How MLB helped a school on the South Side of Chicago get a new baseball field

Ray Elementary students hits a ball off a tee. (Photo by Dylan Buell/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Ray Elementary students hits a ball off a tee. (Photo by Dylan Buell/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

CHICAGO — A fourth-grade student from Ray Elementary School stepped on the outfield grass, approaching a ball sitting on a tee. She assumed her stance in the batter’s box and listened to the directions from her instructor.

“Keep your eye on the ball.”

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“Bring the bat up near your shoulder.”

Take your swing.”

The bat head collided with the ball, sending it sailing into a blue practice net just a few feet away. The instructor offered words of encouragement while setting the next ball on the tee. The fourth grader prepared to take her next swing.

What seemed impossible just months ago was finally happening: Baseball was being taught on the ball field at Ray Elementary. And this couldn’t have happened without a hand from Major League Baseball and Scotts.

Situated next to Ray Elementary, Bixler Park is among the most popular spots in Hyde Park, one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. Bixler Park not only boasts two playgrounds — one for younger kids and one for older kids — but it is a place where the entire community comes together on nights and weekends.

For years, the baseball field at Bixler Park was an issue. It fell into disrepair and became a patch of weeds in an otherwise beautiful area of the neighborhood. More importantly, the state of the baseball field was depriving the children of Ray Elementary from a crucial, formative childhood experience. But getting the field back to playing shape wasn’t something Ray Elementary could accomplish on its own. To get the kids of Ray Elementary what they needed, this project was going to require a lot of help.

Anne Renna, Vice President of the Friends of Ray School PTO Board, had dreamed of improving the ball field at Ray Elementary for years. Renna, who has sixth grader and a fourth grader at Ray, knew the amount of work involved would require outside help, and began applying for grants to get the field back into playing shape.

Renna had initially sent a grant application to Chicago Cubs charities, but Ray Elementary didn’t meet the criteria for that specific grant. Her quest for a new baseball field got a second life when another member of the PTO sent Renna a link to Major League Baseball’s Scotts Field Refurbishment Program. If selected, Ray Elementary would receive $50,000 toward fixing its field.

This opportunity seemed promising. The program is “committed to improving fields of play and encouraging youth and communities to get outside and enjoy activities, like baseball and softball,” according to MLB. Ray Elementary was a perfect fit.

But getting selected for the program wasn’t going to be easy. MLB received around 350 submissions from roughly 45 states. Of that 350, only four would make the cut.

Melanie LeGrande, Vice President of Social Responsibility for Major League Baseball, was responsible for reading all 350 grant applications that came in. Since the start of the program four years ago, MLB and Scotts have put over $2 million worth of grants into refurbishment.

For LeGrande, the thing that stood out about this specific application was how much the new ball field would impact the community in Hyde Park.

“I think the No. 1 thing about this winner and this refurbishment is that it’s different because of that community feel,” LeGrande told Yahoo Sports. “The fact that we can bring a space that will motivate the community to get the kids out there, not just from the school but from the surrounding neighborhood is important to us.”

That was enough to move Ray Elementary forward in the process, but there was still work to be done. A “blue-ribbon panel” would have to whittle down the final dozen applications to just four schools, according to LeGrande.

Jennie Finch gives hitting tips to a student from Ray Elementary. (Photo by Dylan Buell/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Jennie Finch gives hitting tips to a student from Ray Elementary. (Photo by Dylan Buell/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

In Ray’s case, it helped that Olympic gold medalist and professional softball player Jennie Finch was part of that panel. Finch starred with the Chicago Bandits, a National Pro Fastpitch softball team, from 2005-10. Finch threw two perfect games with the Bandits. Her number is retired by the team.

Finch’s connection to Chicago gave Ray Elementary an extra edge in the competition.

“It was definitely on my top-five because of that reason,” Finch said. "For there to be a refurbished field here on the South Side, it was just that much more special having played and been a part professionally here.”

When Ray Elementary’s new field was officially unveiled Tuesday, Finch was there. She spoke to the fourth graders and kindergarteners about how playing baseball and softball shaped her dreams. She caught the first official pitch at the field and instructed students about hitting and catching fly balls.

Miami Marlins outfielder Curtis Granderson wasn’t directly involved in Ray Elementary getting a new field, but he was connected with some of the people involved in the process. Granderson — who grew up roughly 25 minutes outside Chicago — has made it a priority to give back to his hometown as much as possible.

Granderson is involved in both the Chicago Baseball & Educational Academy (CBEA) — which supports baseball and softball programs around Chicago — and his Grand Kids foundation — which helps kids across the country — though hosts annual events in Chicago.

So when Granderson found out MLB had chosen Ray Elementary for this grant, he was encouraged.

“Any time you are going to do some things with Major League Baseball that are going to help the youth, is obviously a big step in terms of just showing the importance of getting kids active and giving them a nice place to play that’s hopefully in a safe area or [one] that can become safe,” Granderson said.

“Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States. We have two baseball teams. If you’re going to help out one place, I think that’s a good place to start. I know there were a lot of schools in the mix, but considering you have two teams, one that recently won the World Series in the Chicago Cubs, you definitely want to make sure that, in a sports market like that, a lot of kids do understand and realize they have a place to play. And hopefully Major League Baseball, by making this donation, is realizing that.”

While MLB giving Ray Elementary a new baseball field will help grow the game in that community, Finch, Granderson and LeGrande agreed the new field was about much more than baseball or softball.

For MLB, the goal is to create “major-league citizens,” according to LeGrande. The field will teach the kids at Ray Elementary about the game, but it will also make them better leaders and teammates away from the field. It will teach important life lessons to students, and allow them to “build and shape and create” who they are, just like it did for Finch. It will expose kids from different backgrounds to the game at a young age, which will not only create a new generation of fans, but could also increase diversity in the game, according to Granderson.

The students at Ray Elementary got what they needed Tuesday. As they caught fly balls from Finch, played with the infield dirt and took batting practice in the outfield, it looked like they were just being taught baseball. But they were learning so much more.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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