“We’re very lucky” – Chicago Tribune

Playing baseball has kept the young boys of Little Village safe from street violence and gangs. It also opened the door to opportunities that once seemed distant, said 13-year-old Freddy Garcia.

On Sunday, Garcia and his friends, Victor Cervantes and Ben DeMateo flew to Costa Rica to participate in an international baseball tournament where they will be part of the Mexico team.

“We are very lucky,” Freddy said. “My parents are delighted and say that some children don’t have this opportunity, so we have to take advantage of this opportunity.”

The boys, who have played side-by-side in parks on Chicago’s southwest side since they were 4, are the only United States players to represent Team Mexico in the 14-and-under tournament in America. central, which runs until Sunday. , said Matt DeMateo, executive director of the New Life Church, which operates the Little Village Little League. The boys will compete with teams representing the Dominican Republic, United States, Colombia, Panama and Puerto Rico.

For more than a decade, the Little Village Little League has been a haven for boys, providing them with an environment away from the one often hyped up in the news – and instead nurturing their growth in sport and academically. More than 300 children participate in the league.

Ben said the journey the three boys are on is more than just about baseball, it’s a testament to the work he and other community leaders have done to inspire change.

“For us, it’s about the power of sport to create safe spaces where children can thrive. Gaming is one of the most important ways young people can deal with trauma and one of the primary ways to build community,” DeMateo said. Few children play ball in underserved communities and have the same opportunities as those playing in leagues in more affluent areas.

Freddy, Victor and Ben know it. Just before leaving, Freddy and Victor shared their excitement about representing Mexico. “It’s a special feeling because I get to represent where my parents are from and I’m going to cherish every moment of it,” Victor said.

When he started playing ball, it was just for fun, he recalls. But he began to fall in love with the game. Victor’s father, Victor Cervantes Sr., said he was proud of his son. After immigrating to Chicago from Jalisco nearly 15 years ago, they settled in Little Village.

Cervantes Sr. said he was grateful his son could play in the tournament and praised the coaches for their work.

“Gracias a dios pudo ir, y espero que lo aprovechen, no todos los niños de su edad en el vecindario tiene esta oportunidad,” Cervantes Sr said. “Thank God he was able to go, and I hope they benefit, not all the kids his age in the neighborhood have that opportunity.”

The trip is also proof that good news and good baseball players are growing in the Little Village neighborhood through investment in youth, said Tony Rodriguez, one of the boys’ coaches.

“But the whole point of this is for the boys to eventually get a scholarship and go on to graduate school,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who grew up in Little Village, wanted to make sure the sport wasn’t just a distraction but rather a growth pipeline for young people that would eventually change the narrative of the community as well.

To do this, Rodriguez helped establish the Little Village Sluggers, a year-round development program that is part of the Little Village Little League that recruits some of the strongest players to teach them the basics of the game and how to play. new skills using his connections as a former college and semi-professional coach.

He also became a member of the Cubs RBI All-Star Program coaching staff in 2019. Cubs RBI is a Major League Baseball program designed to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among youth in part of Cubs Charities. Several RBI All Stars — including the three boys — have emerged from LVLL and participate in RBI Scholars, which provides academic support for RBI Cubs athletes.

Cubs Charities, Rodriguez said, provided several resources and facilitated partnerships that enabled him and DeMateo to further their mission, including major facility upgrades at Piotrowski Park. Improvements to the park sparked the relationship between Cubs Charities and the Little Village community in 2015. Since then, the organization has invested over $300,000 in capital and program grants to support things like the Little Village Little League and the Cubs RBI program.

“Little Village is a great example of how sports can be a way to strengthen youth, families and neighborhoods,” said Keri Blackwell, deputy director of Cubs Charities. “We are excited for the incredible adventure that awaits Ben, Victor and Freddy. Their love for the game and willingness to grow is why we remain committed to improving the quality, safety and accessibility of baseball and baseball. Chicago youth softball.

The international tournament became a reality thanks to Rodriguez’s connections with a baseball academy in Mexico. The ultimate goal is to connect players from Little Village and Mexico.

“We want to build a bridge between Chicago and Mexico – we have a partner group and the majority of our players are Mexican – so we wanted to build a strong community of peace with that group,” DeMateo said.

Freddy, Victor and Ben will be the first three players to make those connections with Costa Rican players.

“Hopefully with our skills, we will one day come out on top and show that the people of Little Village can really play,” Freddy said.


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