Running the Bases: How a college kid became king of Canaryville Little League

“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.”

—Bob Lemon, Hall of famer, White Sox manager 1977-78

On Sunday, May 2nd, the players and parents of the Canaryville Little League gathered on the corner of 42nd Street and Union Avenue to begin marching in the annual season-opening parade through their neighborhood. Boys’ and girls’ teams gathered amid clouds of red, white, and blue balloons, and SUVs painted with such slogans as “Let’s Go Thunder” and “Brewers Rock.” With the exception of the addition of the University of Chicago pep band, the traditional opening day parade looked much the same as it has for the past 50 years. This year, however, the Little Leaguers had more to celebrate than usual, for the players were marching to a newly restored baseball field, rehabilitated after years of neglect.

At the back of the parade was UofC third-year Johnny Kozlar. Dressed smartly (but not for the 75-degree weather) in a black suit and tennis shoes, Kozlar calmly ordered the parade participants, guiding the restless players to their correct places and coordinating the event on his walkie-talkie. As the players marched through the streets shouting cheers, throwing candy out to neighborhood onlookers, and subsequently scurrying to collect the candy that they themselves had thrown onto the sidewalks, Kozlar led several other UofC students making sure that the parade ran smoothly.

Kozlar, a varsity baseball player at the UofC, began volunteering with the Canaryville Little League last March as a coach for the boys’ ten-to-twelve-year-old Astros team. But Kozlar was dissatisfied with the conditions in which his little leaguers were playing; the league’s infield was unleveled and dangerously rocky, the outfield had very little grass and was covered with debris and weeds, and the field’s drainage system functioned poorly. When it rained, the entire field would flood and games would be postponed two or three days. The little leaguers were using old equipment, and they didn’t even receive trophies at the end of the season to commemorate their wins (not to mention their losses). “I grew up in Chicago, and when I compared my high school and college experiences at Mount Carmel and the University of Chicago [with the Canaryville teams’], it definitely hit home that these children deserve a lot better,” explained Kozlar.

So Kozlar began asking questions. He went first to the Little League administration and asked why the field and equipment were in such poor condition. The administrators told him that the Little League didn’t have enough money to maintain the field. But with nearly 300 registered players paying the mandatory $100 fee every season, the numbers didn’t seem to add up. Kozlar began wondering where all of the money was going, and asked the administration for their bank statements. After being denied, he decided to go straight to the source and called Bank of America to access the league’s public records. As he looked through the Little League’s account, Kozlar noticed that something was wrong. “I saw a lot of mismanagement happening with the league’s money.” Funds were unaccounted for.

When he brought this information to St. Gabriel’s Athletic Association, which has jurisdiction over the Canaryville league, the league was almost shut down due to liability issues. But Kozlar convinced St. Gabriel’s Parish, which owned the Little League field, to keep the Canaryville league running. “If the field was shut down, the kids would have nowhere to play,” said Kozlar. As a compromise, the athletic association asked him to run the league.

Kozlar accepted the position and brought on three other UofC students–David Akinin, Rob Serpico, and Dyia Aboasha–as fellow administrators. The new administration had their work cut out for them. “The field needed some love and attention to become a field that the kids could be proud to play on,” said a community member who has helped with the renovation of the field. But Kozlar quickly realized that love and attention weren’t enough to revive the league, so he began fundraising. He started with a small operation: “Some of the Little Leaguers and I went on bikes and rode around to local businesses asking for money.” This strategy proved successful, and they raised $1,200 in just three days. By the end of the summer, they had raised $9,000 by appealing to local businesses for funding. The Little League’s donor list has expanded since the summer, and has grown to include large institutions outside of the neighborhood, such as the UofC Medical Center and the University Community Service Center. As of now, the Little League administration has raised over $31,000 in total.

As the league’s bank account grew, so did their aspirations. “At first,” said Kozlar, “we wanted to renovate the infield, but we expanded from there to the outfield and then to the entire facility.” Renovation has included laying down new dirt for the infield, sodding the outfield, re-grating and re-leveling the field, installing a new netting system, and repairing the fencing around the field. “The field needed renovation, and we’re very excited that someone decided to take [the job] on,” commented one mother as she walked along her son’s team in the parade. “It looks beautiful,” gushed another parent about the new facility. In addition to renovating the field, the Little League administration has ordered new uniforms and trophies for the players and has created a website to document teams’ standings and provide public information about the league. The administration is also offering discounts on registration fees this season.

Now that “stage one,” as Kozlar refers to it, of the renovation is 90 percent complete, he and his fellow administrators have set their sights on stage two: reconditioning the hill beside the field to create seating, and refurbishing the field’s sound system. They even want to revamp the concession stand by improving the quality of food offered at Little League games (“Our econ guys are working on this,” says Johnny, referring to Akinin, Serpico, and Aboasha).

“When I heard what they wanted to do,” said Ed Plys, the district administrator for the Little Leagues of Southwest Chicago, “I thought they were crazy. I’ve never had anyone this young do the work that they’ve done.” But at the Little League’s opening day rally, Kozlar and his fellow administrators were quick to highlight the community effort that was involved in accomplishing the field renovation. Community members put in fourteen-hour days laying down sod and installing new fencing; Kozlar estimates that about 60 percent of the renovation work was done on a volunteer basis, with the rest hired out to private contractors. “I’ve lived in a number of different places in my life,” said second-year David Akinin when addressing the crowd at the opening day rally, “and I’ve never been in a community like this that has rallied together in spite of obstacles.” Parents clapped, and seven-year-old Little Leaguers continued hitting each other with balloons.

The vision is still expanding. Kozlar and his UofC colleagues are registering as a student organization called Chicago Inner City Development Association in an attempt to further the relationship between the University of Chicago and the greater Chicagoland area. The organization will work to develop relationships between various UofC sports teams and greater Chicago’s children’s sports leagues. “We want to send a message that the University of Chicago is of Chicago and not simply in Chicago,” argued Kozlar when requesting funding for his project from the University Community Service Center.
Yet there is a tension in this preposition, of. The University is in many ways detached and dissimilar from the rest of Chicago, and entering into different communities’ sports leagues, which tend to be particularly insular and territorially bounded by community borders, can be a considerable challenge. In Canaryville, Kozlar has had to walk the line between preserving tradition and enacting change. Some in Canaryville, for example, were unhappy with the fact that the new administration rerouted the opening day parade this year. It is ironic, perhaps backwards, that the energy that has catalyzed community involvement and reestablished trust within Canaryville has come from outside of the community.

But despite Kozlar’s relative newness, Canaryville has been receptive and welcoming to his ideas, and the new field is proof that some values transcend territorial boundaries. The shared values were clear from the concluding remarks made at the opening day rally: as hundreds of Little Leaguers released balloons into the sky amid cheering parents, Kozlar officially inaugurated the new field with the simple cry, “Let’s play ball!”

Editor’s Note: Our feature last week, “Running the Bases: How a College Kid Became King of the Canaryville Little League,” was controversial among members of the Canaryville Little League community, in part due to the use of the word “king” in the subtitle. We would like to clarify that the use of “king” was an editorial decision that reflects neither Johnny Kozlar’s role as president of the League nor his attitude towards the position. The Weekly also received more general comments on the article’s portrayal of the Little League community. We apologize for any misunderstandings that arose from the piece, and hope it will be read as the tribute to community collaboration that it was meant to be. In an email to the League’s list host, Kozlar put it best: “If there is one thing that I learned from Sunday’s Opening Day Parade, it was the vastness of support from the many people of the community, and the true beauty of Canaryville and the sincerity of many neighborhoods coming together as one.”

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