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Hollywood Helps to Polish a Local Diamond : Recreation: The baseball field at Helen Keller Park in Athens has been restored, thanks to a TV producer who enlisted financial help from his industry colleagues.

June 11, 1995|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last year Helen Keller Park was so lifeless and desolate that locals referred to it as a graveyard.

Financial troubles forced cancellation of its baseball program, and the Athens park became the realm of what locals called "the negative element.'

"When baseball stopped, the gang-bangers and drug dealers took over," said longtime area resident Marvo Hider, recalling the groups of young men who gathered near the playground to drink malt liquor, play dominoes and deal dope. "It basically became a dead park because people were more or less afraid to come."

An irregular watering schedule even left the grass on the baseball field brown and dry.

But today, thanks to the efforts of one energetic baseball fan, the outfield is again green and the park is filled with the shouts of ballplayers and the crack of bats.

If it sounds like an ending only Hollywood dream-makers could have concocted, it's because, well, they did.

Spurred by television producer Stan Brooks, 14 Hollywood companies--including his own Once Upon A Time Films--donated more than $14,000 to bring baseball back to Helen Keller Park.

Other companies involved include some of Hollywood's heaviest hitters: Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, the ICM management firm and 3 Arts Entertainment.

Together the companies have given rise to the Hollywood Indies Little League program that this summer will give roughly 200 youths from 5 to 14 years old the opportunity to play baseball.

Opening day was June 3, and although games are played only Saturdays and Mondays, the park at 1045 W. 126th St. is filled with uniform-clad players every day for practice.

"Sometimes there's not enough room for all of them," said the park's recreation supervisor, Alberto Navarro.

The idea for the league arose in November after Brooks read a news report that county belt-tightening might force cancellation of youth baseball programs.

An ardent baseball fan, Brooks was troubled by the thought of any child growing up without experiencing the national pastime.

"My whole life began when I saw my first Red Sox game in Fenway Park," he said. "There are so many life lessons in baseball."

In addition, Brooks reasoned that the loss of any organized sports program in the city's urban core would mean one less alternative for young people hoping to escape a life on the street.

With that in mind, Brooks set out to see if he could make a difference.

He first contacted the County Parks and Recreation Department and proposed a deal that Kevin Costner would probably summarize: "If we fund it, can they play?"

Specifically, Brooks pledged to round up financing for a baseball program if county officials would provide it at one of the area's neediest parks.

Art Jones, a recreation services manager with the department, said Helen Keller Park was chosen because it had lost its baseball program last year.

In the meantime, Brooks sent out letters to about 25 entertainment industry peers looking for donations.

"I was hoping to get four and I got 14," he said.

With the money raised, organizers were able to provide uniforms for all participants, a scoreboard, and a full complement of equipment from balls to batting helmets.

Hider, who had participated in baseball leagues at the park in years past, also had a hand in the success of the program by recruiting close to half of the coaching staff and leading the initial practices in April--a live advertisement that eventually served to entice most participants in the program to join.

One of those ballplayers was 14-year-old Nathan Gaines.

The Washington High School freshman, who had played in leagues at the park for three years before the program was discontinued, recalled his excitement when he discovered his favorite sport had returned to Helen Keller. "I just wanted to come up here and play again," he said. Nathan hopes this season with the Hollywood Indies will prepare him for a spot on the varsity baseball roster at Washington.

Opening day festivities got the league off and running June 3.

Brooks was among the throngs of kids, parents and sponsors who turned out to watch the colorful parade of players and the ceremonial first pitch by actor Corbin Bernsen.

Brooks remembered sitting in the bleachers in awe.

"I was shocked to see 200 kids in uniform and then to realize it was me who did it."

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