This piece is the second in a two-part series from Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Read part one here.
Baseball stands out in this regard, but the sad truth is that youth athletic organizations across the board in the city suffer from lack of resources.
It is part of a bigger picture of inequities in resources, generally, between inner-city youths and their suburban counterparts.
Youth athletic organizations in the city are struggling to maintain access and engagement, which means fewer young people can benefit from the opportunities sports provide. These issues were highlighted in a report by the Milwaukee Youth Sports Alliance, or MYSA.
- The reduction or elimination of physical education and sports programs at schools and the institution of fees to play that limit access for low-income youths.
- Safety concerns in many neighborhoods and a lack of transportation to participate in youth sports.
- The privatization of sports leagues, which has led to increased costs and has priced kids out.
- The ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A lack of role models to inspire youths to participate.
MYSA, which includes Bader Philanthropies, the Milwaukee Bucks, America SCORES and the Milwaukee Kickers, was created to help ensure access to high-quality sports programs in the city and to empower leaders to utilize sports as a development tool.
The report pointed to some solutions, things that have to be overcome to approach a level playing field for youth baseball and other sports.Why is this important? Sports, experts say, help youths learn life skills, improve academic performance, provide top athletes access to college scholarships and support physical and mental health, among other benefits. Youth sports also are underutilized as a tool for youth and community development in the city, according to the MYSA report.
According to data included in the report, 34% of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, compared with 69% from homes that earn more than $100,000. In 2011, that percentage was 42% and 66%, respectively. That gap has almost certainly dropped over the last five years.
“We’ve got kids that want to participate but can’t because of the barriers they face,” said Quentin Prince, executive director of MYSA. “Our kids have reduced access and less choices, and our goal is to change that.”
Youth baseball in the city is a prime example of the challenges that leagues face. Once atop the hierarchy of youth sports in a city with a long history in professional baseball, local leagues now struggle to find players and pay for the coaching, facilities, and other resources needed to be competitive.
The South Side stalwart, Felix Mantilla Little League, fielded 22 teams in 2016. That’s down to 12 this season. The Milwaukee Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or Milwaukee RBI, dropped in recent years from seven to four teams, and Beckum-Stapleton Little League, a North Side mainstay, has also struggled to reach pre-COVID levels of participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled or delayed leagues, hurt youth participation. But teams are also having trouble finding coaches, much less those with experience. Taken together, the result is a gap in opportunities for youths from the inner city compared with those in the suburbs, advocates say.
MYSA, in its report, developed a list of priorities that could help close that gap. One area of support it currently provides is to work with organizations to help cover or defray fees for players and to provide free equipment. Some examples include a collaboration with Nike and Wilson that provided 250 free basketballs and another partnership that resulted in 300 hijabs being donated to girls who wanted to participate in sports.
Still, Prince knows that the bigger challenge is to help organizations secure enough funding to develop and to create an infrastructure that helps them not only become sustainable but enables them to thrive.
“These organizations need finances, investments in the field,” said Prince, who serves on the board for Felix Mantilla. “Kids don’t want to play on a patch of dirt. They want to get excited and play on high-quality facilities.”
His alliance is working to help connect organizations to donors, secure funds and also to develop frameworks that help organizations create succession plans to facilitate leadership changes.
“Senior organizations have succession plans so why don’t we have that for youth sports?” he said. “What happens when you don’t have that is you see drop-off in participation as they work to fill the gap.”
It’s also working to develop strategies to recruit more adult role models and to increase participation of girls in sports.
Jim Brey, who has served for more than two decades as the president of the Beckum-Stapleton Little League, said his league and others need more support from the community.
“We need to make sure every kid has that chance, that support, the equipment and the coaching and opportunities to succeed,” said Brey, whose league also has girls’ softball teams.
His league relies on donations to buy limited equipment and supplies. It also can’t afford to pay coaches or trainers. So, it relies on alumni, including former college players, to come back and provide coaching on hitting and fielding.
“It’s a big deal for us to get guys to come back,” he said. “There are professional baseball players that do training for money, but anything they do for us is donated.”
Jon-Anthony Caban, 24, won a district championship as part of the Felix Mantilla Little League back in 2012 and came back to the city to support the next generation of players.
He’s the volunteer head of player development for Milwaukee RBI and is employed as an assistant coach at St. Augustine Preparatory High School on Milwaukee’s South Side, where he works alongside Julian Haliga, his old coach at Mantilla.
Caban left the city to play two years at Madison College, winning all-conference and playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. He then earned additional scholarships to play at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Carthage College. In between, he spent a summer playing for the Kenosha Kingfish of the Independent League.
He brought back a wealth of experience and hopes to inspire young players to take advantage of the opportunities the sport provides.
“Competitive baseball is just an avenue to different things in life,” Caban said. “It’s also an opportunity to surround kids with people who are caring and want to see them succeed.”
Still, Caban acknowledges that the gap in resources between city and suburban leagues is a huge hurdle to overcome and can make all the difference for a baseball player trying to move on to the next level.
“We could have had way many more guys go to the next level if we had the type of facilities and the exposure they needed,” he said. "There are places here that provide that, but kids are not able to attend because of the financial burden or maybe they can go once or twice but not regularly.”
Matt Turner, baseball coach for Milwaukee Riverside High School, said he would like to see different entities in the city, including the Milwaukee Brewers, become more intentional about supporting baseball in the city. The Brewers, asked about its level of support for youth baseball in Milwaukee, did not provide comment for the story.
“There are other major league cities that have made major investments in the sport,” he said. “It’s going to be really hard to be competitive when we don’t have the support to give these kids the best chance they can to participate and be successful.”
Caban said he will continue to do his part and hopes that others around the city rally around the sport as a way to support youths.
“Growing up in the inner city, it’s difficult to find something you can be attached to and build a community around,” he said. “Baseball does that and we have people here in the city that can do something and not let the game die.”
Ways you can help
You can help support baseball and other youth sports in Milwaukee by donating to MYSA. A $100 donation provides youngsters access to sports equipment; $300 sponsors one coach to attend a training based on trauma-informed sports or social emotional learning; and $1,000 to $3,000 supports a large-scale training event for up to 200 coaches or you can provide in-kind event space.
The Felix Mantilla, RBI Milwaukee and Beckum- Stapleton Little Leagues all need volunteers (coaches, coordinators, mentors), and donations of funds, equipment, warehouse space, and batting practice time at an indoor facility.
Mendez, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, graduated from UW-Milwaukee, with a double major in Journalism and Media Communications and Sociology. In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists' regional award for social columns dealing with diverse issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. Currently, he's a master's degree student at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
His interests include scholastic research, social networking and the Green Bay Packers.