One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, parents and organizers of the North End Little League in Hartford were proudly set to host teams from the region at the fields located next to Simpson Waverly School.
It was their city, their field, their kids in their Norman Rockwell moment.
That's apparently too much to ask for in Hartford.
Even though Hartford and suburban teams arrived ready to play, chronically poor field conditions forced the games to be postponed and moved to — where else? — the suburbs, where as children must learn, life is more equal.
Talk about a dismal real-life lesson.
The visitors were from towns around Hartford — where residents watch and read about the endless parade of shootings, muggings and hit-and-run accidents in the "toxic" city. Just this past weekend, a 15-year-old boy was shot to death and another was arrested walking around with a rifle.
But this was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill morning of kids and baseball — except maybe that kids, coaches and parents might gain some new understanding of each other.
Instead, coaches from suburban towns — accustomed to smooth green outfields, base paths without rocks and infields without pools of standing water — walked on to the ball fields and immediately worried that their players might be injured.
"They walked out and looked at the field and said we won't play," league President Elliot Birt told me. "We've got rocks on the field and dips and duffs. You could walk in the outfield and step in a hole."
I stopped by the fields one recent Saturday to see for myself. I know the condition of youth league fields is one of those endless topics of complaint in all communities because I'm one of the whiners myself. If you are a parent or a coach, you've got to be prepared to pitch in and work on the field.
But I don't see why a city like Hartford can't get the basics done.
When I visited, the minor league team from Hartford was playing Rocky Hill on the one usable field. Since the tournament games had to be moved, city workers have made some improvements, but the fields remain in rough shape. The senior league diamond, for example, resembles a farmer's hay field.
"Look at this. This is an embarrassment," league Commissioner Lou Kelly said as we walked about. "We can't play because they don't maintain the fields."
He told me about the years of arguing with city hall about taking care of the fields and how what he and a handful of others are doing has a lot less to do with baseball than some of the more important things in life.
"We talk about what is their responsibility to their community and their parents and help them build the character they need to build," Kelly told me.
I ran into Sharika Forde, whose baseball-crazy sons already know the score.
"They know our fields look terrible compared to the other fields we go and play on," she said.
Bill Howard, who supervises Little League in Greater Hartford, told me that he'd "like to disprove the myth that African American kids don't play baseball."
Little League "can save 40 or 50 kids and keep them off the street for six or seven weeks where they have some place to go," Howard said. "But there has got to be a lot more support from the city itself and parents within the city."
When I hear back from Mayor Perez's office, I'm sure there will be good and valid reasons why Hartford doesn't have the time or money to make sure a bunch of 10- and 11-year-olds don't play on an unsafe field. There are more important matters, like teenagers with guns and teenagers getting shot to death.
The problem is nothing will change for the better until we start getting small things right. Like Little League fields.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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