Houston cop comes home to help the kids

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 21, 2000

Jamal Williams, 13, swings at a softball at Kings Field of Dreams Sunday afternoon. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

It’s another hot Sunday night, and softballs, sweat and soul music hang in the air at the field the players and their parents have named the Kings Field of Dreams.

Here on Hutson Street, there is a place that six months ago was covered by weeds. Now it’s got cheering parents, the plink of the bat and the sounds of kids being kids.

Since the league began a few months ago, it’s rapidly become the place to be on Sunday evenings. The entire neighborhood, better known to the outside world for poverty, drugs and too-frequent violence rallies around four teams of boys and girls, ages 8 to 13. Some cheer for sons or daughters, and some just come to spend time with friends and family and see a good game.

The league was the brainchild of Piney Taylor, a Houston police officer with deep roots in Kings who said he was tired of seeing another generation hanging out on corners of the neighborhood where he grew up.

So he went to his uncle, who owned the field where kids used to play ball when he was coming up. Nobody had played ball there in 10 years. Tall grass and small trees had taken over.

Once Taylor had a small group of volunteers together, they set to work. They took a bulldozer to level the dirt on the playing field, shoving away most of the grass in the process.

Vicksburg and Warren County have fully funded recreation departments and top-notch facilities including the fully staffed Kings Community Center nearby and a lighted ballfield across North Washington Street up on Sherman Avenue. But there’s no public money in the Kings Field of Dreams. The volunteers built bullpens from sections of chain-link fence they salvaged from a roadside, and got donations from local companies for jerseys, gloves and other equipment.

A neighbor more than a block away volunteered his faucet, and others hook up their garden hoses end to end, down the street to water the little remaining grass on the field.

Softball teaches the children teamwork and discipline, and the volunteer coaches provide strong, positive male role models, Taylor said.

He coordinated the effort while still working in Houston, driving or flying to Vicksburg on the weekends to help out. He said he wanted to give back to the community where he grew up.

“We all owe something, don’t we?” he said.

League director Perry Eatmon said in recent years kids in Kings haven’t had anything to do, and that boredom took them to the streets, drugs and trouble.

“You have to get these small kids, and get their minds filled with something else to do,” Eatmon said.

Many of the families don’t have transportation to take their children to leagues in other parts of the city, Eatmon said. And many parents can’t or won’t pay for their children to join.

Consequently, while not lacking in desire, quite a few of the league’s players needed instructions on the basics of slow-pitch softball when they first arrived, he said.

“Most of these kids don’t even know how to hold a bat,” Eatmon said. “And they crash into each other in the outfield; they want to catch it so bad, neither one of them wants to stop.”

In Sunday’s game, the first team at bat scored eight runs before getting its third out, even though one runner was tagged out because he forgot to run to second when the batter hit the ball.

Pitching was a challenge, too, as one pitcher loaded the bases and then walked in a run by walking four batters in a row.

“It can be a headache sometimes, but it can be fun,” Eatmon said. “Kids like to do things. If they grow up not doing anything, when they get older, they don’t want to do anything. They get lazy.”

In addition to practice nearly every night during the summer, Eatmon has the players mow and maintain the field.

“I’m trying to teach them you have to work for a living,” he said. “Then, when they leave, I tell them, Go do that at home, too.’ ”

On game night, the players kick up dust, volunteers sell hotdogs and sports drinks and about 150 parents and neighbors scream at the top of their lungs, usually abiding by the “no profanity” rule posted nearby.

“I’m so thankful that they got this going,” said Margaret Wells, whose granddaughter had just stepped up to the plate. “It gives them something to look forward to; they really put themselves into it.”

Wells said she hasn’t missed a game, or even a practice, since the league started in June. She said the best part is the way everyone in the community comes together to support the young players.

Willie Winters, who owns the field, said he’s glad to see children playing here again, like they did in the 1980s. It’s a change for the better, and though few here talk about it, everyone knows the alternatives.

“We’re trying to keep these guys off the street corners,” Winters said. “Dope destroys you I’ve seen it.”

In a meeting in 1999 with North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, the people of Kings pleaded for stronger efforts by the city’s narcotics officers. In a way, the Field of Dreams is a place where they’ve taken matters into their own hands.

Lining the backfield, next to placards for companies who have donated money, is a sign that reads: “God is working with us.”

Nobody here seems willing to dispute the fact, least of all Sengrid Henderson, who cheers for the batter, then cheers for the outfielders straining to make the catch, only to switch and start yelling for the runner heading for home.

“I cheer for them all,” Henderson said. “This is all about the children. We don’t care who wins or loses; we just want to see them have a good time.”