FBI agents and Philly children square off in softball

Posted: July 26, 2014

Along West Diamond Street about noon Thursday, FBI officers laid out hazmat suits and jars of fingerprint dust.

The only thing under investigation, however, was whether they could beat the Strawberry Mansion All-Star Baseball League in a softball game.

The feds and the young ballplayers have been challenging each other for the last eight summers in an effort to make city children more comfortable around the authorities.

"It was really designed to kill the stigma between kids and law enforcement," said Derrick Ford, founder and head of the Strawberry Mansion All-Star Baseball League. "We want them to know it's OK to want to be a police officer, in the FBI, in the military - it's OK to wear a uniform."

About noon, Gene Lanzillo of the FBI Evidence Response Team, unloaded his black SUV for a forensic show-and-tell. He said that, on a weekly basis, he has taken his equipment to events at elementary and high schools, colleges and neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion.

"The kids are really interested in seeing this stuff," he said, pressing his hand on one of the sheets of paper on his folding table. "I'll usually have them rub their heads, get some oil on their hands, press their hand on the page, and then I spread some magnetic dust on it with this magnetic brush, and -" he trailed off as his handprint appeared in the dust.

Farther down the road, children piled into a beige Army truck, poking their heads out of the top. Others tried on gas masks and suits that agents use when handling hazardous substances.

While parents, children, and officers ate mustard-drizzled pretzels and grilled burgers, the Philadelphia Anti-Drug and Anti-Violence Network, Mothers in Charge, the Hazel Haven for Freedom from Domestic Violence, and other anticrime organizations handed out pamphlets.

A DJ sat under a folding tent, playing crowd favorites like Pharrell's "Happy."

After a raffle, kids in Phillies and Strawberry Mansion All-Star League T-shirts started warming up.

Jamel Rice, 11, a catcher, said his view of law enforcement changed after he got to meet officers face-to-face during a previous game.

But he has abandoned his dream of becoming an FBI agent, he said. "Now I want to be a baseball player."

Destiny Young, 12, said the games had humanized her view of the officers. Her favorite table was the one with Lanzillo's fingerprint dust.

"I would like to be in the FBI," Young said, "but I really want to be a lawyer - a prosecutor."

About 3 p.m., all eyes trained on the baseball diamond as the game began. Last year, the FBI came out on top.

"They beat the drawers off of us last year," Ford said with a laugh, addressing the crowd, "so we're ready for redemption!"

This year, the game was closer - the kids wound up on top, 15-11. But the feds figured they won some hearts and minds.

LONeal@phillynews.com

215-854-2619 @LydsONeal

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