Home field advantage
20 July 2005 | Independent Weekly
Nigeria is playing Morocco. It’s a cool, moonless night, and parents sit on the bleachers or spill out into canvas camping chairs alongside them. Some yell encouragement, others just enjoy the entropy of 7-year-old girls in T-shirts and shin guards chasing a soccer ball around the weather-beaten turf. Each team bears the name of a country; and so on this patch of soccer fields cut into the woods a few miles outside of Hillsborough, a little exercise in diplomacy plays itself out.
The clearing is enclosed by dark green conifers punctuated by even taller, darker-leafed trees, so that there is an unmistakable feeling of insulation; of protection, of shelter. The giant steel light towers breathe life into the scene, and their kilowatt hiss is a subtle falsetto over the uneven chorus of excitement that erupts from the sidelines every so often.
All this energy channels itself into a kind of soothing chaos, and as little girls expend energy playing with their friends, it’s apparent that they’re participating in something that extends beyond just soccer, that there is some innate importance in all of this, and that the pedestrian rules of the game and earthly restrictions of things like the physics of a kicked ball or the gravity of a leaping scorer—things that define the game itself—are almost trivial. The players don’t know scores, don’t have a preference when it comes to playing or sitting on the sideline with their teammates and dancing or singing into the night. For them, it’s about being outside, being safe, having fun, thinking about nothing in particular, save for the infrequent and passing notion of strategy.
This is just fine with the founders of the Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League, a remarkable program in its 11th year that has recently expanded to sponsor soccer, while providing free baseball for up to 500 kids a year. After all, the league has affected the lives of more at-risk kids from inner-city Durham in more ways than anyone anticipated when the idea for a free baseball league was conceived. Herb Sellers, the man behind it all, explains his motivation for putting in 70-hour weeks as a volunteer to get the league off the ground with striking simplicity: “The kids weren’t playing baseball.”
But tonight, when the last player trots through the gates into the parking lot with an orange wedge in one hand and her dad’s hand in the other, someone will throw a lever cutting the power to the light towers, and the fixtures perched atop them will close their eyes and slowly suck the light back from the fields into the wooded hills, and the clearing will seem to recede back into the North Carolina woods and cease to exist.
But it will not, for next week’s games must be played here, and the week after that, and so on until the season will begin to change and it will become too cold for parents to stand out on the field and the games will be moved inside and basketballs will be substituted for soccer balls, and echoes off of rafters and hardwood floors will replace yells and screams that dissipate into the night. And then the winter chill will begin to drift away, and the kids will assemble over at Long Meadow Park to take part in the yearly ritual of wearing in their baseball mitts that have grown stiff and dry with months of abandonment. This is when it can be seen how baseball is thriving in the unlikeliest of places, and it’s the time of year it was last season when Officer James Blackburn received a phone call from the Parkwood Elementary School.
Tory Bumpers, a 10-year-old fourth grader, had brought three bullets from his mother’s handgun into school and the administration was concerned about Tory’s situation at home. Tory lived with his 28-year-old mother and younger sister in the McDougald Terrace public housing complex; his father had been in jail since a week after Tory was born. The first thing Blackburn did was ask Tory if he liked baseball.
“Over in the projects, you have gunshots every day,” explains Tory’s mother, Tisha, “or you have shootouts—you know, drive-bys.” The Bumpers rarely felt safe and were “hardly outside. Unless I had to go somewhere or was just sitting outside for a few minutes to get a little air, I tried to keep them inside as much as possible.” But as part of Blackburn’s outreach work with the police department, he coaches two teams for the Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League (DBYAL for short), so he invited Tory out to practice, and the kid couldn’t get enough.
“When school was in,” laughs his mother, “the moment he got up, he got his baseball glove and bat and set it at the door so when he come home from school, he’d get him a snack, look over his homework, and then he was off to practice.”
