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New league hits a homer with low-income youths

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PROVO — Coach Mike Tejada gathers his ballplayers for a pre-game pep talk, and the pre-teen boys and girls eagerly await his instructions.

"We're going through the lineup one more time," Tejada says, in a manner that is at once demanding yet soothing. "After the ninth batter, everybody's going to bat, even if you're not playing."

Soon after, Tejada sends his hitters to the plate while the opposing team takes the field. The third baseman can barely heave the ball to first, the left fielder finds a nice spot in the shade to sit down between pitches and the pitcher hits two of the first three batters. It could be a little-league game anywhere in America, but few would expect this in Provo.

It's not the fielders' lack of experience that makes this game stand out, although some players don't own their own gloves and may not have ever used one before their first practice. It's not the uniforms, somewhat haphazard but sharp-looking nonetheless with sponsors' names plastered on hats and T-shirts.

What makes this version of baseball different — at least for Provo — is that most players are minorities from low-income families. If Provo has an "inner city," these kids are its offspring. But it's not so much that the kids are different than any others in America. What's different is Provo.

In suburban, middle-class and homogenous Utah County, these ballplayers stand out. Organizers and volunteers of this baseball league say many of the kids wouldn't be able to play if it weren't for their efforts. The Provo Parks and Recreation baseball program costs $45 per child, while this league charges just $5. Those who can't pay, don't. And the kids still play.

"Most of the parents say they can't afford to pay the fees," said Rebekah Griffin, a recent Brigham Young University law graduate who founded the league last year. "We just want the kids to play. This is more of a workshop because most of these kids haven't played organized team sports before."

The league, which kicked off its 2000 season at Provo's Harmon Park Tuesday, is in danger of folding, Griffin said. Despite plenty of interest from would-be ballplayers, the league has a difficult time scheduling the field. Griffin and others blame the city, which they say has not supported their efforts. Some charge Provo officials with ignoring the league's needs because most of its players are Latinos or come from single-parent, low-income families.

There's obviously a lot of angst among some Provo residents who feel they are being overlooked by the majority. And it has to do with a lot more than baseball.

"These are kids that are just flat cut out of the city program," said Paul Wilkey, a Provo resident volunteering his time to help with the baseball games. "They can't afford to play."

City officials say they welcome the league. They also say problems over scheduling of Harmon Park have resulted not from bias but from a busy summer season with lots of interested groups vying for field time.

"We've bent over backwards for them," said Todd Haderlie, program supervisor at Provo Parks and Recreation.

Despite underlying issues of race and class, life becomes very simple once the kids take the field. Players seem mesmerized by the game, and coaches like Tejada have a way of making everyone — even the girl with the long ponytail who strikes out — feel like champions.

In a world where Cuban ballplayers come to the United States on flimsy rafts and make millions, there's room for every little ballplayer's dream, Tejada believes.

"The bottom line is for the kids to have fun," he says. "My goal is just to teach them something, whether that is about baseball or about being a good citizen or something else."

Tejada believes, too. Sixteen years ago in Hawaii, Tejada started a similar league for underprivileged kids. One of the players was his own son, Mike Tejada Jr., who now plays professionally in the farm system of the Colorado Rockies. Tejada doesn't doubt that one of Provo's inner city players could follow a similar path.

The league, which is affiliated with the Western Boys Baseball Association, had about 50 players participate last summer during its first season. This year, there are three teams and a fourth is being pulled together for the month-long season. But the future is cloudy; late July and August is not the ideal time to play because of vacations and the impending start of school. Organizers would like to begin the season earlier, but Harmon Park is tied up.

Many of the league's players come from families where parents work several jobs and aren't always able to participate with their kids. That's one of the reason many of the kids can't play in the official Provo league. Games are played at Fort Utah Park, on the west side of town, and the players from neighborhoods like Maeser, Provost and Joaquin just can't get there.

"This is more fun for some of them than city league because it's a little more laid-back and everyone can play," said Megan Okerlund, a BYU student who directs the league along with her husband, Clint. But, she said, "I think the only way this league is going to keep going is if there are a lot of dedicated people who care about these kids and are willing to go down to the city to plead our case."

E-mail: carter@desnews.com