Baseball Men - The Organizer

Our exclusive "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Councilman Eric Gioia, founder of a Little League within a Queens, NY housing project.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.



It isn't enough to love baseball. To make the game live, fans have to organize.


Fans have to roll up their sleeves. They have to arrange family and friends outings to the ball park, coordinate youth league schedules, and put together everything from fantasy leagues to beer leagues. The faithful can devote themselves in countless ways-  writing, reading, analyzing, listening, talking - but every one of them requires coming together with others. It's part of the connection and power in the game.


Councilman Eric Gioia has been a great example of fan organization in action.


In representing the Queensbridge/Long Island City section of Queens in the New York City Council, Gioia has encountered no shortage of off-field organizational challenges. For decades, the inner city neighborhood, which includes the single largest housing complex in the country, has been set back by too many drugs and too much crime and not nearly enough education and economic opportunity. Since being elected in 2001, the 33-year old Gioia has worked to provide solutions by instituting enhanced police surveillance as well as improved literacy programs, job training and bank development.


What makes the Councilman unique has been the way he's included organized baseball into his plans. In 2002, he worked with community activists like the Reverend Mitchell Taylor to found the neighborhood's first-ever Little League, thereby bringing the National Pastime to minority kids who barely knew the game, much less followed it. He's directed funding, recruitment, and participation in the years since, a major reason the Queensbridge program has seen steady increases in kid participation and parental involvement alike.


"I grew up in this neighborhood and I'm going to fight to save it," Councilman Gioia once said. Recently, he discussed how baseball fit in his organizational goals:



What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?


I loved it. I played baseball for St. Sebastian's parish, a Catholic youth center a few miles from here, over at Woodside, Queens. I wasn't very good - not much pop in the bat - but it was tremendous fun and I have some great memories.


Maybe it's because of my time in the law and politics, but I remember the values involved in the game, more than anything else. 'Give your best'. 'Focus, but have fun'. 'Practice leads to performance'. 'Play by the rules'. 'Respect your teammates'. 'Hard work pays off in the long run'. It can sound hokey sometimes, but they had an impact on me as a boy. I think those real-world lessons helped me develop as a person.


I've always been a huge baseball fan. I wish I could follow it more nowadays, but the demands of my job don't allow a lot of free time. George W. Bush used to joke that politics was a route to his dream job, Commissioner of the Major Leagues. (chuckles) Maybe that'll happen to me one day.


Why did you decide to get involved in Queens politics?


I thought I could make a big difference here. As you might know, Queensbridge has had problems from drugs to crime to lack of education. The government has been giving the area the short end of the stick for half a century - cut off from banks, cut off from easy transportation, cut off from the rest of New York City, basically. Growing up in the borough, I knew I wanted to run for office and become a catalyst for a turnaround.


When did you first start thinking about founding the Little League?


It goes back to when I was first campaigning for office back in 2001 and went by the park. I noticed a sign reading 'No playing without permit'. For years, a generation or two, kids had been gathering there for pickup games but being chased off by the Parks Department . . .


And this was a public park.


Right. A public park.


I could understand the logic [of the permit regulation] - they wanted to avoid disorder, with different groups fighting to get on the field at the same time. But, realistically, what are the chances that a bunch of nine year olds were going to gather together and get the paperwork to get a permit from someone somewhere? In effect, it was a ban on organized baseball.


In America.


(chuckles) Well, that's really what it amounted to. For years and years, the kids couldn't play baseball in Queensbridge.


When I got elected, during my very first staff meeting, I brought it up with my aide, Debra Ellen [Glickstein] and said, 'You know what, we're going to start a baseball league. Debra Ellen, you're in charge. Try to find a partner with the YMCA or the Police Athletic League, and I'll get the money from City Hall'.


Why did you think it was important?


The initial thought was, I just wanted to get a lot of kids, boys and girls, involved in something positive.


When I campaigned in the area throughout that summer, I saw a lot of kids just sitting around on apartment steps or street corners. It doesn't take a genius to know that kids in Queensbridge or Kansas or wherever are eventually going to find trouble if they don't have better alternatives. Even good kids.


Were you optimistic about recruiting kids for what essentially would be a brand-new sport?


Maybe it was because I'd just gotten into office, but I didn't know enough to be optimistic or pessimistic. (chuckles)


Debra Ellen was an excellent softball player in her own right, back in Wesleyan, immediately before joining my campaign, but, to her credit, she asked, 'Aren't you imposing your values on the kids?' I responded, 'Yeah, you're right. I am. They elected me, they're getting baseball. If they don't like it, they can go for another guy'. 


Thankfully, though, it was a success from the start, with over 200 kids signing up for year after year now. It's still small - I'd like a lot more to be involved - but it's grown every year and I think this upcoming year is going to be the biggest yet.


