Stepping up to bat for the team

May 1, 2021 - 12:00am -- Living City

Stepping up to bat for the team
A small business owner works to revive an inner-city baseball program

By Ave Lachiewicz, with Jessica Staler

Four years ago, Joe Staler, my brother who lives in Nashville, told me about a local baseball program for youth in which he had gotten involved. I was instantly struck by this great opportunity he had seized to show concrete love for his neighbor — specifically, children from an inner-city neighborhood and their families. 

By 2019, Joe was working with 64 children, ages 5–12, who played on four baseball teams called the Edgehill Cardinals. These teams were made up of youth from the predominantly African-American, Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville, and practiced at Rose Park, in an inner-city neighborhood. There were 24 coaches and team moms, who volunteered by teaching baseball and providing transportation. 

This was the first time that the Edgehill children had played baseball in 12 years.

What happened to kids’ baseball?

Seven years ago, Joe had tried to donate some hats to the local boys’ baseball team. He then learned that teams in the Edgehill area, near his home, had ceased to exist. Many baseball programs for at-risk children were no longer provided by community centers, and the Police Athletic League, which used to support the local teams, had been disbanded. 

Joe joined the local board of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), but he found it fraught with politics. At that time, there was no plan to revive baseball for younger children in his area, as it seemed too difficult a task. 

However, Joe was told that there was no objection to the program, if he could find the resources to build it for this age group. He teamed up with Darryl Robinson from RBI, and they got to work.

Rebuilding from home plate up

Joe owns a successful, small business in downtown Nashville called Hospitality Control Solutions, and he was happy to work on reviving this project, although he had no idea how difficult a task that would be. 

Joe himself is an ardent St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, a marathon runner, lifelong Catholic, and husband to his wife, JoAnne. They have three adult children. He has spent most of his life in cities where wealthy neighborhoods sit adjacent to areas of urban poverty — St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville. 

As Joe started his project to rebuild the local baseball program, he began learning about what this would entail. The players and coaches would first have to be recruited for the teams, so Joe and several of his employees volunteered to coach. 

When donations were needed for uniforms, gloves, helmets and bats, Joe’s company stepped up and donated funds for proper uniforms and equipment. Some children needed car rides to practice, and again Joe provided his company’s marketing manager to organize practices, games and meals, as well as ordering equipment.  

A time of great joy

Since the Civil War, Nashville has been a center for Black education and culture. Nashville’s Edgehill community is a predominantly African-American community, initially populated by freed slaves. As redevelopment in Nashville expanded, the neighborhood lost affordable housing, and many long-term residents were pushed out, as profit was placed before people. 

Many children in Edgehill come from high-stress homes, where family dynamics are unstable, and risk of exposure to violence, gangs, and drugs is high. 

Joe believed that baseball would be a great opportunity for these children. Why baseball? Joe would say that it’s the American sport. 

“You have a coach: a role model who teaches you to excel individually and as a group. You have a beautiful new uniform. You’re in front of a crowd and your family. You’re up to bat. You can hear the crack of your bat, run the bases, and drive in a run. 

“The focus is on you. You are important.”

In 2019, the newly formed Edgehill Cardinals were successful, winning games and tournaments and traveling throughout the city. It was a time of great joy. The team was hosted for meals, and families showed up to cheer for their kids. 

Joe fell in love with these families and their children, whom he described as “eager, loving and beautiful.” He called the coaches and team-moms his heroes and an inspiration. 

Nancy C. from Edgehill United Methodist Church said: “The win for our 9–10-year-old Edgehill Cardinals was more amazing than you will ever know for our community. The parents walked their kids to the game and stayed to watch their kids’ first baseball game. It was a joyous moment for the kids to know their parents were present for their first win.”

One Black athlete in their community won a full scholarship to the University of Memphis, while three other boys got scholarships to prestigious high schools. Most children just stayed out of trouble.

Preserving the parks to play in

Our extended family had numerous exchanges regarding the Edgehill Cardinals. As a pediatrician, I wrote an article for Joe about the health benefits of belonging to a sports team. Athletics promotes physical fitness, and team sports can help children develop leadership skills and form friendships. Being part of the team also gave the youth a sense of community. 

Joe and I discussed the need for Nashville to protect its parks so that children could play outside. More community engagement was necessary to protect Nashville from becoming overbuilt, to the detriment of its natural beauty. The striking view from the Rose Hill baseball field of Fort Negley and downtown Nashville needed to be preserved as a gift for its citizens.

In fact, trying to guarantee space for the children to play baseball was a worrisome problem. In their area, a neighboring university planned to build a 21,000-square-foot athletic center on Edgehill’s beautiful, 24-acre Rose Park for their own athletic program, encroaching on the space used by the children. The city of Nashville owned Rose Park and was interested in the money this university was offering for use of its land. 

Joe hired a lawyer to encourage the city to honor the purpose of the land and avert a potential land grab of city space necessary for recreational use. Joe and his friends at the Organized Neighborhood of Edgehill, also advocated to preserve the park. 

Unfortunately, however, the city agreed to allow the university to build its athletic building, but did concede to an arrangement that would allow the baseball program to continue.  

As of now, there is little access remaining for the baseball players, but there is at least some. At one level, losing the fields at Rose Park represented the loss of one more park in the city-wide abandonment of services for at-risk children. 

At another level, it was also extraordinarily painful, as Joe personally knew those children and their families. He was assured that advocates would continue to fight to reinstate lost programs. 

Advocacy in action

Joe has begun talking to members of his and other nearby churches about being more vigilant towards the poor in their neighborhoods and remaining engaged with their local community. He is committed to learning how Nashville’s universities, such as Vanderbilt and Belmont, can form stronger relationships within the community. 

For Joe, advocacy is an action whereby those with advantages in life go to bat for those without the same opportunities. What was meant to be a modest donation of hats turned into a community-building

effort, encompassing his love for baseball, a greater understanding of urban disparities, and a lesson in the importance of loving our neighbors.

This past year brought the Covid pandemic, as well as rallies in the streets of Nashville after the death of George Floyd. 

Because of the events of 2020, the Edgehill Cardinals have been unable to play baseball, but working to revive inner-city teams seems more meaningful now than ever. We look forward to the Edgehill Cardinals coming up to bat again soon.                             

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