ENGLEWOOD — Diego Rivera no longer worries about diving on shards of glass or sloshing up puddles when he plays center field for the Lindblom Math and Science Academy Eagles.
That’s thanks to a $330,000 renovation of four varsity baseball and softball diamonds at Lindblom Park, 6054 S. Damen Ave. The Cubs Charities’ Diamond Project paid for the overhaul and plans to unveil more upgrades at 11 other schools throughout the city. Lindblom players joined Clark the Cub on Monday for a ribbon cutting.
“The difference is great. They got drains out there. It dries a lot better. Your foot doesn’t sink into the ground when you’re trying to push off,” said Rivera, a senior and team captain. “I feel faster and more agile.”
Junior second baseman Antwan Harvey Jr. said his team has been “locked in” since they began practicing on the renovated field, putting behind them the days of raking up beer bottles, glass and gravel off the dirt before they could pick up a bat and glove. More players have shown up to offseason workouts this year than ever before and practices are more organized, Harvey said.
Harvey said he hopes the improved resources will lead him to even greener pastures at his “dream school,” University of Illinois, where he hopes to play baseball and major in early childhood education.
“It makes us feel we’re just as good as everyone else. Doesn’t matter what we have, the resources we come from, we just come out here and play, work hard, so we can prove to those players on the North Side or anywhere in Chicago we’re just as good as them,” Harvey said. “It feels great to have our own home to come back to.”
Lindblom assistant principal Karen Carpenter said the new fields are a “game-changer” for a neighborhood that often lacks access to well-kept sports facilities. The fields also will be open to the public.
“There’s so much at times where the kids feel disinvestment in their community,” Carpenter said. “The Englewood community has gotten a bad wrap on crime, for being a food desert. But for them to see this investment, it means we care.”
Lindblom assistant coach Tristan Hannah said “the baseball program wasn’t much” when he played for the Eagles and “you didn’t know what you might find” in the dirt before practice. He said he thinks there are at least seven kids on this year’s lineup who could earn college scholarships, which will be made easier with better training conditions.
“You play on a good field, you’re going to get better hops, better exposure for college,” Hannah said. “The kids are more excited to come here every day.”
Lindblom alums David Husband and Donnie “MoSquito” McKee said they played “sandlot baseball” when they were in the lineup in the 1970s.
“Because we played on whatever the neighborhood left here,” McKee said. “Old English bottles, T.J. Swann bottles, a bunch of gravel. It was crappy. There was a swamp in left field that just always stayed moist, even on good days.”
McKee said he was “shocked and amazed” to see so many fans at Lindblom Park gathered around the pristine field.
“To see these kids get this kind of opportunity, it makes for much better development. It stifled our development. We wouldn’t slide, we wouldn’t dive head first for balls, because we were concerned about being able to play again,” McKee said. “But this is playable. This is tremendous.”
Head coach Matthew Fidati shouted out the lineup card for the first time this season while his Eagles stood in their home dugout, pressed up against the metal fencing. Now in his seventh season, Fidati said it was often hard to get opposing teams to play at Lindblom. This year, the Eagles have a full slate of home games and a crowd excited to cheer them on, Fidati said.
“It gives our kids the opportunity to compete with other top schools in the city. Puts us on a level playing field with them,” Fidati said. “It gives them the opportunity to be a part of a team. Throughout life, you’re going to be a part of a team.”
Eddie Curry, Chicago Public Schools’ baseball athletic program administrator, said public league baseball is still under resourced on the South Side, where the majority of players are Black and Latino. But “we’ve come a long way,” Curry said. Schools like Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy High School, Englewood STEM and Kelly High School have opened new fields in recent years, and participation in high school baseball is rebounding from the pandemic, Curry said.
Curry said Lindblom is fortunate to have a coach in Fidati to advocate for better resources.
“It looks good on paper, and it looks good on TV when you see an organization like the Cubs do this, but you know there’s so many schools out there that need this kind of help,” Curry said. “They don’t have the big push and the start to get everything going.”
Lindblom math teacher and former JV baseball coach Nathan Raichel fist bumped his former players behind the dugout. Raichel said he hasn’t had time to coach this year, but made sure to show up dressed in his Lindblom baseball hat and sweatshirt.
“You’re seeing people take the program seriously now; that this is a legitimate baseball team,” Raichel said. “This is a group of kids that deserve to be invested in. It’s the first step in many in what these kids truly deserve.”
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