Baseball caps pressed to their chests, 160 young ballplayers stood in the outfield Saturday morning, listening to the national anthem and waiting patiently for the start of Bolden Little League’s second season.
Moments later, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo threw out the first pitch at Doolittle Park and shouted, “Play ball!” The children, ranging in age from 4 to 12, swarmed the dugouts at the diamonds near Lake Mead Boulevard and J Street.
“It’s important for us to engage with the community outside of traditional law enforcement,” said Lombardo, a sponsor of the Bulldogs. “This is community policing.”
Great time at the opening day of Bolden Little League. Partners with the community. pic.twitter.com/UOPRAaRjUh
— Joseph Lombardo (@Sheriff_LVMPD) April 7, 2018
Homicide Capt. Robert Plummer, former captain of Bolden Area Command, had approached Mario Barlanga when he oversaw the area and asked what the Police Department could do to build a better relationship with the community.
“He said, ‘Bring baseball back,’” Plummer said. “I’m a sports guy, so that seemed like a pretty simple thing to do.”
The number of teams in the league jumped from five teams in 2017 to 11 this year, Plummer said. Every team has at least one police officer as a coach.
“At this age group, if we’re able to deal with them and interact with them at the right level, we can have a long-lasting influence,” he said. “This is the age we want to reach them to show them, police aren’t the bad guys, police are your friends.”
Officer Dave Shives, who the kids know as “Coach Dave,” said the program is part of a yearlong mentorship program, the Police Athletic League, or PAL, in which officers teach kids about issues such as bullying and the importance of financial stability, and being a leader in the community,
“My kids were calling me the entire off-season, asking, ‘When does baseball start?’” Shives said.
He said the league builds trust between officers and children, and that, in turn, helps their policing efforts in the area.
Mario Berlanga, who went to high school with Lombardo, owns the popular Mario’s Westside Market and was born and raised in Marble Manor, down the street from Doolittle Field.
“If they want to keep the kids out of trouble, then they have to give them something to do,” Berlanga said.
“Last year, when we first started, the kids were a little hesitant, but by the end of the season they were joking with the coaches and giving them high-fives and officers were letting them try on their vests,” he said. “Stuff like that brings them together, and they’ll remember that.”
Berlanga said an officer who coached in last year’s league responded to a domestic violence call in the apartment complex behind Doolittle Field after the season ended.
“And they get there and who opens the door — one of the officer’s kids from the team,” Berlanga said.
The officer took the boy out to his patrol car and let him play with the lights to help calm him.
“The relief on the kid’s face when he saw someone friendly that he knew, it made the kid feel a whole lot better,” Berlanga said.
Most Little Leagues cost between $90 and $110 per player — a fee too high for many who live in the Bolden area, which includes the historic Westside community.
Berlanga, Metro officers, the sheriff, the Las Vegas Fire Department, and sponsors such as Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield raised donations for uniforms and equipment so that kids in the predominantly black community could play for free.
Orlena Brown, 43, whose 12-year-old son, Charles Freeman, plays on the Bulldogs, learned about the league from a relative who works at Mario’s. Without the league, she said, putting her son in baseball would not be affordable.
“He likes it, it gives him something to do instead of getting in trouble,” she said. “They look forward to it. Everybody gets a chance to play. I know my son is always excited for practice.”
Last year, she added, the coaches used their own money to take the kids to a Los Angeles Dodgers game in California and to a Little League celebration at Circus Circus.
Money shouldn’t be a barrier for children who want to play, officer Richard Burrus, assistant coach of the Rockies team, said.
“A lot of our players may not have funds so, as coaches, we’ve been putting funds and money together and help out where help is needed – rides, food, practice stuff, whatever’s necessary.”
Marquis Alexis, a 9-year-old Bulldogs player with a strong left arm, enjoys pitching and making friends.
“My favorite part about liking baseball is getting home runs,” he said.
Rashawnda Cisneros, 26, said she’s grateful that the league and coaches keep her 10-year-old daughter, Jazmine, focused on what’s important — education — and teach her sportsmanship and team-bonding.
“It shows the community they’re not bad people,” Cisneros said. “The police are spending their time giving back to their community and kids because they want to see them succeed and do better.
“Even my son after being out here has said, ‘Mommy, I want to be a police officer,’” she said of her 5-year-old Josue Jr. “Those are the things I want to hear.”