By Ben Joravsky
For one frightening moment this summer, the men and women who run the youth baseball league at Welles Park thought they would lose what matters to them most: a baseball diamond.
The fear was incited by yet another of the city's well-intended but panic-producing development "visions," in this case a proposal to convert one of the six diamonds at Welles into a music performance lawn.
"This is a strange proposal for around here," says Max Griffin, president of the Welles Park Parents Association, which oversees the baseball league. "I mean, why would anyone propose to take away one of our diamonds, knowing how we feel about baseball?"
Indeed, youth baseball at Welles is sort of like tennis at Wimbledon. It's a huge operation taken with utmost seriousness by the people who run it, with 54 teams, six age divisions, nearly 200 coaches, and 750 players (many more remain on a waiting list) from age 5 to 17.
It's a beautiful sight for baseball fans to see: dozens of boys and girls romping about in kid-size versions of major-league uniforms bearing the names of restaurants, taverns, politicians, hairdressers, and other sponsors. The season runs from April to August, and on most weekday afternoons the fields at Welles are alive with grade-schoolers learning how to hit the cutoff man and preschoolers learning how to don a mitt. On weekends the games run almost around the clock.
In many ways the Welles program is a unique and noble endeavor, one of the few voluntarily integrated associations in Chicago. "The diversity here is astounding," says Griffin. "We have people of all races and economic backgrounds--blacks, whites, Hispanics, rich, poor--working and playing together. Where else would they get to know one another? It's a wonderful thing."
In other ways, it's as silly as any other youth league, with too many grown-ups yelling at umpires, too many parents pressuring their kids ("tighten your grip, damn it"), and too many coaches behaving like the scorekeeper in one T-ball game who got the ump to remove a five-year-old from first base for (are you ready for this?) batting out of order. The scorekeeper's team was up by 25 runs at the time. "A rule's a rule," she insisted, as the five-year-old, led from the field after reaching base on his first hit of the season, burst into tears. (Full disclosure: I was the boy's coach.)
"Most of our parents are totally cool--but we have some people who will just drive you crazy," says Griffin. "I mean, I know we all get excited and we all want our kid's team to win, but, come on, get a grip.
"We used to have a rule allowing a coach to appeal an ump's call to the full board. But we got rid of it because one guy made five appeals in a single season. Every time he made an appeal the same words came out of his mouth--'I'm doing this for the kids.' Finally I got upset and told him, 'No, this is not for the kids. This is for your ego.' The fact is most kids couldn't care less about these things. For most kids their greatest care is 'What's my snack?'"
Despite the antics of a few obnoxious parents, the league features some of the city's best baseball players (many eventually start for Lane, Gordon, Young, Luther North, and other high schools). This year's playoffs included a nail-biter in the 11-and-12-year-old division in which the Dodgers (led by Sergio Rivera Thompson, Efraim "Junior" Morales, and Ben Strauss) came from behind to beat the Mariners. The Dodgers won 14-10, but only after Mariners flamethrower Spencer Thompson left the mound in the fourth with a 7-1 lead. (League rules prohibit a pitcher's working more than three innings.)
Even after the season's over it's not over, as the league's board spends countless hours in mind-numbing meetings debating rules and regulations, setting up computer systems, processing registration forms, and trying to bring in the sponsors the league needs to keep the $90,000-a-year operation running smoothly.
"We put in insane amounts of hours--it's a tremendous commitment," says Griffin. "But I'm not complaining. We want to be here. I really believe we're giving the kids good instruction and teaching them good sportsmanship in a competitive environment. We think we have something special at Welles Park. Obviously, it's very important to us."
So it wasn't surprising they got upset when they heard that the city planned to take away one of their diamonds. Actually, it wasn't so much a plan as another of the development visions the city has been commissioning all over Chicago. In each case the city hires a consultant to study the pros and cons of a commercial district and prepare a "blueprint" for future development. In each case, the city cautions people not to panic--"it's not a plan, it's only a proposal." And in each case people panic as soon as they see their houses and stores replaced by newer buildings, parks, and promenades in an artistic rendition of a better world to come.
In this case, the consultant put together a 44-page "master plan" for the Lincoln Square commercial district, an area running roughly from Montrose to Lawrence along Lincoln and Western avenues. Among its many proposals for landscaping and sidewalk improvements was the suggestion that the city "consider creating an outdoor performance lawn in the northeast corner of Welles Park for concerts."
Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated matter, 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter and Charles Renner, a north-side architect, were inviting architects to submit designs for a "fantasy bandstand" to be displayed "in conjunction with the Old Town School of Folk Music's Grand Opening at their new location" on Lincoln Avenue just north of Welles Park. "Designs are intended to spur public imagination and plant the seed for further community dialog about a permanent park bandshell," Renner's announcement read.
News of the fantasy bandstand and the commercial district master plan was reported in a neighborhood paper. It wasn't long before the two stories were transformed into the fast-spreading rumor that the city planned to turn a baseball diamond into a bandstand for the Old Town School of Folk Music.
"People were talking about it, people were concerned," says Griffin. "I don't like to spread rumors, but we saw an article in the paper with an artistic rendering of some sort of construction going up where our diamond used to be--and that didn't look like a rumor to me. Well, we can't afford to lose any diamonds. We don't have enough diamonds for all the kids to play on as it is.
"So I called the Park District and they got back and said it didn't look like it would happen anytime soon. But I was wondering, what's going on? Where's the communication? How could they make plans for Welles Park and not talk to us? No one uses Welles more than we do. And it's funny, because when the city was pushing to renovate Winnemac Park they knew where to reach us. They called us up and asked us to sit in on the meetings and testify on their behalf--which we did."
Needless to say, everyone involved quickly backed away from the diamond-taking proposal as soon as the league expressed its opposition. As Schulter points out, he's not about to pick a fight with a league so deeply rooted in his ward's churches and schools, particularly as he's already under close scrutiny, fielding dozens of daily queries about the onslaught of tree-killing beetles in Ravenswood.
"I can assure you that we're not taking away any green space in Welles Park," says Schulter.
And the baseball diamonds?
"They will not lose any diamonds. I know all about that baseball league. It's a great league. They do wonderful work. In fact, my son Phil played there."
Renner also says the league has nothing to fear from his exhibition of drawings, which may go no farther than the Old Town School's walls. "This is not even a contest--it's just an opportunity to put some drawings up in the Old Town School when it opens," says Renner. "There isn't anything for people to be lying down in front of bulldozers to stop."
All of which was great news to league leaders, and a topic of conversation during the August 1 season-ending picnic, when coaches, players, and parents gathered in Welles Park to eat, drink, tell tales (some true) about seasons past, and make glorious predictions for the ones to follow.
"Well, it's good we got them on the record saying they won't take the diamonds, but I'm still a little cautious," says Griffin. "We still have to keep on top of them. I've been around long enough to know that we have to keep our eyes and ears wide open. With all due respect to the alderman, sometimes these things have a crazy momentum of their own. You may think that it's dead and then all of a sudden it's alive and haunting you." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Max Griffin photo by Dan Machnik.