During what has been a difficult time in our country, two local youth baseball teams found a way to come together for some summer fun on the baseball field.
In late April, the Cincinnati Western Baseball Conference (CWBC) voted to cancel the spring season. Two organizations affected by this included the West End Reds and the St. William Athletic Association. Both groups have partnered with the Reds Community Fund through a program that has included community service and funding for key expenses. Since 2018, they have also been paired together in the Reds Community Fund’s Match Program, which brings youth baseball teams from the suburbs and inner city together in the spirit of diversity, interaction and friendly competition.
Match launched in 2006, when youth baseball organizations from Loveland and Evanston joined forces for a series of events throughout the spring and summer. By ‘10, more than 20 neighborhoods were taking part, including leading a downtown march during the ‘09 and ‘10 MLB Civil Rights Game weekends. In 2011, the program helped earn the Reds Community Fund the Steve Patterson Award, which recognizes excellence in sports philanthropy throughout the United States. Features include the blending of teams and coaches, annual home-and-home series and picnics following each event.
After the CWBC’s announcement, St. William baseball coordinator Scott Priestle and other league coaches began discussing plans for the fall. In late May, however, the state softened some of its previous mandates and restrictions, which included the opportunity for baseball and softball teams to gradually resume play. Priestle and the other organization leaders immediately began putting their heads together to explore possibilities for a summer season.
In the meantime, Larry Collins, who leads the West End Reds baseball and softball organization, had made the difficult decision not to play. But during a West End community council meeting when Collins made this announcement, he was asked if something could be done to keep the neighborhood kids active and out of trouble as the teen crime rate had been rising. Collins said he would come to the next meeting with a solution, and it was during that time that Priestle happened to contact Collins.
“I reached out to Larry in early June about combining our 9U teams,” Priestle said. “I knew I had seven kids from our 9U St. William team who were committed to playing this summer. When I realized we were not going to have any more than those seven, I emailed Larry to see if he had any kids who were interested. If we could get four or five more players, I would reserve a field for practice and start scheduling games. Within 48 hours, Larry had commitments from seven kids in their program, so we had our team: seven kids from the St. William program and seven from the West End Reds.”
With that, the rebranded Red Knights were up and running. For Collins, Scott reaching out proved to be beneficial for more than just the 9U team. It got him thinking about all the other kids in the West End organization who weren’t going to play, so he started contacting older players about getting back on the field. Additional West End baseball teams quickly formed, and open practices began for softball players to prepare for next season.
“Had it not been for Scott asking for a couple players to possibly play, our ballfields would have been empty, players would have lost a season or even been into some sort of trouble,” Collins said. “This season has been fun for everyone in the West End organization as baseball had been something we all were looking forward to and it was almost lost this year.”
For the Red Knights, most of the kids are ages 7 and 8 and playing coach-pitch for the first time. And with how quickly everything came together, there was little time to get practices in before games started. Always wanting to promote having fun at this age, it became an even bigger priority during a makeshift season.
“We are trying to teach as much as we can while also realizing that this season is mainly just about having fun,” Priestle said. “Our parents all seem to recognize that. Everyone has been so encouraging and optimistic. I think we all recognize that the results are less important than the exercise and the socializing. My hope is that even if the kids don't learn a ton of baseball this summer, they learn to love baseball this summer, and they will be excited to start playing again next spring.”
In addition, Priestle was able to secure a uniform sponsor and get them personalized.
“One of the West End players was so excited to have his name on his uniform that he told me, ‘Coach, I am going to make sure I get you good box seats when I make it to the big leagues so you can watch me play, and I’ll also get you an autographed jersey with my name on the back,’" Collins said.
In addition to giving these kids the opportunity to have fun and play baseball, the joint venture is a perfect and needed example of inclusion and equality. The West End Reds are an inner city-based team with predominantly Black participants, while St. William is a program on the west side that was formed from the Catholic schools in the area. While the community itself is diverse, many of the kids in the baseball program are White. Meshing kids of different backgrounds at an early age helps instill lifelong values and acceptance of others. Never has that been more important than in a time when racism, equality and social injustice are at the forefront in America.
“The kids get along really well,” Priestle said. “We've had to make introductions on the fly, but I think Larry and I have plenty of experience with that. They are 7, 8 and 9 years old, and that seems to be an age where kids make friends quickly. I have already seen it happen on our team.”
No matter the score on the field, Priestle and Collins have seen genuine growth and camaraderie with their team. They have witnessed little moments that demonstrate why all the time and effort required to put summer ball together was worth it.
“The St. William 11U team played a scrimmage one night against a group of 11U and 13U players from the West End Reds,” Priestle said. “Multiple kids on the Red Knights have older brothers who play for either St. William or the Reds, so there were a handful of Red Knights players at the scrimmage to watch their siblings play. My son Hank [St. William] and his teammate Elijah White [West End] sat together for the entire evening, talking, dancing, watching videos and even playing catch for a few minutes. It was beautiful.”
“I think that the combined team has helped show the true meaning of the Match Program,” Collins added. “It has not only forced our parents to be united at games together, it has forged what we hope is lifetime friendships between the players.”