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May 30, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Avery Cantrell’s shoes stick to the mud as he hustles to the baseball rolling in the rain-soaked grass. He grasps the ball and tosses it ahead of him, it bounces just before reaching his father. “Remember what I told you about throwing, Avery,” David Cantrell calls to his 5-year-old son. “Point. … and throw!”
Some would be surprised to see this scene take place in Douglass Park. And indeed, Avery’s baseball days seemed numbered there not long ago.
Columbia saw three fatal shootings this spring, and some frequent park visitors say two of the incidents are wrongly associated with the park instead of nearby neighborhoods. The first shooting took place at Trinity and Switzler streets and the second in the 300 block of North Eighth Street.
“An incident could take place at Garth and Worley, and it somehow gets associated with Douglass Park,” City Park Ranger Eric White says. He thinks it’s important to pinpoint exactly where violence breaks out so Douglass Park isn’t unfairly associated with it. “That’s one of the perceptions we’re trying to overcome to single out the park for the good it has,” he says.
Deserved or not, it looked as though Douglass Park’s reputation for violence would mean the end of the Douglass Park Bulldog Youth Baseball League before kids such as Avery played a single game this year.
Last month, Columbia Parks & Recreation supervisor Camren Cross said the league was on the verge of dying. After reaching a peak of more than 180 kids in 2008, the numbers steadily decreased to just 60 kids last year.
This season’s registration looked bleak, too: “This is easily the lowest registration we’ve had,” Cross said in April. “Some people are backing out and asking for refunds. They don’t want their children in harm’s way.”
Torey Johnson, a dad in his 50s who sometimes cycles to Douglass Park, says he understands why parents weren’t jumping to sign their kids up for baseball there.
“The parents are probably worried,” he says. “If the kids are out here playing and a fight breaks out, a bullet — when it comes out, it goes anywhere.”
Johnson says the violence has gotten worse in the past two or three years. “I’ve got some age on me, but I’ve been scared here before. I’ve seen some crap.”
Hoping to turn things around, Columbia Parks & Recreation hired league coordinator Sam Brady earlier this year. Brady began recruiting children between the ages of 5 and 10 to participate in the spring league’s T-ball, coach-pitched and kid-pitched teams. He’s made it his mission to spread the word in the community that Douglass Park is a safe area — and he’s taken to the task on foot.
“I get out in the community, and I knock on doors,” Brady says. “I talk to fathers; I talk to mothers. It’s going to take a community to change that thought process around Douglass Park.”
Some community members rose to the occasion and are currently working to change Douglass Park’s reputation. The violence inspired them to become activists. They discussed ways to improve Columbia’s crime rates and formed the new Non-Violence Initiative committee.
Columbia Parks & Recreation also held a meeting at Douglass High School in April to bring concerned citizens together and brainstorm ways to improve the park’s negative reputation. At the meeting, White, who used to be a Columbia police officer, said the police department would designate two officers to patrol Douglass Park by foot on game days. White hoped their presence would help make the park a safer place for the young baseball players.
The increased patrol and Brady’s outreach efforts were a hit. Not only will the league survive this year, but so many children signed up for Douglass Park baseball that Brady had to cut off registration two weeks ago. His staff wasn’t big enough to accommodate any more. The 120 players who registered before the cutoff will start playing games June 4.
Brady says they can’t prepare for everything that could come up at Douglass Park this season, but they’re doing the best they can. “We’re going to make sure that kids are safe,” he says.
League Coordinator Sam Brady went extra lengths to ensure the Douglass Youth Baseball League would have a season this year, despite recent Columbia crime. Vox captures how he made efforts to improve the image of Douglass Park.