Upscale Little League mirrors changing Lincoln Square

When Dusty Baker came to Chicago to manage the Cubs in 2003, he brought his family with him.  And that meant his son Darren would need a place to play baseball.  Enter Welles Park.

Over the past ten years, Welles Park's program has grown from run-of-the-mill Little League to the premier destination for  kids' baseball on the north side of Chicago.

In addition to Baker's son, children of former Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, former Bear Gary Fencik and FOX Sports reporter Corey McPherin have all learned America's Pastime in the shadow of Sulzer Library near Lincoln Square.

Fifteen years ago, that kind of celebrity roster was unthinkable. Lincoln Square was a working class neighborhood with a working class Little League. But the increasing glitz of the Little League players mirrors changes in the neighborhood itself.

French restaurants and boutiques now line Lincoln Avenue. A Starbucks opened on Wilson Avenue.  Residents have seen property values, and then property taxes, explode.

The transformation at Welles Park began 10 years ago, when Max Griffin took over as president of the Welles Park Parents Association. Griffin, then a lawyer and now a Cook County judge, had such an impact on the league that Sunnyside Avenue, north of the park, is now designated Honorary Max Griffin Way.

With help from fellow lawyer and WPPA vice president Jack Hynes, Griffin modernized the books, brought in computers and raised the league fees. He did what Marvin Miller did for the Major League Baseball Player's Union. He brought a business plan, streamlined the operation and made it function with incredible efficiency. In other words, he made it work.

"We turned it into the kind of program that met our demands and fit our lifestyle," Griffin explains.

It was the beginning of a new era, one where players no longer just came from the neighborhood, but from all over the city, specifically more affluent neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park.

"It was word of mouth," says Griffin. "Our friends would ask us what we were doing for the summer and we would say we were playing baseball at Welles Park."

The new Welles Park was designed for families that liked to travel (the season only runs through July) and had other summer plans (only around 18 games per summer).

"We wanted to play baseball in May, June and July and then give families the option to travel, or go to their summer homes in August," says Griffin.

And the results have been eye-opening. The league has jumped from 400 when Griffin took over to 1200 today.

Griffin stepped down in 2003. He was replaced by businessman Jim Price, who says he is sometimes amazed at what parents are willing to do to get their kids a spot in the league.

During registration this year, Price says, families lined up at 9 in the morning, even though the doors didn't open until 3.

"And this was one of those dangerously cold January days," he remembers.

Pat Heraty is a neighborhood kid who has lived all his life just three blocks from Max Griffin Honorary Way.

Heraty grew up at Welles Park, playing from when he was a second grader through high school. For years he was old enough to see the changes to his neighborhood, but young enough not to understand them.

Now 21 and umpiring every weekend at his former stomping grounds, he understands.

"A house across the street from me just sold for $1.5 million," he says. "It's the people who live in those houses that are all over the league now."

The new kids, says Heraty, have their own distinctive style.

"They've all got those Bon Jovi haircuts today," he says, laughing.

Price's biggest worry isn't the look of the park, but the feel.

"It's the sense of community. The league has become much more affluent and with that I see a lot of drop-off kids and parents who don't stick around the way they used to."

That can cause problems, Price says, because the league runs on volunteers.

"Parents with money tend to be busier," Price says. "And without parent support, the league ceases to function."

It's difficult to say Lincoln Square's changing demographics are responsible for the affluence of the baseball league. But the two, Griffin says, have gone hand in hand.

"Welles draws so many kids from outside the neighborhood, it's hard to call it a direct effect of what's happening in the neighborhood," he says. "I think the two parallel each other."

The changing neighborhood and its baseball teams present something of a chicken-and-egg question. But there is no denying the metamorphosis of both.

Griffin sums up the atmosphere at the park with four telling words: “Youth baseball country club."

The league is in better shape financially than ever, with a record 77 teams and the money to buy bats for each of them.

And it has worked to include those who cannot afford to play. Griffin always waived fees for disadvantaged children.

Price expanded what he refers to as a "scholarship program" that brings low-income families to Welles. But every year, fewer and fewer kids take advantage.

Griffin says he wishes he had focused more on attracting a diverse group of players when the league was expanding. Even so, Griffin says, he’s proud of what he did.

“We created a place where young kids can be exposed to the game of baseball and learn about the game of baseball," he says.


SARAH, 08-14-2007

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