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Difference Maker

Cle Ross is bringing youth baseball back to an inner city

Cle Ross is turning an eyesore in Kansas City, Kan., back into a baseball park to get urban kids off the streets and teach life lessons.

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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.

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"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."

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