The Roseland Little League folded in 1997, and soon its ball fields, at 125th Place and South Michigan, were thick with weeds. The wooden bleachers were already dilapidated, the fences broken.
The league, which was founded in 1952, had folded before, in the early 90s. It had been revived in 1994 by Rick Attreau, a lifelong Roseland resident who'd started with the league as a coach in the late 70s and had served as its president in the early 80s. He'd restarted the league with high hopes, quickly recruiting about 150 players. But the fields were in bad shape, and he had only a shoestring budget. Few businesses were willing to donate money, and few parents agreed to volunteer. "It was difficult to get the parents to come out and work in the concession stand," he says. "I could have gotten on the phone and asked people to work the concession stand, but I was out cutting the field." Stressed out by trying to keep things running, he finally quit in '97.
Two years later Anthony Beale, an Allstate Insurance systems analyst who would soon be elected alderman of the Ninth Ward, saw the potential in the run-down ball fields. In the 1970s he'd played for all-black Little League teams at Gately Park, at 103rd and Cottage Grove, where he regularly got cut by the glass on the field. He and his teammates eventually won a Park District tournament, but he still remembers feeling inferior whenever he played white teams in their nice ballparks. Now he wanted to give the Roseland kids a top-notch ball field--the advantage he hadn't had. "That's when you say the playing field has been leveled," he says. "Our kids will play strictly on ability, and they won't have a psychological disadvantage."
Beale asked state representative Willis Harris to secure $100,000 in state money for the project, and that fall work started on the fields. But then the state didn't pay the chief contractor, and the company quit working. Beale called a press conference, and the Sun-Times put the story on its front page. One source claimed the money was tied up in Springfield. Beale, who'd supported one of Harris's opponents in the 2000 primary, blamed Harris for that. He also blamed Cook County Board of Review commissioner and former Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw, whose son had run for alderman against Beale. Shaw denied Beale's claims, but after the story ran Sheriff Michael Sheahan sent 30 nonviolent offenders to whack down the weeds at the ball field and the state money appeared.
Private donations also began coming in, and Beale, who estimates the entire project will cost $700,000, persuaded numerous big businesses to donate, including Commonwealth Edison ($140,000), Coca-Cola (about $10,000), Ford Motor Company ($5,000), and Waste Management ($5,000). Beale's church, Salem Baptist, donated around $10,000, and the state promised another $390,000, part of which would go toward a third field for older kids.
Beale also knew he needed someone who could get kids out to play ball in the new Roseland Little League, and he wanted Attreau. "I know of his dedication and love for the game," he says. He asked, and Attreau promptly accepted.
Attreau says that for the past two years he's been at the field nearly every day, checking on the construction, calling parents about volunteering, and finding kids who want to join the league. He wound up with more than 300 boys and girls, ages 5 to 16; 85 percent of them are black, 14 percent Latino, and one percent white.
Lamar Bell, who'd coached Roseland's peewee Yankees in the 1990s, came back to lead his old team, which includes his son. Bell says more players' parents, especially fathers, have been helping out than when he first coached. "It's just an awesome sight," he says. "Children need to see their men in positive roles."
The Roseland teams began playing last season, though the scoreboards, bleachers, batting cage, and other extras weren't installed until this spring. Parents, coaches, and other area residents all pitched in, and the week before this season's opening day--the grand opening ceremony for the ballpark--Beale and Attreau worked morning to night laying bricks on walkways, putting up sponsor signs, loading balls into the pitching machine. The night before the opening ceremony 20 volunteers showed up to help.
On opening day, May 11, Sheriff Sheahan dropped by, and Beale, who coaches the Roseland Pirates, showed him a flower bed in which neatly trimmed bushes spell out RLL. Beale also pointed out the wrought-iron fence and the underground sprinklers. "What a difference," said the sheriff. "Unbelievable."
At 10 AM, just as the ceremonies were supposed to start, it began to rain. "That's Arkansas clay," Beale said. "It can rain for three hours straight and you can still play on that facility and you won't have any puddles."
The Corliss High School band crowded under the canopied bleachers with lots of parents. Coaches, players, and officials stood on the field under umbrellas. Beale gave his speech, saying he was excited to have a "state-of-the-art stadium not only in the city of Chicago but in the heart of the Ninth Ward." He said the league would give kids an alternative to crime. "That's what it's about--getting these kids off of the street, giving them another alternative other than the gangbangers and the drug dealers." The crowd applauded.
Other officials spoke in quick succession, and the ceremony was over. But the rain kept coming, and the parents and players soon deserted the park.
Attreau, who'd gone into the field house, was thrilled with the turnout, and he looked out at the park in awe. "For something like this to take place is absolutely unheard of," he said. "For everything to be new at one time--in most organizations you have to wait. You get one thing one year, five years later you get something else. By the time you get that, the thing you bought five years ago is no good."