To the untrained eye the wind-blown Community Little League diamond tucked into a corner of Doolittle Park looks like an ordinary ballfield. But Ricky Towers calls it his field of dreams.
Towers grew up in this park and picked jackrabbit-hop grounders off its dirt infield. He points to the horizon beyond the outfield fence and says, "I was raised right over there on K Street. My parents still live in that house."
More than four decades ago, he played ball on a far cruder version of the field he stands on. He scurried around the rickety wooden bleachers that, until recently, were still in use. He remembers the time city bureaucrats saw fit to close the field, leaving hundreds of area kids with no place to play but the street.
But now the field is open for business with a renovation just in time for the start of another season. There's healthy outfield sod, foul poles, a warning track, picnic area, popup sprinklers for the dirt infield, and a parking lot.
A parking lot?
"People used to just have to park on the grass," Towers says. "There was no place for them to park."
Then he waxes eloquent on the wonders of a sprinkler system that has finally replaced an ancient low-pressure water line.
"I used to say, 'All I need is water. All I need is water. All I need is water,' " he says. "But it was never in the budget. All I need is something to water the infield so I can keep down the bad hops, so the kids won't flinch. At shortstop, it's a nightmare to make the plays with bad hops. It's been bad-hop city for 15 years."
If this were most neighborhoods, celebrating a few field improvements wouldn't rate a line in the newspaper. But Doolittle Park isn't in most neighborhoods. It's a patch of green in the heart of the Westside, one of the valley's poorest and most troubled areas.
As if to punctuate that fact, Towers reminds me his two older brothers died violently a couple of miles from home plate.
But he's not here to rake the coals of the past, or to dwell on the institutional neglect Doolittle has suffered from over the years while parks in better neighborhoods have blossomed. On the Westside, improvements are few and far between, and authorities have been known to close streets with little notice.
"The bitterness, I've sort of let that go," the 53-year-old says.
There's little time for cynicism when you're developing a chartered Little League program in the heart of the inner city.
Since 1993, Towers has been a commissioner, director, manager, groundskeeper, and fundraiser for Community Little League. With a small staff and help mostly coming from neighborhood businesses and politicians, the league manages to sponsor 60 percent of the 300 players. Other area Little Leagues sport 1,500 players and rarely need to underwrite their participation.
And, he admits, you won't find quite the same challenges facing teams in the valley's other Little Leagues. There's violence in the neighborhood, but no games are scheduled at Doolittle on Friday nights, when the park is harder to manage.
Other than the occasional wino wandering into fair territory, he says there's never been a major incident in more than 15 years.
"It's the grace of God and the people that are involved in the program," Towers says as the spring breeze picks up, blowing dust and memories.
The infield is still made of cheap clay, but now the popup sprinklers keep it from blowing across the county. And unlike most places in this neighborhood, the ballfield's soil has helped grow a generation of boys by teaching the fundamentals of the game, the importance of teamwork, respect for authority, and playing by the rules.
Towers is as rock solid as Ripken. He's held the same casino dealer's job 20 years, been married 30 years, has grown children, and now grandchildren.
But at this moment on his field of dreams, he's thinking about his two older brothers, a long time gone but rarely far from memory. There's a lesson in that memory.
"I do think I was spared," he says. "I've always been focused. What it did for me was, I knew I was OK. I knew 3,000 kids were vulnerable. ... The mentorship is what really saves them.
"I just want to keep these kids in a safe environment."
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.