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Clio, MI—The summer sun hung high over the American Legion field as the Jackson Park Youth League All-Star team faced off against the Foutch Baseball Club.
Both teams were there to win, but the youth league’s president, coaches, parents, and players had a different motive for being on the field that day. For them, winning comes second. Keeping the spirit of baseball alive in Flint comes first.
The JPYL was founded in 2016 by a group of Flint Northern High School alumni including Ronnie Russel, the league’s president. Since its inception almost six years ago, the league has been about more than just baseball. It’s been about providing kids in Flint the opportunity to learn about hard work, dedication and sportsmanship.
“The most important thing is giving them the opportunity to be kids,” Russel said regarding his vision for the league. “Our motto is ‘have fun first, learn baseball second.’ Learn responsibility, learn to be together, giving them the opportunities we had when we were kids. You don’t see that anymore,” Russel said.
Russel has taken this motto to heart. Over the last five years, over 500 hundred Flint kids have batted, pitched, caught, dived, and stolen bases on Jackson Park’s baseball field.
To anyone walking near Jackson Park pre-2016, this would have sounded like a bad joke.
Russel and his friends didn’t just start a youth baseball league, they built it from scratch. It would have been easy to go to Kearsley Park or Union City Fields, find an empty baseball diamond and slap together a team name and uniform. Instead, Russel and his crew set their eyes on the abandoned and baseball field-deprived Jackson Park.
The group of Flint alums, with the help of Keep Genesee County Beautiful and the Ruth Mott Foundation, mowed the overgrown grass, erected a pavilion and laid down a baseball diamond.
It was Russel’s own “Field of Dreams.” He built it, and kids came.
Over the next half-decade, Russel and his high school friends managed to secure consistent funding from Ruth Mott as well as Major League Baseball’s Reviving Inner Cities Program, an initiative with a goal similar to Russel’s, to keep baseball alive in cities like Flint.
With the continued support, the Jackson Park Youth League was able to acquire equipment like gloves, bats, baseballs, and most recently, brand-new uniforms. The league has also been able to provide post-game meals to players as well as a handful of trips to Comerica Park.
Back at American Legion, field #1 members of the Jackson Park All-Star team are shuffling in and out of the dugout after the end of an inning. Player number five, ten-year-old Michael Marshall, enters the dugout as he removes his baseball mitt from his hand.
Marshall is an outfielder, though he’s practicing to be a pitcher.
“I want to play pitcher, I just want to throw strikes,” Mitchell said. Though he isn’t too fond of his current position, he’s still enjoying himself. “I like that I get to hit and catch and that I get to make friends. Whenever a batter hits far, the outfield tries to catch it to get them out,” he said.
Mitchell’s mom, Laura Lopez, said she was happy when she found out about Jackson Park three years ago. Having played softball herself in school, she was looking for something her then 7-year-old could do to stay active.
“This is a great team,” Lopez said. “Michael stays active, he’s able to be with kids his age. He used to be more into basketball but lately, he’s been more into baseball. Actually, his main thing is he wants to learn how to pitch. His dad and I have been working with him every day at the park to get better.”
As the evening wore on and the sun lowered, it became clear the Jackson Park All-Star team would not be winning this game. Despite the loss, as the team huddled together for a post-game talk, it was clear their spirit was unbroken. Walking back to the dugout, the players joked with each other, and talked about their expectations for the next day’s game.