Former players revitalize baseball on the West Side

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As Jalen Dozier runs sprints back and forth across the Homan Square Park gym, his mother, LaShonda Kelly, beams at him from the stands. Kelly says her 9-year-old son used to be lazy, but now she’s so amazed by his improvements she sometimes has to ask herself, “Is that him?”

She credits First Round Baseball Academy and its executive director Frank Brim for many of the changes she’s seen in her son since he enrolled in the program last year.

“I love Coach Frank,” says Kelly. “He teaches structure and discipline.”

Brim started First Round Baseball Academy, located in Garfield Park, in 2007 to get more inner-city kids playing baseball and to use the game to teach life skills like accountability and leadership.

“The biggest part of a sport is you have to be disciplined,” says Brim. “That’s the same thing with life.”

Two of Brim’s friends, Shawn Walker and Jerry Mack, joined First Round later in 2007 to help introduce even more kids to baseball. All three men played baseball at the college or professional level, and they realize the opportunities that come from playing a sport.

Mack played minor league ball for the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. Brim played for the White Sox minor league in 1978, and Walker played for his college team at Chicago State University.

Brim sees the potential for some of his players to play at pro levels. One of the 11-year-olds has already peeked the interest of scouts. But Brim is also aware of the simple more immediate opportunities that come from sports – like making friends and learning to play on a team.

Shawn Walker Jr., 12, says those opportunities are why his dad started coaching him at the age of 4. He currently plays for First Round with his best friend on a team his father coaches. Shawn hopes that one day he will play baseball for a college team, like his father. Shawn, a chess player at Newberry Math and Science Academy in Lincoln Park, hopes to play for Harvard University where he would like to study business or accounting.

“I love math,” says Shawn of his future career choices. “I like how everything is all tied together.”

While the opportunities that come with playing baseball vary, one thing is sure: No one in the academy’s West Side district will be denied the opportunity to play.

Anyone ages 5 to 16 from the 10th district, Western Avenue to Austin Boulevard and Roosevelt Road to North Avenue, can play even if he can’t afford the $100 registration fee.

“If a kid wants to play baseball, they are going to play baseball,” says Brim.

First Round has received donations from companies like Live Nation, but Brim says the coaches spend their own money, too.

About 250 children from the West Side are currently enrolled in the baseball academy, which started workouts for this season in February. Most of the kids come from Garfield Park, but about 25 are from Austin, with other students coming from Oak Park, Maywood and Bellwood as well.

Teams at First Round Baseball Academy train on Saturdays with the season opening May 1st with a parade from Homan Square to Garfield Park. Team pictures will be taken at the park; there will be food and games.

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