Players, coaches reach out to area children

Travis “T.J.” London Jr., 4, took a mighty swing Sunday at an orange wiffle ball gently pitched to him from one knee by Will Keller, 17, an outfielder for University Lab School.

The boy’s pink bat pinged the ball up in the air, prompting Keller and several onlookers at the Anna T. Jordan BREC Park to shout “good hit” to London.

London and Keller were only two of hundreds of young people who participated in the fourth annual Operation First Base, a baseball/softball clinic held Sunday afternoon at nine Baton Rouge area ballfields, in mostly underserved neighborhoods.

The clinics were taught by dozens of area high school and college players and their coaches.

It was hosted by Istrouma Baptist Church in collaboration with East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission, East Baton Rouge Parish schools, the BRAVE anti-violence initiative, Cypress Mounds Baseball Complex and Rivault Park in Port Allen.

The clinic teaches boys and girls, ages 6 to 14, basic baseball skills such as throwing, catching, hitting and running bases. Dozens of volunteers from Istrouma Baptist and many other neighborhood churches also provided the youngsters with free balls, gloves and bats, a short gospel lesson and a hot-dog sack lunch.

“Operation First Base is an opportunity to share the love of things that make differences in lives,” said M.L. Woodruff, minister of Istrouma Baptist’s Sports Organization and former Parkview Baptist High School baseball coach.

“Istrouma Baptist wants to share this gift of baseball with our community, but more importantly we desire to share the gift of Jesus Christ who transforms lives and communities.”

That sentiment was echoed by Baton Rouge police Sgt. Herbert “Tweety” Anny, director of the BRAVE program, and also the Rev. Lee T. Wesley, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church, the hosting church at Anna T. Jordan BREC Park, and a founding pastor of Together Baton Rouge.

“People think BRAVE is just law enforcement, but it is also a faith-based violence reduction initiative,” Anny said. “Anytime we can find faith-based partners, we take advantage of that partnership with members of the community.”

The recreational component is also key, Anny said, because a lot of young people don’t have a lot to do or places to go, and sports, such as baseball, provide them with some structure in their lives.

“The baseball is good — but baseball is no more than a vehicle to reach the kids with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Wesley added. “The only thing that is going to change the lives of our people is the power of the gospel.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, when asked Friday for a comment about Operation First Base, said Woodruff and Istrouma Baptist “have worked tirelessly to get a good message to our community’s children, particularly those that are historically disadvantaged and at risk.

“The hope is that by the community showing to these kids that there are people that they do not even know that care for them, that they will be empowered to reach goals that they would never have dreamed of reaching,” Moore said.

That aspect of seeing people they don’t know caring about them is important to little “T.J.,” said his grandmother and volunteer Valerie Butler.

“He is growing up in a single-parent household with no male role model in his life, but he is seeing them here today,” Butler said, waving her arm toward the University High and Scotlandville High players.

“I love to see the collaboration of the churches and the schools that shows him we’re all in this together — no matter what color you are,” Butler said.

Being a positive role model in a negative neighborhood is important for Scotlandville High players Keltrin Burrell, 17, a senior outfielder, and Dervincent Hamilton, 18, a senior catcher.

“We’re trying to give back to the kids — it’s all about the kids,” Burrell said. “There is a lot of violence and drugs around, and they need something positive in their life to look up to.”

Parents, grades and baseball have kept him out of trouble, Hamilton added, “but I know some guys who are going the wrong way.”

“We’re doing this for the kids so they can grow up doing the same things we are,” Hamilton said. “We’re going to tell them to ‘keep their head up, stay out of trouble and do their work.’ ”

Their coach, Scotlandville High’s Darron Clark, said his team was participating “because there is a shortage of inner-city kids who play baseball because baseball has become so expensive.

“A lot of us grow up in single-parent homes and they need some kind of guidance, someone to look up to,” Clark said. “Playing baseball gives them structure and keeps them off the street doin’ other stuff.”

Over at Cypress Mounds, park manager Beau Lowery said turnout was good but less than expected with about 50 kids participating with Catholic High and LSU at Eunice baseball players, and East Ascension softball players participating.

“Being able to come out, teach them some baseball and love on these kids, sharing the gospel is the most important part,” Lowery said.

Over in Port Allen, at Rivault Park, the Rev. Tom Shepard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Addis, said there were more than 60 youths and about that same number of high school and college players from Brusly High, Port Allen High, Parkview Baptist and LSU-E.

“I think it went well — the kids got a lot of one-on-one time with the players,” Shepard said. “Every parent and every child was smiling at the end of the afternoon.”

Clinics also were held at Alaska Street, Saia, Howell Community and Cadillac Street BREC parks, Istrouma Baptist’s baseball complex, Rivault Park in Port Allen and the Cypress Mounds complex.