Blackburn considers coaching among his most important duties as an outreach worker, and Tory has now played in the baseball league under Blackburn’s tutelage for two years. The league has done for Tory what it has done for inner-city kids every season for the past 11 years: It has given him a diversion, a constructive outlet for his energy, and it has allowed him to be himself—a sweet, sensitive kid who once cried while his little sister had to undergo heart surgery and didn’t stop crying until she came out of the operating room. Tisha Bumpers, for her part, has born witness to the change that came over Tory as a function of being able to go outside and run around with other kids under the supervision of coaches, and she has since moved out of the projects and into a three-room apartment with her parents at Pineridge, off Fayetteville Street, where Tory can go out in the grass and play with the neighbors’ kids.
Tory’s success is only one anecdote in the remarkable history of a league that is just entering its second decade of existence, just one more chapter in James Blackburn’s collection of success stories. As a street worker with the Durham Police Department, he serves as a liaison to kids on the street, charged with the paradoxical task of being a police officer trying to keep people out of jail. When I arrange to meet him, I ask him what he looks like so I can find him. “I’m a good-lookin’ black man!” Blackburn stands about 5-foot-5 and has the compact, muscular build most 60-year-old men haven’t had for decades. Bifocals perched on his nose and the weathered skin of a man who has spent his life commuting from the street to the field are the only visual cues that betray Blackburn’s age. His baseball cap pulled low over his eyes is emblematic of the youthful energy he exudes and the perpetual smile that has earned him the trust and respect of kids who seldom feel either emotion—kids who are removed from him by generations and emotionally callused from the endemic absence of a nurturing environment at home. But in Blackburn, and the other coaches in the DBYAL, the kids have an ally, a role model and a father figure all rolled into one. And Blackburn, who has himself done nine months in jail and nine months on probation for drug-related offenses, has the ability to relate to the kids, eye-to-eye. Blackburn has fed off the need for people like him, and so he has accelerated through his latter years, taking kids under his wing and turning them from troubled youngsters into smiling ballplayers.
Whether he’s a coach, a leader or an officer first depends on the situation he’s in. “You can call me a whole lot of things, but if the kids call you ‘coach’ it means they respect you.” And this is especially important for Blackburn’s job, working for a branch of the Durham Police Department called Project Safe Neighborhoods. Although the project is part of a federal initiative instituted to temper gun violence, in Durham the project has shifted its focus to gang activity after its research phase—a 15-month process starting in 2003 in which “violent incident reviews” were generated—revealed that almost half of the homicides in Durham involved gang members.
Rob Faggart, the coordinator for Project Safe Neighborhoods, explains how the police department became interested in the athletic league as a powerful tool to deal with violence and crime. “We can clamp down really hard. We can come in and put our thumb down using suppression techniques—more patrols, more arrests, more prosecutions—and we can cut down on crime. But if you don’t have something to come in behind that and sustain it, what you do is take out the major players, your crime goes down for awhile, and then new people move in, and your crime goes back up.” In order to have a sustained effect on the community, Faggart endorses a more tactful strategy of “cutting off the flow of new people coming in behind them by reaching out to youth and at-risk kids and trying to give them alternatives. That’s where an athletic league comes in.”
It seems to be working. Over the last 10 years, violent crime in Durham has been steadily decreasing, even while the population has grown substantially. In 1993, the crime index, a statistic that includes both violent and property crime, was 15,550. By last year, that figure had dropped almost 2,000, even as the number of potential criminals and victims grew with the expanding population. To put this in perspective, the year the league started there were 11,236.6 crimes for every 100,000 citizens in Durham. Now, 10 years later, that figure has dropped to less than 8,000.
How much the decrease in crime can be attributed to a league giving hundreds of at-risk kids an alternative to gangs is hard to say for sure. But for Tisha Bumpers, the connection is obvious. “The league makes the kids feel ‘At least somebody out here is thinkin’ about me.’ Because you have parents that’s on drugs, they don’t care what their kids are doing. That’s why a lot of them is getting under the wing of the gang violence. Go with the people who give them love. If you can’t give your child love at home, where he gonna get it? In the streets.”
