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Dream Becomes Reality With a Few More Dollars

September 22, 1996|Bill Plaschke

Phil Pote stands dwarfed among the dirt and steel and grumble of the earthmovers, and rarely has a man looked so big.

This churned-up bit of Los Angeles Southwest College is going to be a tidy little corner of hope one day, he just feels it, the way an old scout can look at a kid and feel his fastball.

Pote is only $150,000 short. And what's $150,000 to a guy who has spent a lifetime picking up gems from the streets of South-Central Los Angeles?

He wanted to call his project "Field of Dreams." But then he sent a letter to Universal Studios, which sent back a letter telling him to knock it off.

"So I call it, 'Dream of a Field,' " Pote says. "Sounds even better that way, don't you think?"

In these times of political warfare and blackmail over the sports future of the inner city, Pote and his team stand out like one of those flowered Panama hats that he wears.

As politicians clamor to soak the taxpayers and rebuild the Coliseum--while pulling the race card on everyone who disagrees--Pote is trying to rebuild something far more important.

After seven years of tugging elbows and tapping shoulders and barging in where they weren't wanted, Pote and fellow longtime scout John Young have convinced the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) to use a chunk of its land for a college-type baseball field.

The only true college-type baseball field in the entire South-Central area.

A field with a grass infield, and actual raised pitching mounds, and actual bullpens, and a backstop that does not cover the batter's head.

A field that would motivate more children to follow in the tracks of Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith, tracks that have been trampled by those pursuing basketball and football.

A field that would keep today's teenage stars from leaving the inner city for high schools in the San Fernando Valley, thus robbing the area of more role models.

Dennis Gilbert, a noted local baseball agent who grew up playing on an all-dirt field at 54th and San Pedro, has pledged $300,000.

A community college official promised this week that if Pote's group raises an additional $150,00, current construction on a softball field will be altered to turn it into that Dream of a Field.

He promised.

"They are in a reachable ballpark, and [Pote] has been given some time to see if he can identify another source of funds," said Blair Sillers, assistant to the chancellor for the LACCD. "If he can, the district is amenable to offering that property to servicing the inner-city student. The board has made a commitment."

Pote would have tried to raise the extra money before now, but several contractors had told him that $300,000 would be enough.

Now that they finally have the land and a price, Pote's group doesn't have much time.

A backstop that could probably be used for both softball and baseball is already going up. Light standards are being laid out. The group senses resentment from some lesser college officials who don't want the hassle.

After seven years, Pote and John Young have what, maybe two months?

"This is such a badly needed thing for our children, we don't want to see it slip away," said Young, an inner-city native who is assistant general manager of the Chicago Cubs and founder of RBI, a group that revives baseball in inner cities throughout the country.

Young remembers a promising young catcher who blew his chance before numerous scouts in a playoff game outside his South-Central neighborhood when he could not catch a simple foul pop.

Because it was the first time he had seen a foul pop.

His inner-city fields all contained the recreational batting cages that don't allow for foul pops.

"I know I'm stubborn, but these kids need a chance like everybody else," Pote said.

He's proud of his 40 years in South-Central, formerly as a high school baseball coach at Fremont, Locke and Los Angeles City College, currently as a scout for the Seattle Mariners.

He still remembers giving first professional contracts to Chet Lemon, Danny Ford, Mike Davis, Matt Keough . . . while coaching Bob Watson, currently general manager of the New York Yankees. There's even a field at Griffith Park named after Pote.

But at 63, he's still young enough to visit high schools every day, which gave him the idea seven years ago that South-Central baseball was finished without a new field.

He contacted Young, who gained the pledge from Gilbert.

Then Pote and Young began chasing the community college people, chasing them through stop signs and around detours, finally cornering them last month with a five-minute speech during a public Board of Trustees meeting.

Pote has no briefcase, no computer, no fax machine, no call waiting. But apparently few messages have ever been communicated better.

Now it's down to $150,000. Things have happened so quickly, the college isn't sure where the money should be sent, but has agreed to accept phone calls at (213) 241-5381 for more information.

Thirty minutes after Pote showed a visitor the churned-up foundation of his dream recently, a group of high school kids ran out to the rocky dirt.

One of them carried a bat. Another, a ball.

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