Fallow Fields

Just because Cardinals build it doesn't mean city youth leagues will come

Apr 24, 2002 at 4:00 am
When Timothy Hanser looks out on the 37,000 fans who attend the average home game at Busch Stadium, somewhere he hopes to find a few dozen brave souls who will volunteer to coach a youth-baseball team. So far, he's still looking.

Hanser heads up Cardinals Care, the charitable arm of the baseball Cardinals. It's given out $3.6 million to children's charities over the last five years, including money to build three baseball fields in disadvantaged city neighborhoods.

Paying for the snazzy fields -- complete with fences, scoreboards and covered dugouts -- was the easy part. Getting coaches to volunteer and organizing leagues -- that's been tough.

"It's been an interesting revelation," says Hanser. "I kind of thought we'd write these big checks and, boom, these fields would appear and we'll step into the background and everything will just be cured and the kids will play and the volunteer coaches will come out of the woodwork and everything will be great. You know what? That ain't going to happen."

Hanser has had to arrange ongoing maintenance for the Jim Edmonds Field at the Adams Community Center in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. The city parks department is doing the upkeep on the field in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in North St. Louis, but recruiting coaches remains a problem.

The Darryl Kile Field in Fox Park seems to be the one exception, because it is linked to the city's Police Athletic League, which has police officers as volunteer coaches.

Hanser knew it was going to be hard, but he says Cardinals Care wanted to put fields where the need was urgent.

"Other major-league teams have told me, 'Tim, you can't go into the city. The fields will get vandalized, they won't get used, they'll look like crap. You have to go to the suburbs. That's where they've got the leagues; that's where your team will get the credit."

The risk may be greater in sticking to the central city, but Hanser believes the benefit is also bigger.

"The challenges that face city kids are exponentially more difficult," says Hanser. "If you can just save a handful of kids through organized recreation, that's phenomenal. Their chances of falling through the cracks are tremendously high."

Children falling through the cracks is something a former Cardinal tried to deal with back in '97, when Mark McGwire choked up while announcing he was giving a million bucks of his salary to help abused children. Cardinal fans loved the idea of it. Not only will the big galoot hit home runs, they swooned, he'll help erase child abuse.

But those who deal with the enormity and the complexity of the local crisis knew this was far from a solution.

"Given the number of neglected and abused children in the metropolitan area, you would have to dump money far beyond the amount of money that even Mark McGwire put into that to see a community-level impact, to see the data change," says Richard Patton, executive director of Vision for Children at Risk. "The problems in some of these areas are so tremendous that even what looks like a huge contribution is not going to change the community numbers."

And McGwire's donation was split between Southern California and St. Louis. The Evangelical Children's Home, on St. Charles Rock Road, got a one-time gift of $175,000. Other recipients included Our Little Haven, the Family Resource Center and the Edgewood Children's Center.

Despite McGwire's gift and his Mark McGwire Foundation for Children, things got worse. In part, that's because celebrity charity can be a tricky concept, sometimes giving just plain folks the idea that there's no need for them to do anything. In McGwire's case, a million bucks paid a lot of bills, but it didn't get more people to become foster parents or adopt foster children or volunteer time with children under the state's care. It certainly didn't get adults to stop whacking their kids or abandoning them.

In 1997, Missouri had 10,645 children in Division of Family Services custody. As of November, DFS had 12,425 children in its care. Hundreds remain free for adoption.

But those are larger issues, higher goals. Hanser is just trying to create some teams and leagues for freestanding fields. This is more problematic than just donating funds to existing programs, something the Cardinals Care charity also does, giving a yearly grant of $50,000 to Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club each year to run its own programs.

Gary Bess, director of the city's parks-and-rec department, says the city relies on Catholic Youth Council and Khoury leagues for the city parks where baseball is played.

"Baseball is a tough sport," says Bess. "It's hard to get qualified coaches. We've never actively sponsored baseball in the 27 years I've been involved with the parks department. Baseball is a sport that involves a pretty high level of expertise."

Hanser isn't giving up. More fields are being planned, and he's devising ways to use the celebrity status of players to trigger commitment from the community.

Chuck Tyler, director of the Adams Community Center, which oversees Jim Edmonds Field, faces the diamond's first summer in less than a month and is still scrambling for balls, bats and, most important, bodies.

"We're trying to get the uniforms and equipment the kids are going to need," says Tyler.

But the hardest task, he says, is "to get the community involved" and turn up some volunteer coaches.

That's why Hanser keeps gazing at the Busch Stadium crowds, hoping someone steps up who believes that baseball is something more than a spectator sport.

"What better audience to hit up and encourage to sign up and be a coach, be a mentor and be involved?" asks Hanser. "If someone calls Chuck Tyler at Adams Community Center and tells him you're psyched to be a part of these kids' lives by volunteering to be a coach, I guarantee you Chuck would jump for joy and welcome you."

Otherwise, the Cardinals have revised the Field of Dreams myth:

Build it, and try to get someone to volunteer.