Or, maybe, on the diamond they’ve named the Field of Dreams.
The DBYAL plays its baseball games just one exit on the Durham Freeway past the Bulls’ own stadium. Between trash heaps in the woods on one side, on the other side abandoned houses which are such a threat to the health and safety of the people in the community that they must be destroyed, is the field of dreams at Long Meadow Park, an athletic sanctuary of crisp white lines and perfectly manicured grass set against a backdrop of dereliction and decay.
Early summer has drawn the color from the grass so that the bronzed blades don’t contrast, at first glance, with the weathered facades of the buildings and the tired, brown peeling from the branches of the trees and foliage lining the field. But if you look long enough, the field of dreams begins to emerge from its surroundings as an oasis. It’s here that children are allowed to be naive again, that they are permitted to think about nothing but baseball, that they can allow themselves to believe that people care about them enough to give them the gift of uniforms, of gloves, of coaches, of fields—the gift of baseball. It’s here that the field’s tall light towers stand sentry protecting the kids from the stark reminders of promises since broken and forgotten: the Few Gardens housing project demolished as part of a plan to revitalize Durham’s public housing—the Hope VI project it was called—a plan that has barely delivered a tenth of the 425 new houses it promised, so all that is left is disrupted earth as far as the eye can see. This vacuous expanse of dirt sits directly adjacent to the field of dreams, pocked by calmly perched backhoes that intermittently break the listless continuity of the horizon, resting on the ground where people’s homes once stood. “Some of them were given Section 8 housing,” assured an unconvincing housing authority spokeswoman, offering no explanation for the rest of the 240 displaced families.
This was different though, this was a promise that was going to be kept. If these fields cost more than $500,000 and it was a miracle to even get $200,000 together, someone was going to make it happen. If the Housing Authority’s ineptitude and frivolity threatened to sink the league as it almost has the Hope VI project with exorbitant budget proposals calling for, among other things, the acquisition of a fleet of buses, than someone would be there to step forward, to say no, that it would be a “betrayal” to offer the league and then only be able to sustain it financially for a few years; that would be unacceptable.
Who knows why people still had faith that people outside of their community cared for them? Maybe because Herb Sellers took the reins, and he was from the community. He looked like them and talked like them, and when he made promises, it was hard to be skeptical; when he asked you to coach, it was hard to decline. After all, the man was working 70-hour weeks and wasn’t getting paid a dime. If it was hard to believe that Capitol Broadcasting and the Durham Bulls behind Mike Hill, a self-described “white guy from suburban Connecticut,” had more than just a political interest in the league; that is, if you really couldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, you had to give it to Herb. But for whatever reason, “we put it in front of them, and they seized it,” to the tune of 200 kids lined up on opening day. “It was an overwhelming day,” continued Hill. “There were a lot of tears.”
The league was a success from the first game in the spring of 1994, but Hill and Sellers were not yet satisfied. “The very first year,” remembers Hill, “me and Herb would sit there, we would talk about how great it would be to get new fields because the ones we were playing on were really pretty lousy ... They were just places they put bases down, the spaces had nothing going for them other than they were empty.” So they built the nicest field they could—with an underground irrigation system, giant light towers, bleachers, a painted brick concession stand, a broadcast booth and dugouts—and put it in the neediest area they could find. “That’s exactly the reason why we picked those fields,” explains Mike Birling, the general manager of the Durham Bulls, who makes sure the field is maintained to the Bulls’ own professional standards, “because it’s the worst part of Durham, and we know we can make an impact.”
