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Batter up: Madison homeless, advocates field softball teams

May 12, 2018
In this Wednesday, April 11, 2018 photo, JoJo Friesan, left, slaps hands with Carlos Rojas, 52, as they work on fielding during practice for a new homeless softball team at Reynolds Park in Madison, Wis. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — “Hey, you want to try a position?” Jeremy Evenson asks the down-on-his-luck-looking older man sitting against a tree along North Paterson Street, a few blocks east of downtown Madison.

The man, 63-year-old Israel Pino, shakes his head no.

Soon a police car pulls up and two officers approach, body language suggesting they’re less interested in arresting him or rousting him from his spot than in striking up as positive an interaction as they can with someone who lives on the streets.

This appears to be all the motivation Pino needs. In a few minutes he’s slowly walking to the diamond, grabbing a nearby glove from the ground and positioning himself as catcher behind Carlos Rojas, the big-swinging guy at the plate.

Mike O’Neill, who was tossing batting practice, said later that Pino ended up taking a few swings himself.

“He was actually the most talented player out there,” a switch hitter who could also pitch, O’Neill said. At a practice a couple of weeks later, Pino tells a Wisconsin State Journal reporter in broken English that he played professionally in Cuba before coming to the United States in 1980.

Pino begins both practices sitting on the ground near the field, sipping on an open tallboy can of beer.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that as manager for what might be the first two organized softball teams for the homeless in Madison history, O’Neill is aware that some of his players could be used to drawing police attention and sitting in public places drinking in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon — or otherwise have what are politely referred to in the big leagues as “off-the-field issues.”

But after a month’s worth of weekly or biweekly practices, teams made up largely of people who know what it’s like to be without a home seemed ready to have a little fun crossing home plate — which is mostly what O’Neill and the assistant manager of the co-ed team, Evenson, are hoping for.

“I think it shouldn’t have a larger purpose. It should just be having fun,” said Evenson, who is formerly homeless and now volunteers as president of the board of directors of Street Pulse, a newspaper sold by the homeless. It’s “time away from their problems,” he said.

In addition to Pino, another native Cuban on the men’s team, Rojas, was roping line drives into center and, later, snagging shots to short on that recent Wednesday afternoon.

Rojas, 54, said he arrived alone in the United States in 1980 when he was 16 as part of the Mariel boatlift and played in high school in Cuba.

“You play for Fidel?” O’Neill asked Rojas. “No, I played for me,” Rojas answered.

Christopher Myers, 44, played baseball in high school and basketball in college, but he was thinking about his son when he agreed to play on both of O’Neill’s teams.

“I wanted to show my son there’s something better than hanging out in the street and getting in trouble,” said Myers, a single father who was staying with his 8-year-old son at the Madison YWCA.

Kasey Childress, 52, said he typically spends his nights by a wall outside the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Downtown and spends much of his days walking around the city. But he’s not worried that the lack of a place or transportation will keep him from making it to weekly games.

He was looking to get “some physical exercise rather than just walking a lot.”

Gladys Nalls and her husband, Trivon, will have to do a lot of juggling to play on the co-ed team together. Specifically, they’ll need someone to help watch their six children, ages newborn to 12, during games.

“I think I want to take on an extra hobby for the summer,” she said, adding she hoped playing can be a positive experience in an otherwise difficult day-to-day existence.

As of mid-April, currently or formerly homeless people made up eight members of the men’s team, the Street Pulse Sluggers, and seven members of the co-ed team, the Beacon Eagles.

The rest are generally those who work with or volunteer with the homeless and include a UW-Madison law student; president and CEO of Catholic Charities Madison, Jackson Fonder, whose organization runs the newly opened Beacon homeless resource center; and a Dane County Jail chaplain.

O’Neill, an energetic 67-year-old who said he’s got one summer of semipro baseball and hundreds of recreational softball games under his belt, said the spark for proposing the teams was meeting a Street Pulse vendor outside Brocach Irish Pub Downtown about six months ago.

A former science writer in California and the son of two journalists, he now runs an online life sciences newsletter and said he loves “everything about putting a publication together.”

O’Neill sought out Evenson, a Cambridge native and veteran of the first Iraq War, and started working as a volunteer writer for the newspaper. The idea for a team came to him over several months, he said, as he talked with various homeless people “who seemed to have an athletic background and interest in sports.”

Fonder said O’Neill mentioned he was putting together the softball teams when were both volunteering at a free Easter lunch at the First United Methodist Church.

And “I couldn’t shake it from my mind,” said the 56-year-old Fonder, who played baseball in high school and while in the Air Force. So he approached O’Neill and offered Catholic Charities as a sponsor.

The money to cover what O’Neill estimates to be about $1,700 in registration fees is coming mostly from a philanthropist friend of his named Robert Wiener in Connecticut. The Edgewood College and High School athletics programs have also donated balls, bats, gloves and uniform shirts.

Altogether, the teams have more than 30 players signed up. Ten are required to field a team.

Like any new team, the players are largely untested. The co-ed team’s first game was to be Friday evening, but drenching rains earlier forced the Parks Division to close the fields despite perfect softball weather at game time.

But if attendance at the teams’ first practice on April 4 is any indication, the desire to play is there. Temperatures that day were in the low 30s, and there were a couple inches of wet snow on the ground.

Still, O’Neill didn’t cancel, and six people showed up to hit and field balls. Five days later the Chicago Cubs were scheduled to open their home season at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was postponed due to light snow and temperatures in the 30s.

And those guys are getting paid.

At that first snowy practice, 58-year-old Art Paul Schlosser, a longtime Madison busker who also writes for Street Pulse, said he decided to join the team because “I need some exercise,” and he’s happy to take whichever position “no one else wants.”

“He likes talking to people,” O’Neill said of Schlosser, so he’s thinking of putting him at catcher because “maybe he will distract” the other team.”

JoJo Frieson, 36, was not shy about calling attention to the liners he was hitting. At the practice a week later, he shows off the trophy he won for being part of the first-place softball team at the Special Olympics in Chicago in 2001.

“Come on, JoJo, you ain’t got nothin’,” Rojas playfully taunts when it’s the former’s turn to hit.

Karen Andro, who was slated to play the outfield on the Eagles and runs homeless ministries for First United, agrees with O’Neill and Evenson that the teams are not about providing any kind of formal assistance to an often-marginalized population already well-acquainted with the role of “client.”

They’re about “bringing people together for community and not just the social services aspect,” she said.

Still, summer softball leagues are about as mainstream American as it gets, and Fonder said that for a population “who are often dealing with big issues,” playing softball in a city rec league for an hour a week is “fitting in with the rest of the city of Madison.”

It’s a “sort of American way of life,” he said.

O’Neill, though, is mostly keeping his head in the game.

“I think we got a chance to be a pretty good team,” he said. They’re set to find out this week, when both teams are expecting to play their first games.


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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