“In my short life, I’ve experienced racism,” says Nomar Garciaparra, speaking to a crowd of about 200 gathered at the Lennox Little League field. Today’s a big day for Lennox, a tiny city (officially, it’s a “Census Designated Place”) in Los Angeles County, less than a mile east of LAX. Two months after almost having to cancel this year’s little league season (primarily due to a fee hike imposed by the L.A. Unified School District, who owns the field), the three-diamond ballpark is finally open after being completely renovated under the auspices of the Walmart’s “42” Field Refurbishment Program. “But I can’t even imagine what Jackie Robinson had to go through,” continues Garciaparra. “For someone like me, someone like you, because of him, we have an opportunity to fulfill a dream, to play Major League Baseball.”
The mostly Latino crowd cheers. Loud. Proud to see a hometown hero, up close and personal, giving his personal blessing to their tiny slice of America. Although Garciaparra grew up in Whittier, another of L.A. County’s many small “cities,” Los Angeles, city, county and metro, is as much a cultural center-point as a geographic locale, so Lennox might as well be home for him. And given the former shortstop’s ethnic roots, to the parents, couches, volunteers and especially the kids here, Nomar’s a homie, through and true.
When Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped on to Ebbet’s Field on April 15, 1947 and took first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, almost ten years before the start of the Civil Rights Movement, the America whose favorite pastime he then represented was a different place. As exemplified in 42, Warner Bros’ new biopic of the Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson was subject to more outright instances of racial hatred in his first year of rockin’ Dodger blue than you and I might ever witness in our lifetime. That he managed to not only play the game, but play it damn well, winning the first-ever Major League Rookie of the Year award in the process, despite constant harassment, verbal abuse, physical violence disguised as “circumstantial to the sport” and a barrage of death threats, is testament to the man’s prowess on the field and stature as a man capable of enduring a lot more than most men would even imagine, all for the love of the game.
Sixty-six years later, a man named Roberto Aguirre takes the podium at the Lennox field and tells the crowd why he also loves the game: “I lost a lot of friends, growing up. But one way out for me was baseball. I look back now and say that if it weren’t for Little League, for Lennox Little League, I’d be in a different spot. Maybe not even here.”
Aguirre grew up here, played ball here, coached here and eventually took charge of the league and now serves as its President, all under increasingly more difficult circumstances, from persuading his kids – 400 in total – to stay out of gangs and play ball instead to the aforementioned L.A. Unified School District doubling the fees they charge the League for use of the field, which is officially part of Lennox Middle School. (The LAUSD argued that the fee hikes were to cover the costs of security, due to the proliferation of gangs in the area, but Aguirre argued back that in all his years with the League, they’ve never had a problem with the gangs). Back in January, with the season at the eleventh hour of being cancelled, even a local strip club tried to come to the rescue by donating the season’s fee, but Aguirre had to turn it down.
Eventually donations came in, including the hefty one being highlighted today.
In partnership with Scotts (the lawn care company), Ball Park Hot Dogs, Warner Bros Pictures and the Jerry Clark Foundation (an organization dedicated to empowering kids via academics and athletics), Walmart identified and refurbished ten little league fields in lower-income areas across the country, from Orlando to Atlanta to Chicago’s South Side and all the way here, directly under the flight path of incoming airliners to the City of Angels, in the tiny little city of Lennox, where a hundred or so bright-eyed, future Major League prospects tune in to their everyday hero, Aguirre, concluding his “thank you” speech to Nomar and the various Walmart, Scotts and even LAUSD representatives in attendance, by pointing to the large poster from 42 of Jackie Robinson sliding into home: “Baseball saved my life.”