Playing baseball has kept young boys in Little Village safe, away from street violence and gangs. It has also opened the door to opportunities that once seemed distant, said 13-year-old Freddy Garcia.
On Sunday Garcia and friends, Victor Cervantes and Ben DeMateo took off for Costa Rica to participate in an international baseball tournament where they will be a part of the Mexico team.
“We’re very fortunate,” Freddy said. “My parents are excited and say that some kids don’t get this opportunity so we must take advantage of this opportunity.”
The boys, who have been playing side by side in parks on Chicago’s Southwest Side since they were 4 years old, are the only players from the United States representing team Mexico in the 14-and-under tournament in Central America, that runs through Sunday, said Matt DeMateo, executive director of the New Life Church, which runs the Little Village Little League. The boys will be competing with teams representing the Dominican Republic, United States, Colombia, Panama and Puerto Rico.
For more than a decade, the Little Village Little League has been a safe haven for boys, providing them with an environment far from the one often highlighted in the news — and instead fostering their growth in the sport and academically. More than 300 children participate in the league.
Ben said that the trip the three boys are taking is more than just about baseball, it is a testament to the work that he and other community leaders have been putting in to inspire change.
“For us, it is about the power of sport to create safe spaces, where kids are able to thrive. Play is one of the most important ways in which youth can deal with trauma and is one of the number one ways to build community,” DeMateo said. Few times, kids playing ball in underserved communities get the same opportunities as those playing in leagues in wealthier areas.
Freddy, Victor, and Ben know that. Right before leaving, Freddy and Victor shared their excitement to represent Mexico. “It’s a special feeling because I get to represent where my parents came from and I’m going to cherish every moment of it,” said Victor.
When he started playing ball, it was just for fun, he recalled. But he began to fall in love with the game. Victor’s father, Victor Cervantes Sr., said he is proud of his son. After immigrating to Chicago from Jalisco nearly 15 years ago, they established themselves in Little Village.
Cervantes Sr. said that he is grateful that his son can play in the tournament and commended the coaches for their work.
“Gracias a dios pudo ir, y espero que lo aprovechen, no todos los niños de su edad en el vecindario tiene esta oportunidad,” Cervantes Sr. said. “Thank God he was able to go, and I hope they take advantage of it, not all kids his age in the neighborhood have this opportunity.”
The trip is also proof that good news and good baseball players are developing in the Little Village neighborhood thanks to the investment in youth, said Tony Rodriguez, one of the boys’ coaches.
“But the goal of it all is for the boys to eventually get a scholarship and pursue higher education,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, who was raised in Little Village, wanted to make sure that the sport wasn’t only a distraction but rather a pipeline for growth for the youth that would ultimately also change the community narrative.
For that, Rodriguez helped establish the Little Village Sluggers, a year-round development program that is a part of the Little Village Little League that recruits some of the strongest players to teach them the fundamentals of the game and new skills by using his connections as a former college and semipro coach.
He also became part of the coaching staff of the Cubs RBI All-Star program in 2019. Cubs RBI is a Major League Baseball program designed to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among youth as part of Cubs Charities. Several RBI All Stars — including the three boys — emerged from LVLL and participate in RBI Scholars, which offers academic support to athletes in Cubs RBI.
Cubs Charities, Rodriguez said, has provided several resources and facilitated partnerships that have allowed him and DeMateo to foster their mission, including major facility upgrades at Piotrowski Park. The improvements at the park sparked the relationship between Cubs Charities and the Little Village community in 2015. Since then, the organization has invested more than $300,000 in capital and program grants to support things such as the Little Village Little League and the Cubs RBI program.
“Little Village is a great example of how sports can be a vehicle for strengthening youth, families and neighborhoods,” said Keri Blackwell, deputy director for Cubs Charities. “We are excited for the amazing adventure that awaits Ben, Victor and Freddy. Their love for the game and drive to grow is why we remain committed to improving the quality, safety and accessibility of baseball and softball for youth across Chicago.”
The international tournament became a reality thanks to Rodriguez’s connections with a baseball academy in Mexico. The ultimate goal is to connect the players from Little Village and Mexico.
“We want to build a bridge between Chicago and Mexico — we have a bunch of partners and the majority of our players are Mexican — so we wanted to build a strong community of peace together with that group,” said DeMateo.
Freddy, Victor, and Ben will be the first three players to build those connections with the players in Costa Rica.
“Hopefully with our skills we get to someday make it out and show that people from Little Village can really play,” Freddy said.