It has been a two-decade off-season for Little League baseball in Harlem, where the crack of the bat has given way to crack cocaine and gun shots.
But that is to change with an Opening Day parade to a city park for four games."We're not out trying to grow big-league ballplayers. We're trying to grow big-league citizens," says W. Dwight Raiford, who along with his wife, Iris, is the guiding light behind the renaissance of Harlem Little League.
Raiford's organization already has its charter from the Williamsport, Pa.-based Little League Baseball Inc., which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with 7,000 leagues worldwide and 2.5 million youths.
The community on the north end of Manhattan is so starved for recreation for its children that Harlem Hospital, which treats growing numbers of youths for stab and gunshot wounds, is lending financial and medical support.
"You can walk out of the hospital at night and hear the `pop pop pop' of guns," said Dr. Barbara Barlow, the hospital's chief of pediatric surgery.
"A lot of the street-selling of crack is done by youngsters and they're armed. Kids shoot at each other if they get angry or in a fight. With so many violent episodes, it's like war in the streets," she said.
In Harlem, one of every 100 children is hospitalized with a serious injury each year, 10 times the national average, the doctor said.
And 12 percent of the major injuries to children last year were gunshot wounds, compared with the two children treated for gunshot wounds at the hospital in the 1960s, she said.
Frustrated, hospital officials began recreation programs. They considered starting a Little League program themselves but the Raifords did it first.
Jack Laughlin, administrator of Little League's New York District 23, said a Harlem-Hudson Little League started in 1958 but disbanded by about 1970. The reasons are unclear.
Mrs. Raiford said she began planning the new league last fall after striking a deal with her 8-year-old son, Joshua. She would start a league if Joshua practiced piano with minimal complaints.
She prepared an $8,000 budget so as many as 120 boys and girls could play, and recruited sponsors to pay for the teams and equipment for at least one year.
Half the kids can't afford a $25 fee and others lack gloves, Raiford said, but "thanks to our sponsors and a financial aid program, any kid who can't afford the registration fee still plays baseball."
Formation of the Harlem League, one of seven leagues in Manhattan, has brought dozens of letters and nearly 100 phone calls.
"Harlem has its image," Mrs. Raiford said. "When you think of New York City, you think of it as very cold and people uncaring. But we have seen the best side of New York City. You read letters and tears come to your eyes."
One 77-year-old woman on Social Security wrote a letter praising the effort, "especially with so much drugs and crime out there," and promising to send a check, Raiford said.
Among the most interested have been the children, including 11-year-old George Salter. He said he's excited about wearing uniforms "because you'll be playing and knowing you're playing for fun and you're appreciated."
Akhnaten Spencer-El, 9, said the ball fields will be a nice alternative to the streets, where "some people are a little crazy."