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Yvonne Abraham

Playing against fear

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / July 24, 2011

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It ushers summer into countless neighborhoods across the country.

With warmth come the sounds of balls popping off bats, umpires’ calls, parents cheering.

The Dorchester-Roxbury Little League season marks the start of summer in the neighborhoods around Harambee Park. Five evenings a week and on Saturdays, from April to the end of July, teams with names from the old Negro leagues gather on the diamonds by Talbot Avenue.

Parents sit in the bleachers watching pint-sized Toledo Cubs and Atlanta Black Crackers play T-ball. Older kids on the Birmingham Barons and Memphis Red Sox gather for Little League games.

For 52 seasons it has been this way. But lately, the league isn’t what it used to be. Players have been drifting away from these organized games for a while, to other sports, computer screens, and worse.

Then, on June 27, another sound of summer filled the night air at Harambee Park. Yet another pointless gang beef erupted into gunfire, and a 4-year-old was shot.

The boy is slowly recovering. Though police have leads on the shooter, they haven’t made an arrest yet.

In the aftermath of the gunfire, there was plenty of well-placed outrage. But eventually, even after a crime as outrageous as this one, the cameras and most people move on.

It’s left to those who live by Harambee to adjust to the new landscape. Some residents have been vocal about refusing to let the violence take their park from them. Police officers have shown up every day to bolster their will.

And yet, despite their determination, something has been lost here. You might not notice it if you happen upon a crowded Harambee on a weekend afternoon. But you see it if you’re John Gordon, a longtime Little League coach trying to coax players back onto the field.

The Saturday after the shooting, only five of Gordon’s 24 T-ball players showed up, “and I brought two of them,’’ he said. He knows what is going on in those absent kids’ homes, because it happened in his. Gordon’s wife Joyelle refused to let him take their 5-year-old son to the park in the days after the shooting.

Eventually, Gordon prevailed, because he had to. “If people see I can’t bring my son back, they’re not going to bring their kids back,’’ he said, sitting under a tree by the diamond last week.

Some players trickled back, but not enough. Gordon reckons he’s lost 50 of his 150 kids since the shooting. A few parents have told him they don’t want to risk their kids’ safety. Most have disappeared without explanation.

Losing so many players hurts much more than the leagues’ fragile balance sheet. A Little League builds bonds across a neighborhood. Players tend to have involved parents, and those parents get to know each other. Teams pull together kids from different streets and schools, and they have to learn to deal with each other if they want to win. When conflicts arise, Gordon and other adults make sure kids talk them out.

“You’re not going to shoot Billy when you know his mom and you’re at her place for snacks,’’ Gordon said.

Gordon wants the kids to come back. Police, who know that the health of a Little League is about much more than baseball, want to help him. They’re offering extra patrols for games and talking about combining Gordon’s league with one run by the police department. They’ll be in the park next Saturday, to reassure parents and hear their concerns as the Dorchester-Roxbury Little League closes out its 52d season with a cookout and a couple of games.

And Gordon will be trying to attract as many families as he can to commit to next Spring. By then, he hopes, simply signing up a kid for baseball won’t be an act of courage.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com.