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COLUMN ONE

Stepping up to the plate in Compton

Tim Lewis grew up playing baseball in Compton, but drugs and alcohol overtook his life. Now recovering, he lives in his car and leads a Little League revival in his old neighborhood.

May 27, 2009|Ben Bolch

Tim Lewis has a bedtime routine.

He flips on a small portable television, reclines the front passenger seat of his 1993 Toyota Camry and leans back till his trim, 6-foot-2 frame is nearly horizontal. Often he drifts off to sleep with the TV on.

"I've gotten used to it," Lewis, 52, says of living out of his car. "Sometimes it's tough, but I'm a tough guy."

Home is a parking space around the corner from Compton's Sibrie Park, where Lewis played baseball 40 years ago with future major leaguers such as Lonnie Smith, an outfielder on three World Series champions.

More recently, the park has been known more for drug deals and gang violence; organized baseball was last played there in 1979. But this year, Little League baseball is back in Compton -- and Lewis, a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, has been a driving force in its revival.

The idea of a lost soul finding redemption on a Little League diamond is a familiar, even threadbare, story line, the stuff of movies such as "The Bad News Bears."

In Lewis' case, the reality is messy, the redemption incomplete, but parents, players and Little League officials say that his commitment to the game and the boys he coaches is genuine.

"He came to us and said we needed to do something for the kids in the neighborhood," says Billy Williams, a Compton resident who played ball at Sibrie in the 1950s, when it was called El Segundo Park and had manicured grass, a flagpole and a scoreboard. "To see children playing in this park again, it's a warm feeling."

In its heyday, the Compton Little League produced a few big league stars, including former Dodgers slugger Reggie Smith and retired New York Yankees outfielder Roy White. But in recent years, urban leagues have disintegrated nationwide, and the number of black players competing at the game's highest level has dwindled.

Thirty-five years ago, 27% of major league players were black; last year, 10.2% were. The players in Compton's league are mostly black and Latino.

Lewis' boyhood field no longer looks like much. Sibrie's outfield is riddled with gopher holes. The scoreboard is gone and there are no bleachers, no lights, no snack bar.

Of all the fields used by the league's 23 teams, "this is the raggediest," says Williams, the league's safety officer.

But even a rundown ball field is something in a neighborhood rough even by Compton standards. Lewis hopes it's enough to steer 80 or so Little Leaguers away from trouble. That's why he helped lobby city officials for support and recruited players from elementary and middle schools.

"When I have them out here, I talk to them and pray with them," Lewis says of the players. "No one talked to me about not drinking or doing drugs. I talk to them individually and tell them it will mess up their lives."

Lewis first pitched the idea of bringing Little League baseball back to his hometown last year during a chance meeting with Compton Mayor Eric. J. Perrodin at a bicycle fair. The league had been defunct in the city since 2001, and no baseball had been played at Sibrie in 30 years.

"He said he wanted to give back to the community," Perrodin says.

Lewis met with James Moore, a paramedic for the Compton Fire Department who shared his vision. Moore reached out to Little League headquarters, obtained a charter and became the local league's president. Lewis is a "player agent," responsible for recruiting participants, keeping their paperwork in order and overseeing the field at Sibrie. He is also co-manager of one of the teams, the Sibrie Braves.

Torii Hunter, the Angels' All-Star center fielder, donated $10,000, ensuring that players would have uniforms and that parents wouldn't have to pay registration fees.

Hunter donates to Little League programs around the country, mindful that baseball helped keep him out of trouble while growing up in a Pine Bluff, Ark., neighborhood overrun by gangs.

"You can get in a lot of trouble in the summertime," Hunter says. "You're out with your friends in the neighborhood in a bad area and the next thing you know, you're doing something you shouldn't be doing.

"With baseball, you practice every day and you're playing every other day. You're going to stay busy. You can't be around the guys who are not doing anything."

With Hunter's gift and several hundred dollars from parents, the league spent $8,200 on uniforms and $1,700 for its charter. What was left went toward baseball equipment, T-shirts and advertising banners.

The beneficiaries are players such as Diego Galvez, a 12-year-old third baseman for the Braves, who says of baseball, "I like it. It keeps you occupied when you don't have anything to do."

The league could be said to serve the same purpose for Lewis.

During a recent game, he seemed to be everywhere. He was chaplain, leading a pregame prayer in the infield; he was equipment manager, helping a catcher adjust his shin guards; he was first base coach; and he was team cheerleader, providing a steady stream of encouragement.

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