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Santa Ana Kids' League Saga Touches Home, Hearts

The Little League reclaimed its El Salvador Park field from gangs. Now, support pours in.

March 06, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Parents and kids with the Santiago Little League are used to small crowds and struggling to find the money to field teams.

All that has changed in the last two weeks as news of their plight reached outsiders."We sat there and looked at each other, thinking we can't believe this," Pearl Raya said of the e-mails and telephone calls they've received offering help. "Here we were, just going along to get along, and look what's happened."

Since their saga of reclaiming the baseball field from one of the city's most notorious gangs appeared in The Times two weeks ago, Santiago Little League has received an outpouring of support from its own community, the baseball community and even non-baseball fans.

"I don't particularly like baseball," said Rusty Turner, who gave $250. "But this wasn't about baseball. Somebody took a stand, somebody without any kids at the time said I'm taking back the neighborhood."

From Santa Ana to Baltimore, readers responded to Leon and Pearl Raya's quest to keep Santiago Little League afloat in one of Santa Ana's deadliest neighborhoods.

Offers of help came in amounts as large as $15,000 and from people in all walks of life, from senior citizens on fixed incomes to CEOs to rival Little Leagues to a Hall of Fame baseball player.

In all, Santiago has accepted about $30,000 in donations, $4,000 worth of major league-quality brick dust, a new pitching machine, shin guards, chest protectors and a dozen bats.

The topper came Friday night when Rod Carew appeared at El Salvador Park for Santiago Little League's opening ceremonies.

"For the kids to meet and talk with a Hall of Famer who speaks Spanish is a dream come true," Leon Raya said. "If nothing else had happened, that in itself would have been enough for me."

Carew, a seven-time batting champion who played for the Angels and Minnesota Twins, has pledged to help the league line up sponsors.

Cal Ripken Jr., who almost certainly will be voted into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible, vowed to help after reading the Rayas' story while in California filming a commercial. The Ripken Sr. Foundation, named after Ripken's deceased father, teaches life lessons to disadvantaged youth through baseball.

Santiago Little League's board has vowed to save most of the money. Two weeks ago, just $200 remained in the league's bank account.

"This is our one opportunity to leave a long-lasting legacy for all the future kids," Leon Raya said. "We want to save a good portion of it to hand down to future generations. We don't want to buy frivolous things; we want to make long-standing improvements so the opportunity to play baseball will always be there for the kids. We want every season to be better than this one's going to be."

The largest donations came from Guaranty Chevrolet in Santa Ana ($15,000) and National Recreational Properties in Irvine ($10,000).

"Little Leagues are integral parts of the American fabric," said Rob Friedman of Recreational Properties, a marketer of housing and recreational land throughout the country. "If we don't push these things, we as a nation are going to go down the tubes."

The neighborhood around El Salvador Park was going down the tubes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the F-Troop gang and the Mexican Mafia controlled the streets. Santiago Little League was just one of many victims of gang violence in those days as parents stopped volunteering to coach and kids stopped playing.

One January day in 1994, Pearl Raya decided it was time to change the park from a killing field to a ball field. A month later, Santiago Little League was reborn. Minutes after hearing about Friedman's donation, Pearl reflected on that day a decade ago.

"We didn't want to be couch potatoes," she said. "We could pass by the park every Saturday and wonder why nobody ever started the league again or we could do something about it. I'm glad we got off the couch. This is all just so great for the kids."

While most of the money will be saved for future ballplayers, El Salvador Park might not be recognizable by season's end in May. Upgrades to the decrepit T-ball field will include a smooth new infield covered by the same brick dust used in Angel Stadium, batting cages, bleachers and new dugout benches. The two main fields are expected to be equipped with permanent outfield fences, bullpens and mounted bat racks.

The names of everyone who gave money or equipment will appear in today's opening-day program. Included will be Gwen Hughes, a retiree from Inglewood who donated her $75 pay as a precinct worker on election day.

"We told her we didn't want to take her money, but she was insistent," Leon Raya said. "She said you guys are doing something positive and you deserve it.

"That just brought tears to our eyes."

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