In Strawberry Mansion, fun and games with a serious goal

The Strawberry Mansion All-Stars coaches’ team was down to its final three outs Wednesday to avoid losing yet-another game to the local FBI softball team.

This matchup has been played on the field near Mander Recreation Center, at 33rd and Diamond streets, each year since 2007. The feds hadn’t lost since the first game, and they had a two-run lead. It didn’t look good for the locals.

Then came a string of hits wrapped around a bad error by the FBI team’s pitcher. Just as an ice cream truck arrived playing “Pop Goes the Weasel,” the locals unleashed a game-winning blast to centerfield.

As the neighborhood kids looked on chomping on free hot dogs and pretzels, coaches and feds posed for the annual group picture. Some waited 15 minutes for the TV-news live shot, as the Power 99 tent, BBQ grill, FBI exhibits and CeasefirePA informational table were packing up.

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An alternative to mean streets

Though hotly contested, this game wasn’t about the final score. It was about raising awareness of a youth league that gives Strawberry Mansion’s kids an option to street temptations, and about the fedkilleds putting a friendly human face on oft-mistrusted law-enforcement communities.

The setting itself is on the edge of danger. During the 2007 game, a man was shot three times in the head less than two blocks way. Not even a week after Mayor Michael Nutter ceremoniously opened the Mander pool this June, a father who’d come to the aid of his son after a bullying fight nearby got shot and killed. That crime both forced organizers to delay the coaches/FBI tilt, but also showed why the game was justified in the first place.

Consider the anxiety over seemingly uncontrollable “marauding” youths grabbing headlines and it’s easy to see why adults turn out to support the youth league.

“It’s kept almost everybody around here out of trouble,” said Trey Hamilton, a high-school sophomore who has played in the league for several years. He proudly pointed out that he was the cover picture when a newspaper featured the league. “I didn’t want to play at first, until I came up here and saw what it was like. It keeps you off the streets.”

Explaining how the league got started five years ago, Derrick Ford hearkened back to a meeting at the nearby Cornerstone Baptist Church. Back then, the hot-button issue wasn’t flash mobs; it was police cameras in the neighborhoods. And, the big question to police and the neighborhood’s adults was: What are you doing for the youth?

“Little did I know about the transformation that was about to take place,” said Ford who, along with fellow organizer David Lisby, set out to restore the Mansion baseball diamond of their youth into a place that could host a league in which he estimates more than 1,000 have since participated. “We had no balls, no bats, no gloves. Just a whole lot of hope and just a whole lot of kids.”

The Phillies have chipped in equipment and support through Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities.  The team’s Jimmy Rollins has met with league players, giving them autographed balls. The field doesn’t go untended thanks to attention from the Fairmount Park Commission. Despite police tape never being too far away, the Mansion All-Stars program seems to be a model of a youth program that works, even if in a limited sense.

“We’re trying to improve the quality of life here,” Ford said.

Calling all adults

Referring to concerns over packs of youths attacking bystanders at random, he added, “I don’t think you can solve it at City Hall, or in Council Chambers. You need to be out here in the neighborhoods. It’s about a simple hug and telling them that I love them, because it’s not coming out of the homes where they’re getting cussed out and kicked out. They just don’t hear it. Telling them they’re loved is the antidote.”

While praising involved adults such as Ford, city District Attorney Seth Williams said bluntly in a phone interview that their efforts alone won’t be enough: “The bottom line is this: Where the hell are the parents? If we don’t have parents being parents out there, we’re all screwed.”

To be sure, some parents are being parents in Mansion, but the league could always use more.

When talk turned back to baseball, league coach Aaron Washington pointed out that an even bigger game would be played on that very diamond the next day.

The Strawberry Mansion All-Stars championship game will decide who will get high honors at an annual banquet, which is just another way the players get shown they’re loved, even if it takes surrogate parents to say so.

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