And they have made an impact beyond anyone’s expectations. Something that nobody could have anticipated happens on these fields when the sun begins to set on balmy summer nights, when the housing projects are overwhelmed by shadows and gently drawn away to somewhere outside this atmosphere. The light fixtures around the field will begin to wake up, and as the electricity crawls up through the wooden poles, the lights will do their best to bring life to Long Meadow Park, and the kids will take to the freshly lined field with the flickering energy of youth. They’ll forget their walk down Liberty Street, past boarded-up supermarkets and abandoned houses, past old men drinking from bottles sheathed in brown paper bags who watch them walk by with amused chuckles, as if to say “Why bother?” But the sun will go down on them, the lights will shine, and the kids will walk onto the field and throw a ball around and remember themselves.
That’s roughly what’s happening on a mild summer afternoon in June as a grinning boy named Dominic sits in the shade while his team, the Black Nights, waits for another game to finish. He ponders whether his team of 7- and 8-year-olds could beat the San Francisco Giants.
“Nuh uh. Not with Barry Bonds.” And if Barry Bonds weren’t playing? “Maybe we could get a home run.” Then a teammate named Joey comes and sits next to him, and the conversation shifts to who is the better hitter.
“Me!” yells Dominic gleefully.
“No, me,” Joey counters.
“You haven’t even hit a home run yet!”
“I’ve hit a home run.”
Dominic, having hit two home runs in the Black Nights’ first game, is probably the better of the pint-sized sluggers. But he concedes that Joey is better in the field. As the Black Nights await their second turn between the chalk lines, parents watching the game erupt in screams and revel uproariously in the players’ endeavors. With coaches pitching meatballs to hitters on their own team, the kids smack grounders and pop flies all over the field while the other team chases the ball down amid a frenzy of chaos. Parents stomp boisterously, beating the aluminum bleachers in erratic patterns devoid of rhythm; they clap their hands and jump up in impromptu ovations and infuse their own visceral energy onto a field where a million things are already transpiring all at once. When the excitement seems to be boiling over and out of control, an easygoing umpire walks onto the field and tries to instill an air of calm and order. But his soft words are easily drowned out by women who sit in the bleachers and holler shrill encouragement to the kids after every hit, as if the higher their pitch the faster the kid will run. The coaches yell for their kids, plead with the umpire, and deride each other with barbed jokes lobbed from dugout to dugout. You won’t find more passion for a baseball game at Fenway Park when the Yankees are in town.
This is all a good thing. “It’s having an effect on the parents,” says Willy Hays, a 34-year-old father whose son plays in the league. “Some kids were a little misguided; this is showing them the right path, and their parents are seeing that, and they’re doing more, they’re helping keep the kids on the right path.” Willy works at Church’s Fried Chicken, and spends every moment he can with his young son who bears the same name. “I think about gangs because I’ve got a son who’s 10 years old; in three more years he’ll be a teenager. I worry about the gangs because I know they’re going to come after him. But as long as I continue to talk to him, keep him involved in sports and with positive images like coach—as long as I keep him around stuff like that, I don’t have to worry so much.”
An elderly woman sitting on the corner of the bleachers quietly echoes the sentiment against the din from a trio of young ladies who shout and shriek and delight in the game. The woman’s name is Clementine, and she is here to watch her 7-year-old grandson, Denzel, play baseball on a mild Saturday afternoon. The child’s parents are not around, and Clementine says the explanation is “a long story,” so now she is the child’s legal guardian. She describes the league laconically. “It’s great. It keeps him out of the streets. Gives him something to do.”
And the league has begun to have an effect on him. “It’s slowed him down, calmed him down. Lets all the energy off. And that makes it a lot easier for me.” After a pause, Clementine pipes up again. “He’ll be in second grade. His teachers say he’s very intelligent.”
Denzel comes to bat, takes a theatrical whack at the ball and sends it skipping off toward the shortstop. Clementine suppresses a smirk. But then Denzel makes a base running error, and the first base coach sighs, rests his hand on little Denzel’s shoulder, and gives him an earful. Clementine chuckles and offers that it’s good to have someone to give him a hard time every once in awhile. “Especially when he’s not doing what he’s supposed to.”
The Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League owes its genesis and its continued success to what amounts to a study in happenstance—various forces coming together in just the right place at just the right time.
Eleven years ago, Durham was at a juncture. The Durham Bulls had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Capitol Broadcasting Company, a media outlet controlling two local television stations and a radio station. Jim Goodmon, the company’s president, CEO and voting owner, wanted to move the team to Wake County. As of five years ago, 62 percent of the fans at Bulls games came from outside of Durham, mostly from Wake, so the move would have put the Bulls at the center of the market.
Meanwhile, Durham city officials knew that the Bulls were a central component to the city’s economic livelihood and historic character and became desperate to keep the team in Durham. A bond referendum came up that would have appropriated money to build a new stadium in Durham and keep the Bulls in town, but Goodmon ran ads that contributed to its defeat, freeing him to move the team to the more profitable region. Tempers flared and editorial sections of local newspapers lit up with vitriol over Goodmon’s proposed move, which was characterized as a shrewd business maneuver that would gut the city of Durham. But Goodmon’s aspirations were to facilitate regional cooperation. “We bought the Bulls for the specific reason of making a regional sports complex,” explains Mike Hill, vice president of Capitol Broadcasting and Goodmon’s second in command, “because we wanted the area to act more as a region than as individual parts.” And any broad-based development needs an anchor tenant—“That was us.” They walked the walk, too; Triangle Regional Park, as it was to be called, would be built literally right on the border between Durham and Wake counties, perfectly positioned to bring the area together and connect two cities.
While Hill’s explanation might be seen as fancy footwork dodging responsibility for a move that favored Goodmon’s business interests at the expense of an entire city, Goodmon declined one offer that would have been a financial windfall because he thought it would have been contrary to Durham’s best interest. “What most people don’t know is this amazing offer [Durham councilman] Chuck Grubb made at one point,” Hill says. “He sent me a letter saying we could keep the Bulls here, the city would financially contribute to building the actual park here, and let us move to Wake County if the Bulls become AAA [which they weren’t at the time]. If we said yes to that, I think it would have been disastrous for the city. So we declined.”
Everything was in place for the construction of the new Triangle Regional Park, but as Wake County got ready to dish out millions to fund a stadium to the exclusion of other development projects, the political heat was on. Goodmon was ultimately rebuffed, so he brought the plans back to Durham and charged Hill with getting the plans for $11.27 million in funding through the Durham City Council in 30 days. Hill did it in 31. But he cheated a little.
They used a legislative technique called “certificate of participation,” in which a public referendum allowing the people of Durham to vote was forgone for a vote in the council. Without a say in the matter, the people of Durham were put in the uncomfortable position of paying for a stadium they had been convinced to vote against two years earlier. Hill maintains that the reason they skipped the referendum was not because it wouldn’t have passed public muster, but because referendums take six months in North Carolina, and there were construction contracts in place that couldn’t be suspended that long. That nuance became irrelevant, as Hill himself explains, because the plans for a rural stadium had to be scrapped anyway and redrawn for a stadium in the middle of the city, and all the contracts had to be redone as well. Either way, it didn’t look good, and Chuck Grubb asked Mike Hill to talk to the black community, which made up close to half of the city’s population and was the most significant demographic feeling snubbed by the plans.
At the same time, the Bulls were confronting a related problem: the conspicuous absence of African Americans in the fan base. Ran one paper, “[C]rowds at Durham athletic park are too white ... in a city that’s more than 45 percent black, the Bulls constantly draw only a sprinkling of black people.” Besides the criticism that racial homogeneity was engendering, the Bulls were missing out on a potentially significant customer base.
When Hill began his meetings with black community leaders, he had been talking with Alex Galeski, Durham’s director of parks and recreation, about why there was no baseball available to inner-city kids. Once in the company of community leaders, Hill took advantage of the opportunity to float the idea, and it went over well. While the timing suggests that the league was an olive branch of sorts to the black community, Hill dismisses the notion that it was politically motivated. “Would there be political benefits? Maybe. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, I’m not sure how to measure that.”
