Updated: August 22, 2013 6:14AM
While Ed French hustled from one baseball field to another behind Roosevelt High School in Gary, an appreciative parent passed him.
“We’ll get ’em next year,” the father told French, president of the Gary Metro Little League.
Next year — next season, actually — will no doubt be better for this up-and-coming league, which has had numerous other names through the years. I don’t mean better box scores, better standings, or better luck in the state finals. Such statistical measurements don’t measure up to the true value of this rejuvenated league in the city.
Amid chronic reports of crime, poverty and an alarming rate of homicides this year — 30 at last count, 10 more than this time last year — this little league offers a big-league opportunity to keep Gary’s youth off the streets and instead on a baseball field.
French, a 1986 Roosevelt graduate, and his wife, Crystal, a West Side High School grad, have three kids, including two sons who play baseball in the multiteam league. French, a former Little Leaguer, has been president of the league for three years, but he’s been a “proud parent” of Little Leaguers for more than a decade.
“These kids are learning a lot more than just how to play baseball,” he told me Tuesday evening during an informal cookout celebration after a team returned from the state finals in Terre Haute. “They’re learning life skills, like how to be a gentleman or a young lady.”
The league’s travel-ball registration fee is an amazingly low $20 per child, a steal for any little league organization. The league is subsidized by the Homefield Advantage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has given a significant amount of money to the league for uniforms, equipment, an upcoming end-of-season banquet, and other necessities.
State Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, the organization’s president, told me it was founded a decade or so ago to help renew and reinvigorate youth baseball in the city.
It has certainly done that. In 2008, the league had 186 kids enrolled. In 2009, 248 kids. This year, almost 400, including French’s two sons, Edward Jr., 14, and Christopher, 12.
“We’re bringing baseball back to the city of Gary and I want to continue that tradition,” French said.
The league, like most others, offers different levels of play for kids depending on their age (including many girls), from tee-ball and minors to majors, juniors and Big League.
“The girls take direction a lot better than a lot of the boys,” French joked.
Both of French’s boys were on hand Tuesday evening at Roosevelt to join other players, parents and coaches to celebrate their successful season with a cookout behind the school. The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers shared airspace with kids’ laughter from the baseball field and parents’ words of encouragement from the bleachers.
“They can’t be celebrated enough,” said Elaine Bradley, the grandmother of Jerome Lynch Jr., one of the boys playing a sandlot game during the cookout.
The league will celebrate more formally this week with an official banquet at the Diamond Center, located above the former Bennigan’s at the U.S. Steel Yard.
“The kids are excited, just like when they get to go play baseball out of town,” explained Crystal French, who operated the concession stand as a Gary Metro tee-ball game took place behind her.
The league won the recent District 1 tournament to quality for the first Intermediate state tourney downstate. It didn’t win the title but that’s not the point of this column or, in many ways, of this league.
“Some of the kids have never been out of Gary, so they loved going there and meeting players from different cities,” Crystal told me in between customers.
Parents get involved, too, including Jerome Lynch, who runs a photography business and whose son, Jerome Lynch Jr., plays in the league. Lynch raised $700 through social network sites to help pay for some of the players’ registration fees and other needs.
“We all do what we can,” he told me.
I learned about Lynch, French and the league itself from Roger Hayward, the 57-year-old founder of It’s Gary’s Time Inc., a community activist organization. Hayward has been a huge help in volunteering his time and landscape equipment to keep the league’s home baseball fields under control.
“He’s done a lot for us,” Lynch said.
The league’s season began May 4 and formally ends this weekend, but French has made arrangements with other teams and leagues to keep playing throughout the summer. They’ll play in Chicago’s Hyde Park soon and other games after that.
“I love this game and a lot of these kids are learning to love it, too. Plus, it’s giving them something positive to do, keeping them busy,” French said.
Busy. Positive. Celebration. Tournament champs. It sounds like this league is rounding the bases in a city that has seen its share of disappointing strike outs.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.