When Benjamin Cruse returned to Hartford in 2006, he searched the South End for ballgames but found the fields quiet — no players, fans, not even a baseball ghost whispering through a backstop.
The area's two Little League chapters had folded and vanished. For the first time in five decades, spring had arrived in Hartford's backyard without the promise of a new season.
"The South End always had the kids," said Cruse, who is director of youth services for the nonprofit Leadership Greater Hartford. "The problem was finding money and coaches, getting enough parents to help out."
Cruse will lead more than 100 kids into Hyland Park today for Opening Day of the new Southside Little League that he organized with boyhood friend Brian Gallagher
Cruse and Gallagher, both 25, still must secure the league's future in Hartford's frayed South End.But they like their chances and timing.
Baseball is both a cultural fit in this heavily Latino area and a game with a changing national face. A third of today's major league players are Latino; in the minors, about half.
"Latino kids grow up watching baseball — it's their sport," Gallagher said. "Our goal is to get enough parents involved to take it over. A lot of these kids have never played organized sports, probably for a million reasons. One of them is opportunity."
As recently as 2000, the South End's two longtime Little League chapters still served about 600 youths. Two-thirds played in the McGinley-Crafa League that started in 1956; the rest in the smaller Gus Pace League that formed in 1971.
But by 2006, both chapters had gone under, losing the fight for money, leadership, adult volunteers and the ability to recruit kids.
Cruse and Gallagher played together as youngsters in the Rago-Coco Little League that's still active in the West End (numbers are down there, too, from 350 kids in 2000 to about 260 today).
They reconnected when Cruse, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, returned from Paraguay — where he helped start a school for underprivileged kids — to work for Leadership Greater Hartford. Gallagher, a physical education teacher at the Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School, is active in youth soccer and other city sports.
With the South End leagues gone, they approached leaders at Rago-Coco and Hartford Northend, the city's other Little League chapter, but found scant interest in expanding charters to encompass the South End.
So they decided to build from the ruins. They contacted former McGinley-Crafa and Gus Pace volunteers, players and coaches, and enlisted high school pals to coach teams and groom Hyland Park's unkempt fields.
They worked business contacts to find sponsors at $600 a team. One of Cruse's classmates at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford is Hartford city Councilman Matthew Ritter, whose family now sponsors the league's Ritter Red Sox. Mayor Eddie Perez's charity is behind the Rising Stars team. The Knox Parks Foundation sponsors the Hard Knox.
"The good thing about my situation — I'm a city guy who has suburban connections," Cruse said. "I can call some guys for some money and they'll say, 'Here's $600, no problem.' If a parent wants to do that, they may not have that many contacts. A parent may be able to coach a team but not raise the money."
About 150 kids ages 6-12 tried out in April for the league's eight teams in two divisions, coach-pitch and T-ball. Nobody was cut, and a third were refunded $25 entry fees to purchase baseball gloves.
Fifth-grader Irving Pagan displayed agoodfastball but the talent pool was too thin for a kid-pitch division. So Pagan settled for coach-pitch, joined by his 11-year-old twin sister, Kristal.
"They both love to play," said their mother, Damaris Ortiz, who rents in a Jefferson Street three-family with no yard. "I don't want them in the streets. Trust me, there are too many things going on. I try to keep them busy in the spring and summer.
One bright spot for Hartford youth baseball has been the emergence of the independent Roberto Clemente league, a summer program started in 2001 that opens play in late June, when the Little League season is over.
But with the more-structured South End Little Leagues in decline for so long, Cruse, a former first baseman and pitcher, has encountered a knowledge gap.
"I think there are enough parents," he said. "I'm just not sure they know enough about baseball — that when a ball is above your waist, you have to catch it with your glove up; that when you throw, you have to step and throw."
Parent and coach Melvin Ramos is one of those who stepped up — then stooped over during tryouts to give shoe-tying lessons.
"Toe to the top," he said. "We're playing sports now. We're not walking around."
Hartford's splintered Little League scene — New Haven has one charter, enabling organizers to pool resources and field a citywide team for state and regional playoffs — is less than ideal, said David Kaplan, who tried to organize a citywide baseball coalition in 2005.
"It's almost de facto segregation the way it has evolved," said Kaplan, who's active in the Greater Hartford Twilight League for young men college-age or older. "It's all here for the taking with the young kids, but somehow we don't maximize it."
So far, Cruse has managed to steer his way around the baseball politics. He learned a little about both sports from his father, Victor, a former deputy state housing commissioner who played college ball at Eastern Connecticut and was drafted by the Phillies.
"If no one teaches you at a young age, you're not going to like playing baseball," Cruse said. "It will be too frustrating. But if we can teach these kids simple things like how to catch and throw, then they can become ballplayers. They'll have something to build on
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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