Hill’s idea was a good one, but he knew a good idea was not enough. Galeski brought aboard Ronnie Ferrel, a longtime parks and rec vet, and James Tabron, then executive director of the Durham Housing Authority. Tabron was an avid baseball fan who immediately recognized the value of a baseball league for the kids from the projects, so he pledged the housing authority’s support. They negotiated a budget and agreed upon an even split: a third paid for by the housing authority, a third by the city, and a third by the private sector. Once the league had two thirds of their funding secured—the city’s cut and the housing authority’s cut—Mike Hill went to work securing donations from the private sector while Herb Sellers, a youth sports freelancer who had spent much of his life as a gospel of sorts, extolling the value of youth athletic programming to the community, began doing what Hill calls “the tough work ... coaches, on the ground organization, running the league.”
With all the pieces in place, the league had money from the housing authority, the organization and facilities from parks and rec, and in the Durham Bulls a new name and eager patron using their corporate relationships to outfit the kids with uniforms and equipment. “That first day, I insisted on the best uniforms,” recalls Hill, “and every kid got a baseball glove [donated by Durham Sporting Goods]. How many leagues do that? But we couldn’t tolerate the fact that some kids would have to borrow gloves.”
Duke University even stepped up, providing buses every Saturday to pick kids up from the housing projects and take them to the games. And behind it all, Herb Sellers was the conductor, masterfully weaving the energies of the various institutions together into a bureaucratic concerto with astounding harmony and cooperation. So, on June 18, 1994, more than 200 children came from their homes in Durham’s 10 public housing communities to play in the inaugural games of the Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League.
“It still gives me goose bumps,” Hill says. “That’s a good day’s work.”
But the league faced crisis early. Soon, Duke stopped providing busing, and many of the kids no longer had the means to get from the housing projects where they lived to the fields. Around the same time, the Durham Housing Authority lost its grant and the league was without one of its major funding sources. But once again, the necessary forces gravitated to the crises and the stars seemed to align to make sure the kids could play ball.
First of all, Adam Grossman and Jared Weinstein, two Duke students, did a school project for Tony Brown’s class on social entrepreneurialism. Through a shared interest in baseball, they took on the revitalization of the DBYAL. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball was recoiling from a strike in 1994 that decimated its fan base as attendance fell by 20 million and was still well below pre-strike numbers by the time Weinstein and Grossman took Brown’s class. Major League Baseball responded to a five-year attendance slide by establishing the Baseball Tomorrow Fund to “promote and enhance” the interest in baseball through funding programs for equipment and field revitalization. The fund kicked off in 1999, and when they started awarding grants in 2000, Grossman and Weinstein were among the first in line, representing the kids of inner-city Durham. Since then, the Baseball Tomorrow Fund has contributed more than $130,000 to the DBYAL. Last year, at its 10th anniversary, the league unveiled its $700,000 rehabilitation project, an initiative that began just as it was confronting its first major obstacle.
