Game on!

Noth­ing can stop youth base­ball lead­ers, not even thieves

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - BRIAN SCOTT RIPPEE

Tony and Katrina Dun­nick needed a mo­ment to catch their breath as they stood in the park­ing lot of La­mar Porter Field.

The hus­band and wife looked at two holes cut by thieves in the park’s metal fence. Those thieves stole equip­ment and trashed the con­ces­sion stand.

“This won’t stop us from play­ing,” Katrina Dun­nick said as kids walked through the larger hole to the bat­ting cages.

Tony Dun­nick nod­ded his head in agree­ment.

Stand­ing next to the Dun­nicks on this Satur­day in late June were Dil­lon Hupp and Jay Rogers. Hupp is the com­mis­sioner of Lit­tle Rock’s Re­viv­ing Base­ball in In­ner Cities youth base­ball league, a pro­gram started un­der the um­brella of Ma­jor League Base­ball in an ef­fort to help un­der-served youths as well as in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion in base­ball among mi­nori­ties.

The league op­er­ates in part­ner­ship with the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club in Lit­tle Rock, and is funded by the Jim El­der Good Sport Fund and spon­sored by the Boys and Girls Club of Cen­tral Arkansas. Aside from that sup­port, the league gets equip­ment and money from do­na­tions.

“It is about giv­ing these kids some­thing con­struc­tive to do, a place to play base­ball com­pletely free of judg­ment,” Hupp says.

Rogers is trustee for La­mar Porter Field, at John­son and West Sev­enth streets in Lit­tle Rock, where the games are played. He pro­vides the kids’ uni­forms through his sport­ing goods store, Short­stop Inc. The league serves more than 100 play­ers, ages 13 to 18, each sea­son. The ju­nior league for ages 13 to 15 has five teams and the se­nior league (16 to 18) has four. The um­pires are paid, but all the coaches are vol­un­teers. There are roughly 15 coaches be­tween the two leagues. Some are new and some have been around awhile, like Harold Joyner, who started the se­nior league and has coached for 14 sea­sons.

At its core, the league is de­signed to give young peo­ple a con­struc­tive out­let through a game that is los­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion from mi­nori­ties at its high­est lev­els.

“My friends and I get to come here ev­ery sum­mer,” said 16-year-old Jay­lon Avery, who plays in the se­nior league. “These are peo­ple I go to school with. We grew up to­gether.”

The break-in and theft of equip­ment didn’t stop the games from be­ing played, but it made things more dif­fi­cult for the Dun­nicks, Hupp and Rogers.

Sweat dripped down Tony Dun­nick’s face. Dirt dot­ted his shoes and shorts. He

had been at the field since 6 a.m. pre­par­ing it, as he does on most days.

But this time, Tony had to man­i­cure the dirt on the in­field by hand — an ar­du­ous task even with the proper equip­ment. The thieves had stolen the league’s four-wheeler he usu­ally uses for the job.

Af­ter the field was ready, the Dun­nicks and Hupp cleaned the ketchup and na­cho-cheesed soaked floor of the con­ces­sion stand.

“It re­ally kind of hurts,” Katrina Dun­nick said. “It was a gut punch for some­one to come in and do that.”

MORE THAN THE GAMES

To un­der­stand the pain and frus­tra­tion the Dun­nicks felt, you have to un­der­stand what this field and this league mean to them.

“Tony and Katrina run RBI Base­ball,” Hupp says. “This league would cease to ex­ist if it were not for them and what they do.”

Tony preps the in­field, chalks the foul lines and makes sure the field is in good con­di­tion, some­times ar­riv­ing as early as 4 a.m. to beat the sum­mer’s heat and hu­mid­ity.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful field,” says 18-year-old player Kirk Eudy, a se­nior league player. “I love base­ball and the over­all feel of this sta­dium.”

Tony helps coach when he is needed and, some­times, he is the game’s um­pire. He and Katrina re­cruit play­ers, mak­ing sure they have equip­ment — from gloves to pants and cleats.

They also run the con­ces­sion stand, which is funded out of their pocket.

They had re­stocked the con­ces­sion stand with $500 worth of food a few days be­fore the break-in.

“I cried,” he says. “Go on and break in. Take the stuff but don’t de­stroy the prop­erty. We were stand­ing in that crap for two hours [clean­ing] it all out.”

Tony took the cou­ple’s last $100 and bought more con­ces­sion items for the games that day.

“I get paid ev­ery two weeks. That was the last dime of it,” he said. “My wife gets frus­trated some­times. I have to let her know that God will take care of this. We don’t have to worry.”

The cou­ple gives away more food than they sell. If a child is hun­gry or needs some­thing to drink, they will give it to him.

The league has a lot of turnover. Some kids come and go. Phone num­bers and ad­dresses change. There is a $95 league fee for each player and “80 to 90 per­cent” can’t pay it. RBI doesn’t turn any­one away. Some of the kids come from un­sta­ble homes. The Dun­nicks work to com­bat that in­sta­bil­ity with the re­sources they have.

“Some­body did it for me when I was a kid,” Katrina says. “You have kids where maybe their home sit­u­a­tion is not that sta­ble and so they would rather be some­where else. Why not give them a place to come? That is why the break-in hurt so much.”

