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<br />A baseball park move to save the hood

The Tri-State Youth Baseball Academy has been awarded a 15-year, cost-free lease by the Memphis City Council to refurbish and manage Jesse Turner Park at Elvis Presley and South Parkway.

by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

The Tri-State Youth Baseball Academy has been awarded a 15-year, cost-free lease by the Memphis City Council to refurbish and manage Jesse Turner Park at Elvis Presley and South Parkway.

The deal calls for the lease to be split into three, five-year increments, but does not include any financial support from the city, which perplexes Tri-State Chairman Tony James, who says the group is going straight ahead into the fundraising stage, determined to make the park a success again.

 The 4th Annual Tri-State Youth Baseball Academy Banquet was held at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis last week (Feb. 17). The guest speaker was former St. Louis Cardinals star Vince Coleman, who helped congratulate the Collins Chapel Collinites for their T-Ball championship. At the podium is Tony James. (Photo by Tyrone P. Easley)

For James, it’s very simple. Getting kids into the allure of the crack of the bat will help steer them from the allure of crack on the street, and other ills that plague the immediate area surrounding the park. It may sound cliché to some, but James’s own life experience and the park’s history certainly lend credence to his theory.

“Kids in the inner city have had nowhere to play baseball for a long time and our goal is to restore this facility as our home park. Our goal is to raise the money to restore the park and also to build a smaller field to give small kids somewhere to play,” said James.

“It is imperative that we do this because the months between May and August are the most vulnerable time for kids in the inner city. We don’t have the money to send them to camp.  Revamping the park creates more opportunities to build more teams and create the personal goal building, respect and positive outlook playing on a team builds.”

Grown in four years to over 30 teams grouping more than 300 kids, the civic league’s new coup comes with its own history. Called Bellevue Park until renamed for local civil rights activist Jesse Turner, president of Tri-State Bank for decades, the diamond was just that to the adjacent neighborhood and many more far away.

A difference James insists his group brings to the table is real family involvement.

“This is not just a babysitting service where you drop off the kid and then go off and do your thing. We are built to operate on the dynamic of child-parent-coach-team to help build every child.”

Trucker Delancey McNeil, who grew up on Pillow Street and went to Hamilton elementary, junior and high schools, remembers when his dad, Otis McNeil, would take him, brother Patrick and usually a couple of the neighborhood kids and a certain adopted cousin to the games two or three nights a week sometimes.

“Man, it was right up the street, but it was an adventure just the same. The night games were the best. A hot dog, and a coke and then save some of the coke for some popcorn. And when you get a good game going, a stolen base is a stolen base. That’s when we had neighborhoods, not just ’hoods,” he said.

And that’s James’ goal. But now, in addition to no funding allocation from the city, the project’s initial Council sponsor, Wanda Halbert, has developed reservations.

“I was all for it at first, but I’m not comfortable with the proposal,” said Halbert. “It’s not specific enough for me in identifying fees. If it comes together, as I hope it will, I would like to see the fee structure managed so teams from everywhere can afford to play. It would be wrong to build it and shut kids out because their teams can’t afford the fees, and I don’t want to see them go up three and four times over what they should be. I wanted to see specific goals so we could have measurable commitments that can be assessed.”

Despite the presence of African-American leadership position on elected boards, too often it’s still too obvious that poor kids are a back-channel priority, said Halbert.

James said he is please to have the park, but finds it ironic that, “They gave millions to the Pink Palace, a management group in Overton Park, and even the Brooks Art Gallery, but here we are in the black neighborhood where kids are really desperate for help and they gave us the park with no money. But we’re going to raise it and be successful.”

 Halbert said she was a baseball mom, with one of her sons a home run champ.

“But why is it that we always have to beg and beg and beg to provide support for inner city kids. We don’t spend a dime on parks, except for a very few, and that needs to be brought out. I think it’s a ratio of about 3 out of 100 that are being taken care of, but none that I know of that give inner city kids any real access to recreation to keep them off the streets,” she said.

“We can spend money on a skate park, a dog park (the animal shelter), and everywhere it seems but something nice to keep inner city kids off the streets, and it’s a challenge for me. We need to be spending money in all areas.”

James is putting out a call for adults to squeeze a little casino, happy hour and movie time to devote some time as coaches.

“The biggest problem we have is finding coaches. So many people want to talk about social problems we have but don’t want to do anything about it. The speaker at our annual banquet, Vince Coleman from the St. Louis Cardinals, told the kids how you can play longer and the salaries are greater in baseball, if that’s your leaning.”

James was drafted into the major leagues and played with several teams, including the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees.

Those experiences are part of what is driving him toward fulfilling the dream of revamping Jesse Turner Park.

“It’s in shambles and it’s a shame,” James said.

“The next step is to begin our fundraising drive. Please direct your readers to www.tristatebaseball.org.”


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