"If you build it, they will come" took on a special meaning for kids at Ray Elementary School in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon, when a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked an Opening Day of sorts for a brand-new field of dreams.
The newly minted diamond, plush with green grass, was renovated thanks to a grant initiative that is part of the Scotts Field Refurbishment Program, which has provided funds to four U.S. communities to modernize local fields to encourage kids to play ball. The Ray Elementary field was the last, but certainly not least, to complete the makeover. And everyone on hand Tuesday was ecstatic.
"I know firsthand what sports can do, and as a mother of three, it is so exciting to be able to give to the community like this, and see young kids outside, active and excited about baseball and softball," said Jennie Finch, former USA Softball Olympic gold medalist and current MLB youth softball ambassador.
A fast-pitch softball legend for a generation, starting with her time as an NCAA national champion at the University of Arizona, Finch understands as well as anyone the lessons that baseball and softball can instill in kids beyond the diamond.
"Softball gave me so much. Even as I get older, I am still realizing the life lessons and what the game gave to me," Finch added. "Leadership, self-esteem, teamwork, discipline, sacrifice. It helped build, shape and create not only the athlete that I was but, more importantly, the person I am today.
"For these young kids, I just want them to take advantage of this field, and the beauty of it. I think seeing how first class it is gives them a glimpse of dreams and what can become of [them]. It is exciting to know that these kids can come out to play baseball on a quality field and have memories that will last forever."
Ray Elementary School is a public school that serves over 700 diverse students from pre-K through eighth grade. Located in Hyde Park on Chicago's South Side, the school has suffered budget cuts over the past decade that have prevented any improvements to its baseball and softball field. No community organizations were able to use this outdoor space, but with this Scotts Field Refurbishment grant, the renovated field will be able to support youth leagues, summer camps, after-school programs and physical education classes.
"I never played on a field that had grass on the infield and was sodded with the bases cut out as a kid," said Keronn Walker, a Ray Elementary School alumnus who runs a nonprofit baseball academy in the area. "To be able to have kids not just play baseball but to come on a field just like Major Leaguers [have] is going to help them feel like Major Leaguers, which is always a good thing. So I can't thank [MLB and Scotts] enough for that opportunity for these kids."
As a result of the new field, The Friends of Ray School Parent-Teacher Organization anticipates being able to expand youth engagement in softball and baseball to more than 1,200 boys and girls from Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Kenwood and neighboring South Side ZIP codes.
The Allentown School District and Lehigh Valley RBI Baseball (Pa.); the City of Wewoka, Okla.; and Friends of Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Arts, Recreation and Youth Programs Inc. also won field-refurbishment grants, and more than $200,000 in repairs and upgrades were made across the four fields over the summer.
The selection progress was tough, to say the least, as MLB and Scotts received 350 grant applications from 300-plus cities in 46 states. Making the final call was a blue-ribbon panel that included Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., six-time MLB All-Star and 2008 World Series champion Chase Utley, Finch, 1997 World Series champion and MLB Network analyst Cliff Floyd, plus executive leadership from MLB and Scotts.
Melanie LeGrande, MLB's vice president of social responsibility, looks forward to continuing the program.
"The fact that we've received 700 applications over the past two years is a great testament to what people need, and also what people want," LeGrande said. "The fact that we can bring quality and safe places to play for kids, great grass like Scotts brings to us as [MLB's] Official Lawn Care Company, that's a treat for us. So I want the program to continue. I want communities to keep asking. I want to be able to support communities as best we can."