Of course, none of this would have been possible were it not for a shared belief in the importance of baseball as therapy for a life replete with hardship, where poverty looms as a distinct possibility and hunger is often only a paycheck away. It is this phenomenon, this shared draw to the mysticism and the innocence of kids playing baseball, that allowed the league to become a priority on everyone’s minds. The Durham Housing Authority saw to the revitalization of a baseball field before that of the houses right across the street; Blue Cross-Blue Shield of N.C. has $38,000 of its community money in the program; the Tampa Bay Devil Rays send memorabilia for the league’s fundraising auctions; and when Bulls players move on, they also seem to find ways to contribute to the league. Bovis Construction provided the field of dreams with an irrigation system, bleachers and dugouts while it was working on Goodmon’s American Tobacco renovations—the biggest historical rehabilitation in the country, right across the street from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
James Blackburn is leaning against the chain link fence; his fists are loosely clenched and dangling over the other side. It’s an overcast morning at Long Meadow Park, and the gray air seems to soften the commotion a few hundred feet to the left of him. He’s picked his spot along the foul line a little bit away from the action, so he can just stand there and watch with that eternal smirk painted on his face, as if he knows something you don’t. He begins to talk about his youth, and his hands start dancing around in a kind of muted expressiveness. Before he started getting in trouble—before he got into drugs, crack, cocaine, any kind of dope he could get his hands on, before that day when he crossed the line, when he needed a fix so bad he went out and committed a crime, before he became a statistic, another dash on the tally of young black men strung out on drugs menacing society, another two inches of ink in a newspaper crime brief that a mother reads before locking her front door—before all that, he was a damn good ballplayer. He left his hometown of Winston-Salem in 1965 and headed north, found a job working part-time for Ford Motor Co. up in New Jersey, and barnstormed with a semi-pro baseball team called the Newark Red Legs. At the age of 18, he was asked to tryout for the New York Mets, and Blackburn had most of the tools the scouts were looking for: a strong arm, the speed of a high school track standout, and the fielding range that came along with it. Everything was going well that day, he was piquing the attention of all the right people and he thought for sure he had a shot, until he stepped to the plate. “When they start throwing that heat up there, boy you can’t bunt your way into the majors. Once I took my first swing I knew it was time for me to go home.”
Which is all well and good; Blackburn has taken baseball further than he ever could playing the game for himself. “I believe in sports. I feel I can do more in baseball than I can in the classroom. I got the kids doing something they enjoy doing.” And he has the uncanny ability to find the kids that really need the DBYAL. “Even though we don’t screen them,” Faggart says with an air of confidence, “with Blackburn, we know we’re getting the right ones.”
Earlier this season, on a beautiful late May afternoon, Blackburn went to pick up one of his players for practice who lived on the south side of Durham. Blackburn has never been apprehensive about being in the grittiest parts of the city; as a street worker, his hubris is something of an occupational hazard. “I go on the south side, I pick up kids there, and I never worry. You know, if people see that you’re working with kids, they respect you. People on the south side know me as ‘coach.’” Even the South Side Queen, a gang elder, has two sons that play for him.
On that particular day, the kid Blackburn was picking up was one of his projects; 9 years old with a father in prison and a mother addicted to crack living somewhere in Chapel Hill, Blackburn was trying to squeeze himself into an unfilled niche in the child’s life. The DBYAL made it easier—the kid was one of the best players Blackburn had, and he loved baseball. So Blackburn did whatever he could, including picking him up at his grandmother’s house for every practice. But this time, when Blackburn pulled up, Durham’s selective enforcement unit—the equivalent of a SWAT team—had the house locked down. The kid got in the car, was silent for a moment, and then said, “Coach, I think somebody snitched on us.”
Blackburn didn’t ask any questions. He put his Toyota in gear, and the two drove off to play baseball.
Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League at a glance
1991 Capitol Broadcasting buys Durham Bulls
1991-92 Plans for moving to the Wake-Durham line are drawn and contracts awarded, but plans fall through
1992 Durham City Council approves plans for new downtown stadium
1993 Funding secured for new stadium
1993-1995 Durham Bulls Athletic Park is built
1993 Mike Hill/Capitol Broadcasting propose creating the Durham Bulls Youth Athletic League
1994 First pitch of DBYAL is thrown
2003 Ground is broken for Long Meadow renovation
2004 First pitch is thrown at Long Meadow Park
Who paid for Long Meadow Park?
$129,710 Major League Baseball’s Baseball Tomorrow Fund
$1,500 Triangle Community Foundation
$25,000 parents of Duke student Adam Grossman
$25,000 parents of Duke student Jared Weinstein
$37,500 Blue Cross-Blue Shield of North Carolina
$3,000 North Carolina Amateur Sports Fund
$5,000 Tampa Bay Ray of Hope in-kind donations by Bovis Construction