Maywood-Bellwood Little League baseball players have fun during a July 15 award ceremony and outing at Stevenson Park in Bellwood. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
Thursday, July 20, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Byron Banks, 32, looked out at the baseball diamonds at Stevenson/Memorial Park, 3101 Washington Blvd. in Bellwood, last Saturday and recalled his own playing days.
“When we were playing on these fields, there were [at least 16 teams in different divisions],” said Banks, who was a star pitcher in the majors division for Central Credit Union back in the days Bellwood youth baseball teams were named after the businesses sponsoring them — businesses like BorgWarner and Mickey’s Drive-in.
Banks played baseball for Proviso East High School before going off to play for Indiana University and, after transferring, Grambling State University.
Kids cool off in the sprinklers at Stevenson Park in Bellwood on July 15 during a post-season outing for the Maywood-Bellwood Little League. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
“I came back from college and this is what it was like,” Banks said, pointing to a swath of empty park. “I have no idea what happened. I think it may have been a lot of different things.”
The lack of a strong baseball league in either Maywood or Bellwood presented an opening for Banks, a member of Athletic Konnection, a nonprofit that focuses on developing the skills and character of young athletes in Proviso Township.
The organization was formed from a bond between Banks and some of his former teammates, many of which he spent his formative years playing with, and against, in the community, in high school and in college. They represent multiple sports, including baseball and football.
There were nearly 50 participants in the league’s debut season said Speed Alexander, the league’s president. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
Last year, members of AK teamed up with Speed Alexander, the head of the Maywood B.U.C.S. youth sports organization, to create the Maywood-Bellwood Little League. Banks is a board member while Alexander is the league’s president.
“There are a lot of kids out here who have some very tough situations at home. My goal is to give kids a chance to be kids while they’re still young,” Alexander said on July 15 at Stevenson Park during an awards ceremony for the players who participated in the league’s debut season.
“My goal is to give kids a chance to be kids while they’re still young,” said Speed Alexander. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
Alexander said that the league fielded 49 kids on three different teams comprising players ages five and six, seven and eight, and nine and 10.
“The Bellwood program was so strong at one time that they never participated in Little League,” Alexander explained. “So, since they didn’t have a Little League charter and I do, we sat down and said, ‘Let’s combine both leagues since our numbers are so low.'”
Alexander said he doesn’t believe Maywood or Bellwood fielded a baseball team at all last year. In Maywood, he said, there were two teams fielded in 2015.
Robert Jay, whose four grandchildren participated in the Maywood-Bellwood Little League this year, helped coordinate a baseball league formed by the Maywood Sports Association in 2015.
The league was made of a pee wee team for kids ages four to six years old; a minor league team for kids ages seven to eight years old; and a Little League team for kids ages nine to 12 years old.
Robert Jay, who helped organize a baseball league in Maywood that lasted for two years, has four grandchildren in the new Maywood-Bellwood Little League. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
Jay said that the MSA had a difficult time recruiting young people to be in the league. And if they enrolled, he said, they had a hard time retaining them. Jay attributed some of the problem with recruiting and retaining baseball players to the overlapping seasons of different sports.
“We got too many sports going on at one time,” Jay said. “Last year, I had nine kids. Four of them were committed to baseball and football. If practices were at the same time, they went to football.”
A child revels in the sprinklers at Bellwood’s Stevenson Park on July 15. | Sebastian Hidalgo
Alexander said that the partnership with Athletic Konnection, in addition to growing partnerships with athletic entities in other communities, helped make the Little League’s first year a success.
“We told ourselves that if Byron and these guys who have played at the college and pro level can combine with us and put it together, if we can connect and pull our resources together, we can bring baseball back,” Alexander said.
Letting kids be kids is the league’s goal, said Alexander. Last Saturday, the kids were kids. | Sebastian Hidalgo/VFP
Banks said that if the newly formed league is to be around for the indefinite future, local businesses need to get back into the picture. Revenue from sponsors can help offset the costs involved in fielding teams.
Although the league charges $80 per youth for each season and has launched numerous fundraisers, the money doesn’t rise to what businesses can bring to the table, league officials indicated.
“We need the support of businesses who can sponsor teams,” Banks said. “Back in the day, every team used to have a sponsor. Your funding comes from businesses who sponsor us. The sponsorship opportunities start at $300 and go up from there.”
In the meantime, the future looks bright, said Banks, who said that nearly 90 young people have registered Athletic Konnection’s second annual baseball camp that will be held the weekend of July 22.
“People are seeing what we’re doing and we look to grow tremendously,” said Alexander. VFP