Garfield Park and Austin Little League gearing up for season

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By LA RISA LYNCH

"I'm just so excited about coaching these kids," says an enthusiastic Tommy Bowling, who has coached Little League baseball on the West Side for years.

Springtime has baseball fans - of the pros and little leagues - eagerly waiting for the upcoming season. For the Garfield Park Central-West Little League, their season begins April 28, weather permitting, of course. Coaches Bowling, of the Austin Little League, and Frank Brim, who coached the Garfield Park Little League, merged their squads last fall into the Garfield Park Central-West Little League.

The West Side league teams joined forces to give kids more chances to play baseball.

The new league comprises more than 500 youths and is the only West Side team charted and insured by Little League International.

Garfield Park, 100 N. Central Park Ave., is their home field. The league's boundary stretch from Kedzie Avenue to Austin Boulevard, North Avenue to I-290 on the south, and includes North Lawndale.

Bowling expressed excitement about the new league, but says it developed out of necessity. Although his team had an impressive season last year - making it to the district quarterfinals - the team had been somewhat homeless.

Bowling noted the team had problems securing park district fields in Austin to play on. His team had to scramble to play their games and often had to play games as far away as Livingston Park on the Near West Side. Along with kicking off this season, Bowling believes they have a shot at the Little League World Series.

With the creation of the new league comes an opportunity to expand programming, the coaches said. For the first time, an all-girls summer softball program is being offered. Coach Frank Brim explained that while most high schools offer softball during the school year, there's no summer program.

"We have to give them an outlet too," Brim said.

For both coaches, the new league goes beyond RBIs and stealing bases. Brim and Bowling view their team as a community organization, teaching its players life skills. On the field, youth learn the rigors of baseball, but off the field, kids learn about avoiding drugs, guns and gangs, as well as learning conflict resolution.

Brim, who's played baseball since age 9, said the game taught him discipline and perseverance. Those traits, he says, helped advance his career with the Chicago Fire Department.

"You learn so many intangible things that you don't put your finger on," Brim said.

The league plans to partner with After School Matters to train youth as umpires to officiate park district games. The league offers an online ACT prep program to boost high school players' test scores.

Tutoring is also offered to players to help with their school work. The league's Bases Loaded program has coaches checking on players at their schools, meeting with principals and teachers.

"We don't accept mediocrity in the classroom, and we don't accept it on the field," Brim said.

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