|Cle Ross (back l., with Marquis Roby Sr., a KCK RBI league coach, and youth baseball players) was given sports equipment anonymously as a child and eventually played minor league baseball. Now he helps urban youths through Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. David Conrads|
Kansas City, Kan.
It's a warm summer evening in Kansas City, Kan., and Cle Ross is surveying the scene at Heathwood Park, a modest but well-kept baseball field owned by the city.
Spectators – parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and several dogs – overflow the small grandstand as two age-12-and-under baseball teams, the Padres and the Angels, battle on the field.
It's the opening game of the KCK RBI baseball league, and Mr. Ross is pleased with what he sees. "It's awesome," he says. "When we started three years ago, everybody told me kids in the inner city weren't interested in baseball."
Ross was born in Kansas City, Kan. (across the Missouri River from its larger namesake in Missouri), and grew up in Wellington, a small agricultural town in south-central Kansas. Sports were always a big part of his life. He wrestled and played football and basketball in high school. But it was baseball that served as a springboard to a college education, a business career, and a bright future.
Beginning at Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC), the tall, lean center fielder with good speed and a good bat earned full-ride scholarships for the rest of his college career.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff with a mass communications degree, he signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers and played for a year in the minor leagues.
"I realized I had reached my peak," Ross says of his brief stint in pro baseball. "I was content with what I had accomplished."
Raised by a single mother in a household of modest means, young Cle looked to coaches to serve as role models. He was also touched when a neighbor left sports equipment anonymously on his doorstep – a football, a baseball glove, a bat, and a pair of wrestling shoes, none of which he could afford. He vowed that he would one day find a way to give back to others.
While he was a student at KCKCC, Ross frequently jogged down Parallel Parkway, past the Wyandotte County 3&2 ballpark. Nestled in a deep hollow and surrounded by trees, in its heyday in the 1970s and '80s it was a beautifully maintained and bustling center of activity where 2,000 kids each season played on two lighted fields.
When a job as a freight broker with a trucking firm brought Ross back to Kansas City in 2004, he found that the baseball complex he remembered as a jewel was now an eyesore. The ballpark had closed in 1998; with it, youth baseball had died.
Ross began a two-pronged campaign to bring both back to life. He tracked down the previous owner and formed a nonprofit group that took possession of the abandoned park. In 2009, he organized 150 children into a baseball league. The following year, he obtained chapter affiliation with Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program.
"There are a lot of kids in the inner city who live in single-parent households, so I figured the best thing I can do to give back is to try to reach out to some of those kids and introduce them to the game of baseball," he says. "I hope some of them will be able to use baseball as a tool to go to college and become educated."
So far, Ross and a small army of volunteers have repaired and painted the grandstand, bleachers, dugouts, and concessions stand; restored the batting cages; and begun work on the infield.
The ballpark was used for the opening game of the 2010 season, when it was renamed the Damian Rolls Stadium, after a Kansas City native who played for five years with the Tampa Bay Rays. Until electricity and plumbing can be restored, league games are played at other parks in the area.
In three seasons, the KCK RBI league has tripled in size. This season, some 450 kids play on 28 teams, from T-ball up though teen hardball. Three girls softball teams were added this year, and girls play on many of the younger baseball teams.
Rachel Smith is the mother of four boys and two girls between ages 9 and 14, all of whom are playing in the league. She appreciates that the registration fee is only $25, but she also likes the influence that Ross and his coaches have on her children.
"My kids love it," Ms. Smith says. "They listen to Cle and take his advice. He's a good man. He's doing good things."
Charles Thomas, whose 10-year-old son, Charles Jr., was on the field for the opening game, is another big fan of Ross's work.
"I think it's really helpful for the kids to have something to do," he says. "To let off some energy and to keep them off the streets and away from negative influences."
Noting the racial diversity of the large opening day crowd, he adds: "It all clicks in harmony, because everybody's united in the game. Baseball brings people together in a positive way."
Ross hopes some of his better players will earn college baseball scholarships. But he believes all his players can learn invaluable lessons in teamwork, leadership, discipline, and self-respect that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
"I don't care who wins or loses these games," he says, gesturing to the field full of kids playing baseball.
"I'm trying to teach life lessons."