Dream Of Fields

In Strawberry Mansion, men who grew up playing baseball bring it back for kids

Posted: June 21, 2007

Derrick Ford, a city mental health worker and a deeply spiritual man, was at a Strawberry Mansion anti-violence meeting in Cornerstone Baptist Church --- a baseball’s throw away from the long-abandoned field on Diamond Street near 33rd --- when he had a vision of children playing there all summer long. He called Itchy.

"I immediately thought of Itchy because Itchy is baseball in Strawberry Mansion," Ford said. "I said, 'Itch, here's the vision.' He said, 'Rick, I'm in.' "

In late April, Ford and David "Itchy" Lisby papered the community with 1,500 fliers, inviting girls and boys to try out for the Strawberry Mansion All-Star Baseball League - which existed only in their imaginations - not knowing what response they'd get.

"Personally, I was a little exhausted with the marches, the vigils, the rallies, the teddy bear memorials and the yellow crime-scene tape," said Ford, 46, who has lived in Strawberry Mansion all his life.

"I wanted to give these kids a chance to have what Itch and me and all the neighborhood guys in their 40s that we recruited as coaches have - lifelong friendships from playing baseball and basketball with each other and against each other for more than 30 years."

On May 4, a week after the fliers went out, 140 kids showed up to play youth baseball in Strawberry Mansion for the first time in decades on a diamond-in-the-rough field that is a Fairmount Park oasis in a neighborhood of boarded-up houses and bullet-riddled streets.

"Eighty percent of the phone calls I got came from single parents who wanted their kids to be safe and happy this summer," Ford said.

Most of the kids showed up without gloves, without bats, without anything except heart.

"I came out that first day," Ford said. "I looked at this field. I thought, 'The kids are here now. We can't let them down. What the hell am I going to do?' "

He called the Philadelphia Phillies, who gave all the kids gloves, Phillies Rookie League T-shirts and caps, a pitching machine, bats, balls and bases.

"We consider this to be like Citizens Bank Park compared to what it was 40 days ago," Ford said earlier this week while he watched, announced and paternally embraced a late-afternoon game between two teams of 8-to-12-year-olds.

"There was a guy down here for years, Pop, the park guard. Pop was a father to a lot of us who didn't have fathers - like me. He took us on camping trips in the mountains. Camping trips! There were no camping trips in the 'hood, but Pop found a way to get us to the mountains.

"He died about 15 years ago. All I'm doing right now is, I'm just a community person living Pop's dream."

The new league is entry-level baseball in which a coach called time out to tell a batter to tie his shoes - "Both of them!" - while another coach advised his hitter to "pull your pants up." A young slugger was so thrilled by his first home run that his game face broke into a wide grin as he rounded third and headed home to his teammates' open arms.

Late in the game, when the ump dusted off home plate, Ford announced over his boom-box speakers, "Let's give the umpire a hand, y'all!" - and everyone did.

The ump was Joe Beard, 56, volunteering on the one evening he is not umping paid gigs in adult North Philadelphia leagues. "I told Itchy, this is the best thing that's happened on this field since my brother Arnold ran a league for kids here 20 years ago," Beard said.

"Welcome to Citizens Bank North Philly Park where we got 30,000 here today," Ford kidded the small crowd of parents and kids.

He pointed to a woman in a wide-brimmed sun hat who had settled herself into a beach chair deep in the outfield to watch the game. "We got one fan out there in left-center field," Ford announced. "That seat cost her $200."

Between innings, he played a "Stop the Violence" '70s-sound soul song on the boom box. Loud. "This is an urban baseball song, y'all," Ford said.

"Respect. Teamwork. We're trying to show these kids another way, so we don't have another fighting child."

Throughout the game, the rival coaches - all of whom grew up within blocks of the field, playing sports with each other from early childhood into middle age - kept up a steady patter of merciless needling.

When a very young pitcher neglected to start his delivery with one foot on the rubber, Itchy, 46, wearing the black, sleeveless jersey of his Bad Intentions adult softball team, shouted, "Where's his coach at? Coach doesn't know to tell his pitcher to stand on the rubber?" Itchy shook his head sadly and said, "Coach used to be a pitcher, too."

"I never pitched," said Coach Alan Clark, laughing at his childhood friend's mock rage.

"Oh?" said Itchy, acting surprised. "That's right. All you played was basketball."

"Man," Clark said, shaking his head, "I don't even know you no more."

But underneath the kidding runs a deep river of mutual affection and respect that the coaches and Commissioner Ford try to pass on to the players.

"I had a kid who was on the mound pitching - except he was doing more talking than pitching," Ford said. "I told him, 'Son, this is a baseball game. Pitch the ball. Do your talking with balls and strikes.' Kid said, 'I can say what I want to say - that's freedom of speech.' I told him, 'You go sit yourself down until you're ready to apologize.'

"After awhile, he got humble. He apologized. He got back in the game."

Respect is a huge issue for Ford, who grew up around 32nd and Norris and was saved from gang life by sports, but then, between childhood and manhood, stumbled into drug use, drug dealing and homelessness.

Ford's been clean for 17 years, earned a master's degree in human services and has a long history as a city mental-health worker and a grass-roots community activist.

Itchy, who grew up around 31st and Dauphin, works at night for SEPTA, cleaning the Regional Rail trains. "I'm off all day," he said, "so I've got lots of time for baseball and these kids. I coach them during the week, coach a men's softball team Sunday mornings, play men's softball. I'm surprised my fiancee ain't left me yet."

Back in 1968, before Itchy was Itchy, he was just a little kid named David Lisby, heading off to baseball practice on a hot summer Saturday. "My mother said, 'Don't get dirty because the bathroom's being fixed and the water won't be on when you get back'," he remembered.

But it was sliding practice. "When I got home, I had the whole baseball diamond all over me," he said. "I was itchy. And I was scratching.

"I had to go to my grandmother's house two blocks away to take a bath. I passed by my cousin and his friends. They saw me scratching and they said, 'Hey, Itchy Bomb!' After awhile, Itchy Bomb got shortened and it's been Itchy ever since."

After the game, Itchy, Clark and the other coaches - Bernard Savage, a Philadelphia School District food-service manager and truant officer who works with the two teams of older teens; and Bill Thompson, who brought a bunch of kids from the Ethel Allen School neighborhood around 33rd and Lehigh to join the new league - said their goodbyes and headed home with the players who needed rides.

Ford took a moment to look out over the diamond and, out beyond the outfield, at the looming presence of Cornerstone Baptist Church, where it all began just two months ago.

"This thing is spiritual," Ford said.

He gazed up at the sky above homeplate - his eyes moist, his voice a little shaky.

"Thank you," he said.

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