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  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Brent Fleming gets ready to sprint for the next base if his Mets teammate gets a hit against the Phillies in the Grant Little League. New City Council member Allen Warren helped restart the league in which he once starred. The games have rekindled community spirit in Del Paso Heights.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Daniel Collins of the Mets slides head-first to score past the tag of Phillies catcher Zakkarii Black in a Grant Little League game at Del Paso Elementary School.

  • Ginger Rutland

Ginger Rutland: Little League turns back the clock

Published: Sunday, May. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3E

Back in the day, as the locals say, baseball was king in the hardscrabble North Sacramento neighborhood of Del Paso Heights.

In 1968, Grant Little League sent its Senior Little League all-stars – the 14- to 16-year-olds – to the Senior Little League World Series in Gary, Ind. Grant's "Go get 'em gang," as they were dubbed that miracle season, didn't win it all – they finished third. Nonetheless, many of the 1968 all-stars and other former Grant Little League standouts – Taylor Duncan, Johnny Green, Ricky Jordan, brothers Leon and Leron Lee, and Allen Warren, now a Sacramento city councilman – went on to play baseball professionally.

But, over the past decade, baseball largely disappeared from Del Paso Heights, a victim of fading interest in the sport among African Americans – a national phenomenon – and the rising popularity of basketball, football and video games.

Warren promised during his campaign for a City Council seat to bring back Grant Little League. Following his narrow victory in November, he did just that.

The new District 2 councilman tapped friend and former Grant Little League teammate Mervin Brookins and a half dozen other neighborhood activists he knew to be "doers, not just talkers." They worked feverishly over three months to fill out and process paperwork, find a field, and recruit coaches, players and sponsors.

The response was electric. " 'How can I help?' people wanted to know," recalled Brookins, president of Grant Little League. " 'How can I donate?' "

Typical of the outpouring of good will, Brookins was cutting the grass with his own mower one day at the long-neglected baseball field just off Norwood Avenue. A resident who owns a lawn-care business volunteered to help. He brought his riding mower. Now he maintains the field on a weekly basis. The Twin Rivers Unified School District, which owns the field, dispatched district maintenance crews to repair the dilapidated backstops and fences. They dug out basepaths, formed pitcher's mounds and helped spread the infield dirt, a special baseball mix that cost the fledgling league $1,000.

About 250 kids signed up to play, enough to field 16 teams. A dependable core of 30 volunteers act as coaches, team managers, umpires and scorekeepers.

The season kicked off April 6, with a parade led by the Grant High School marching band. About 500 people lined the streets. Local pastor Ronnie Walton, a member of that '68 all-star team and now on the league's advisory board, says, "People are just overjoyed … These are very exciting times for our community. Grant Little League has ignited an excitement in the young people and from parents in the area."

Brittany Hogan, one of two female coaches, helps direct the Phillies. Her 8-year-old daughter, Tenaya, plays outfield. Hogan says she wanted to pass on a love of the game she played all through high school, a love she inherited from her father, former Grant Little Leaguer Steve Hogan. The elder Hogan was recruited out of college by the San Diego Padres.

The skill levels for the youngest players are what you'd expect from second- and third-graders, most of whom had never caught or thrown a baseball before this season. So poor was the fielding, or more accurately the fumbling, during one recent Phillies-Mets game that almost any players who made it to first base could easily manage to steal their way home. But the kids were having fun.

Across the way, the Pirates hosted the A's, and the 10- to 13-year-olds were better at fielding and hitting. Ten-year-old Damion Williams was catching for his 12-year-old brother, Devon. Their father, Joel, a neighborhood barber who played Grant Little League when he was their age, was beaming.

"Smart kids," he described his sons, "good looking like their dad." Then on a more serious note, gazing across the field at all the kids playing, he added. "This teaches them discipline and how to get along. Instead of shooting at each other, they play baseball with each other."

His younger son Damion says he would be home playing video games if the Grant Little League hadn't started. But he prefers real baseball to the virtual game he plays on his Xbox. "You really get to play the game instead of just controlling the people."

The reborn Grant Little League has the feel of a neighborhood festival, especially on the weekends. Volunteers staff a makeshift snack bar, selling chili and "I Love Grant Little League" T-shirts. A former Grant High School football star grills hot links.

Parents and grandparents of players and neighbors, who have no children on the field, sit on lawn chairs or stretch out on blankets to watch the games, offering advice to coaches or just visiting with each other. Toddlers run around, throwing baseballs, imitating their older siblings.

Almost universally, the elders watching the games spoke wistfully and hopefully of a rekindled spirit, of a return to the Del Paso Heights of their youth, a family-friendly neighborhood that thrived before gangs and drugs and guns.

League president Brookins says it's "about a lot more than baseball. It's about building character and community." Grant Little League can provide all of that and more.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ginger Rutland



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