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Youth Baseball League In Hartford Could Strike Out

Money Is Missing; Equipment Has Been Auctioned Off

Rick Green

March 04, 2011

A vibrant baseball league for kids is one of those essential measures of a community's health.

Which is why it's heartbreaking to hear that Hartford's Roberto Clemente Baseball League has fallen on hard times and may not even have a season this year, of all years.

New league President Efrain Bracero told me that he's trying to put the pieces back together after taking over in February and discovering the league was tens of thousands of dollars in debt. A savings account was emptied. Equipment kept in a storage locker was auctioned off after nobody paid the bill. There is no money to buy uniforms, bats or balls, let alone to hire umpires.

"We lost $5,000 worth of equipment. Everything for the kids we lost all of it," Bracero said.

More than $30,000 is missing, he said. It costs another $40,000 to run the league for a year. A police investigation is underway.

But Bracero, a man who understands the sublime beauty of kids playing baseball in a city park on a June evening, still believes.

No, this isn't as urgent as raising mastery test scores or as civically important as knocking down the Butt-Ugly Building. It won't bring back the Whalers, lower taxes or give mom or dad a job. What we have is a summer baseball league for 500 Hartford children that's in danger of falling apart.

This is the glue that, two or three times a week, can help stick life together when everything else seems to be unraveling. If there's a more compelling crisis city kids face that can actually be solved, I haven't heard about it.

"I am born and raised in Hartford. I know firsthand what can happen, the positive and the negative,'' said Bracero, who is 30 and works in a warehouse. "It is just baseball, but we stress the fact that school comes first."

"Being a summer league, it gives the kids something to do instead of running around. We keep them busy right to the first week of school,'' he said.

The league, which is independent and sponsors baseball teams for children from age 5 through 16, has for the last few years been a bright light amid the sad decline of baseball in Hartford, even as youth leagues flourish in the suburbs.

Christie Heil, a Newington resident active in a city softball league, heard about the struggling Roberto Clemente program through Facebook. She is trying to organize fundraisers to pay for new equipment.

"The kids should be playing,'' said Heil. "I can't imagine these children not having the opportunity."

Neither can Benjamin Cruse, founder of the Mayor Mike Peters Little League in the city, which plays during the spring. He told me there's an overwhelming demand for baseball in Hartford, but programs need to be organized and run by responsible adults.

"Parents want their kids to be involved in anything sports-related,'' Cruse said. "If you ask people around the city what there is for kids to do in the summer, they will scratch their heads. We need things like this. "

Right now, Bracero is scrambling with the hope that there still can be an opening day come June. In a recent fundraising letter, he wrote that "due to the misappropriation of funds for the years 2009 and 2010 we will not be able to hold a 2011 season We are trying our best."

In Hartford, baseball is "a getaway'' for kids, he explained to me. "It was pretty much my getaway. I used it as my escape."

"My main goal is for these kids to have a successful season this year,'' Bracero said. "If I give up, how does that make me look? When things get hard, you don't turn around and walk away."

If you agree, give Bracero a hand. Opening day is in June.

For more information about the Roberto Clemente League, look for it on Facebook or contact Bracero at 860-209-7342. Registration for the upcoming season begins this Saturday morning at 10 at Pope Park in Hartford.

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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