call for coaches.

His career choice is a little ironic because Cruse thought he would join the diplomatic corps and see the world, but he came home to Hartford knowing that he could be happy, and that he could make a difference here, just as he did in Paraguay. He figures rightly that if you give kids an outlet for success even success at something as innocuous as swinging a golf club or fielding a grounder a kid can build on that. And later, that kid will reach back and pull more kids forward, and one day we'll have a whole city of Benjamin Cruses.

We can keep wringing our hands over the sorry state of our capital city, but there are better uses for hands, like tossing a ball to a kid.

Cruse has some funding the Knox Foundation just agreed to sponsor two teams but he needs more, and he needs adults willing to help. Registration and tryouts are from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday at Hyland Park.

Go, South Side Sluggers!

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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