Miller Park Grays second baseman Mahki McMorris flips the ball to first for an out during the exhibition game with the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club Jaguars June 26. (Photos by Antone Oseka)
Baseball in the Inner City
The Story of the Miller Park Grays
By Andy Roberts
The Daily Record
If you build it, will they know what it is?
To appropriate and twist a famous movie phrase, that could have been the question when the Black Police Officers Association began working to develop a baseball program in North Omaha.
It’s part of PACE, or Police Athletics for Community Engagement. The Latino Police Officers Association started the program in 2005 after Officer Tony Espejo attended a gang symposium in Florida. A breakout session introduced the thought that if you can get kids together at 11, it makes it much harder for them to shoot each other at 16.
So, why not form good gangs, he asked? Like sports teams – maybe in baseball and soccer. PACE provides young men and women with an opportunity to develop discipline, self-esteem and positive moral values through wholesome competition and “free” participation in soccer, baseball, CrossFit and flag football.
Today Espejo is a full-time gang officer assigned to PACE. Retired police Capt. Rich Gonzalez serves as executive director.
It wasn’t long before the Black Police Officers Association (BPOA) was expanding the program to North Omaha where baseball had been near extinction. There are many reasons for that, and they are well documented elsewhere, but even Major League Baseball has noticed the game is missing out on some of the nation’s premier athletes and is beginning to take action.
Lt. Kenneth Fox took the lead, following in the footsteps of the late Kerrie Orozco, who was getting kids to play baseball at the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club despite numerous challenges.
Fox recalled how the BPOA knew it had to reach out once it started working with the Latino officers.
“I got with Kerrie Orozco ... she was the only one doing it north,” Fox said “I see it, let’s do it, I see there’s a need for it. It’s a niche.”
Needing buy-in, the North Omaha group initially sponsored a team from the Boys and Girls Club because that’s where the kids were. Fox recalled the first steps were small ones after Orozco became involved around 2010.
“The north team got kind of the leftovers,” he said. “We bought all brand-new equipment.”
That “we” was the officers. After their first taste of success with a team named the Stars, they reached out to the Sherwood Foundation for additional funds.
The Grays soon followed and became increasingly successful. The Stars name was dropped with the Grays now having multiple teams in different age groups. This year, the Miller Park Grays baseball team received funding from the turn-back tax grants which are controlled by the local city and county governments.
The Stars were the name of the first team, Fox said, as the officers wanted to pay homage to the Negro League teams. That continued with the Grays (named after the Washington Homestead Grays) as the officers were deliberate in naming the teams and hoping the young men would learn about the heritage behind the name.
It took time to build as none of the kids had a baseball background. For that matter, neither did Fox or Sgt. Marcus Taylor, the other coach.
“It was extremely difficult for the Miller Park teams,” Fox said, but “we did it.”
They did it, but not without a lot of work and the coaches learning on the fly.
“We’d be out looking at our phones for YouTube,” Fox said. Adding to their challenge were the terrible conditions of the playing fields.
“We were out there with chunks of rock and overgrown grass,” he said. “We sucked when we first started in 2014.”
It didn’t take too long for that to change.
“After three years we won the championship,” Fox said. “They kept coming back.”
While an individual can become a star in football or basketball simply through superior athletic ability, that’s not the case in baseball where a .300 hitter is a star despite failing 70% of the time.
“It’s a great sport because (of) the failure rate,” Fox said. “You’re not going to find any Derek Jeters that come from this program.”
He then added, “I doubt it.”
But they learn life skills, how to deal with adversity, and have a chance to interact with positive role models.
“If they learn baseball, that’s a plus,” Fox said. He then added the kids usually don’t know the coaches are cops.
That, in addition to the game long being gone from the inner city and a lack of familiarity with baseball, were among the challenges the young men faced in joining the program that the officers had to overcome to make it happen.
“They face ridicule for coming out and playing baseball with us,” Fox said. “We had to constantly tell kids it’s okay to come out and play baseball with us.”
The officers are not asking for any information from the players, but Fox acknowledges they lost a lot of kids along the way. They had to develop family support and there was a need for resources to get the young athletes to practice every day adding to the pressure of playing with the police.
The PACE officers used to offer rides from Miller Park Elementary School to Christie Heights in South Omaha so the young men could play baseball. Parental support grew.
“We had a lot of great parents,” he said.
Angelica Temple was one of those parents. She now coaches in the program and has one son playing and another who has gone through the program who will help coach. A daughter is now an officer for the Omaha Police Department after volunteering with PACE while working as a Cass County Deputy.
“For me, it’s just allowed me an opportunity to give back to the community,” Temple said.
It helps her bridge the gap between the community and the officers. She knows some officers make mistakes, but she feels the media often can’t paint the whole picture.
“It’s kind of broken relationships,” she said describing the manner in which the North Omaha community and officers too often relate to each other.
“Just showing my children there are good officers with good morals and good intentions.”
Temple continues to be engaged in the work after starting in 2015, the year Orozco was killed in a shootout in the line of duty. She was especially moved by the fact Orozco’s daughter was set to be released after a lengthy hospital stay the day the officer was killed.
“I’m in it for the long haul,” Temple said. It is a challenge for her as she is in a dual master’s program at UNO. “I decided to take the summers off so I could continue with PACE.”
Fox sees strides being made as some young men who never would have played baseball now go on to play in high school.
Unfortunately, that does not include Avante Dickerson, a former PACE kid who is focused on football at Westside where he may be the state’s top junior gridiron prospect. Still, he continues to benefit from the program.
“He’s my mentee,” Fox said. “I continue to be in his life ... I begged him to continue to play baseball.”
There are others who will pursue the game as they move on from PACE. The BPOA lacks the resources to make the talented youngsters “super successful” but Fox said they are starting to identify kids in the program who can play on select teams.
“We have partnered with Omaha Suburban Stampede to scholarship them on to select teams,” Fox said.
The support is growing as PACE recently became an affiliate of Major League Baseball’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City) program. The Big Leagues are making an effort to involve top athletes in the game. Ray Fidone, a retired police sergeant, works part-time with PACE and said the connection means more equipment will be provided while doors are opened to higher level tournaments.
Fox said he hopes to continue bolstering baseball and growing soccer in North Omaha, an idea that already is becoming reality. So is the beautiful new Kerrie Orozco baseball field to replace the nearly unplayable one where the effort began.
“It’s working, man,” Fox said.
Ricky Incantro squares up a base hit for the Miller Park Grays during their game with the Jaguars June 26.