ALL ABOUT FAM­ILY

With games played ev­ery sum­mer, the Dun­nick fam­ily spends at least five days a week at La­mar Porter Field. Tony has been in­volved with RBI since 2001. He and Katrina met four years ago through youth base­ball; their kids were hang­ing out to­gether. It took a while for her to un­der­stand why he pours so much of him­self into the field and how many peo­ple he’s help­ing.

“Hon­estly, it kind of got on my nerves some­times,” she said. “He was up here all the time. When base­ball sea­son kicks in it’s like ‘This is our sum­mer.’ But the more I was here see­ing what he does, how many peo­ple de­pend on him, I now want to see what I can do to help.”

Ten or 11 kids at a time might show up at the cou­ple’s home for a ride to a prac­tice or a game.

Tony takes pride in look­ing out for the kids on the streets in his neigh­bor­hood, which is near La­mar Porter Field, or in sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods. He has lost count of how many kids he has got­ten off the streets and tried to keep out of trou­ble.

He pointed to­ward one of the play­ers on the field and re­called an en­counter on the street.

“I took a gun out of his hand,” Tony said. “I took it out of his hands with force. If he had shot me? Oh well. This was not go­ing to go. I told him I never wanted to see him with it again.”

Tony was once a star ath­lete at Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School and played at the Col­lege of the Canyons, then the University of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les.

He be­lieves this pro­gram is his call­ing.

“It is what God made me to do,” he says. “I could be ref­er­ee­ing. I could be get­ting paid teach­ing kids, big money. I have been of­fered it. I could have my own work­place. But this is what God wanted me to do, and I am go­ing to do it un­til the day that I die.”

The Dun­nicks, 22 years apart in age, were brought to­gether by base­ball and the de­sire to help oth­ers. They were mar­ried a year ago and have six chil­dren be­tween them rang­ing from 15 months to 16 years. He works at Arkansas Enterprises for the De­vel­op­men­tally Dis­abled.

In 2012, the mother of one of his clients died and asked in her will that her sons, Jerry and Ryan, not be sep­a­rated. See­ing the un­like­li­ness of that be­ing hon­ored, he took the boys in.

“I promised her that I would never let that hap­pen, and the only way to do that is if they lived with me,” Tony says. Katrina calls them her broth­ers.

All to­gether, the Dun­nicks are a fam­ily of 10. They can all be found at La­mar Porter most nights dur­ing the sum­mer — help­ing keep score, work­ing in the con­ces­sion stand or tak­ing in the ac­tion on the field.

GAMES GO ON

Star­ing at the holes in the fence, Katrina re­peated: “This isn’t go­ing to stop us.” And it didn’t.

One of the um­pires couldn’t work the sec­ond game that day, so Tony stepped in to be the um­pire. The pre­vi­ous week, one of the teams only had two play­ers, so they played a sim­u­la­tion game with ev­ery­one get­ting turns to bat against the nine play­ers in the field.

“At the end of the day, we want kids to be able to come out and play base­ball,” Hupp says. “We are not strict with the rules in that re­gard. You are go­ing to play ball no mat­ter what.”

Hupp is an alumni of the RBI pro­gram and has seen the im­pact it makes be­yond wins and losses.

“I was a me­diocre base­ball player when I played Ju­nior Deputy [Babe Ruth Base­ball],” Hupp says. “Then I came out here and played with some kids who didn’t have too much ex­pe­ri­ence and it did won­ders for my con­fi­dence. It was so ap­par­ent to me that the kids that came out here and had never been able to play base­ball in an of­fi­cial sense be­fore, how much bet­ter they got by the end of the year from be­ing able to come out and do that. I love base­ball and I love this com­mu­nity.

“It means a lot to me that this pro­gram ex­ists.”

Tony and Katrina know how im­por­tant the league is to their com­mu­nity. That’s what drives them to help keep it alive even if it means eight hour days at the ball­park or ar­riv­ing be­fore sun­rise to pre­pare the field for that day’s games.

It has brought their fam­ily to­gether while help­ing the com­mu­nity around them.

Noth­ing will stop them, as Katrina puts it. Not a breakin, play­ers not be­ing able to pay a reg­is­tra­tion fee, a lack of play­ers, a bur­glary or lack of equip­ment.

Noth­ing.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

The Roy­als and the Cubs com­pete dur­ing league play at La­mar Porter Field in Lit­tle Rock. The teams are part of Lit­tle Rock’s Re­viv­ing Base­ball in In­ner Cities youth base­ball league.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Jerome Moore, 12, of Ben­ton, gets coach­ing ad­vice from Tony Dun­nick dur­ing prac­tice.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/ MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Tony and Katrina Dun­nick run Lit­tle Rock’s Re­viv­ing Base­ball in In­ner Cities youth league’s ac­tiv­i­ties at La­mar Porter Field. “This league would cease to ex­ist if it were not for them and what they do,” says Dil­lon Hupp, com­mis­sioner of the league.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Short­stop Ja­cob English of the Roy­als team read­ies for a catch as Trey Turner of the Cubs slides into sec­ond base in an at­tempted steal dur­ing league play at La­mar Porter Field.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/MITCHELL PE MASILUN

Tony Dun­nick gets some help with his bats from his son David Wayne Reynolds Dun­nick, 15 months, dur­ing prac­tice at La­mar Porter Field in Lit­tle Rock.

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