In the past, you've mentioned that the League has helped you and your staff establish connections far beyond baseball. Can you talk about that experience?


Well, I think that's been absolutely crucial. It's a great game and the kids wanted to be involved for that reason, but, to me, baseball is so powerful because it can bring people closer, whether that be on the playing field or the 'team' in families and the community. You naturally think of those things when you think of America's Pastime.


I found that the Little Leagues, being popular with kids, were great places to meet parents and establish myself as someone who was willing to hear about their concerns. For example, I learned about the food stamp issue at the park. The majority of those eligible for food stamps have systemic problems with red tape, and it affects over one million New Yorkers a year. The rapport that started at the Little League was the beginning of an effort to navigate that with my constituents.


I freely admit, I want to use the Little League to do other things. For example, those who show up at the ball games can sign up for tax preparation classes with certified accountants, and those classes have directly contributed more than a quarter million dollars in refunds so far. Working with the East River Development Alliance, we can raise that to over one million dollars in the near future.


I could go on and on. The relationships we established through the League have helped us bolster everything from child health care to free college prep classes and starter home ownership.


With so much potential hopeless and despair in distressed areas, the first question is, where do you start? Well, children are a unifier, I find. I think you'd find that youth baseball's been part of the fabric of the community, and its popularity has helped foster some important successes in other areas.


Do you think it's helped community morale, apart from those off-field programs?


I'm not sure you've been to a Little League game recently, but I'd invite anyone and everyone to come over and check out games at Queensbridge Park.  It's impossible to be in a bad mood while watching a bunch of nine- and ten-year olds playing ball on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. (chuckles) It's the cutest thing you've ever seen.


Just the ordinary sense [of the League] is special. I've gone to many, many games now, and it's small town America with the typical cheering and conversations and interaction. In the largest housing development in the country, there are picnics.


Have you seen a change in terms of kids' morale?


My focus is, necessarily, in things like crime prevention and economic opportunity and education. To me, that's the bedrock foundation for a good neighborhood.


With that said, absolutely, a Little League does foster goodwill. In coaches, kids find grown ups they can trust. Principals tell me that our League participants tend to do better in school. My thinking is that nine-year olds who play as teammates or friendly rivals tend to avoid beating each other up, too. I think a kid who starts dedicating himself to baseball is significantly more likely to avoid smoking and drugs. As I've already mentioned, I believe they're learning some of the lessons and values that helped me in my life.


One story that comes to mind, in terms of changes. I've known an outgoing kid, Aramis, since he was five years old. As he got older, like a lot of kids, he got quieter but, in our new school chess tournaments, you'd see a whole different side of him - he's open, he's confident, he's joking around.


Baseball's a great avenue for that kind of development. Our football and basketball programs have been great avenues, too, like band and art programs and, yes, chess. We have all those after-school programs in the district now.


Baseball was first, though.


(chuckles) Like I said, I'm a fan.


As you know, Queens is the most diverse borough in the most diverse city in the world.


Exactly right.


Was it tough to recruit minority kids to the game?


Queensbridge is mostly made up of minorities, so most of the league consists of minority kids.


I mean, baseball's supposedly out of step with today's minority kids, especially in hip-hop culture-


Oh, OK, OK.


I don't think so. Everyone can decide for themselves, but I think the great thing about sports is the fact that everyone's invited. Everyone has to play by the rules. Everyone has to win and lose together on a team. So, I think all kids, from all races, can enjoy it. I don't think it's a barrier.


Have you spotted any future Mets or Yankees in Queensbridge?


Wouldn't that be fantastic? I believe both [Mets manager] Willie Randolph and [Yankees manager] Joe Torre grew up as New York kids, so hey, that's something. Maybe we'll have our own Major Leaguer one day - they can donate 1% of their annual salary and fund the League for ten years. (chuckles)


Really, though, it's about giving kids a chance to be interact and learn about their potential, regardless of skill level. I wasn't a good player, but I once hit a grand slam back in McCarrons Park. It was one of those Little League home runs - it was a line drive that went over the outfielder's head and kept rolling - but I remember it well, to this day. Hopefully, every player gets at least one moment like that.


Have you had any negative incidents with Little League parents?


No, that hasn't been my experience at all. One of the things we try to emphasize is that it's not about the score in the game, but about making the most of yourself - that's what makes you a winner. I find that coaches, and parents, get involved in order to have an impact and become a role model. As I said, I'd invite anyone to head over to the Park and check it out for themselves.


What are your plans for the future?


I want to encourage the kids and families and volunteers to keep up the momentum. I tried to get the ball rolling, but the East River Development Alliance and our grass roots have made it all happen. After a few years now, we're starting to see kids come back as assistant coaches and umpires, and what a compliment. It's exciting.


Long term, I'd like to lead a city-wide access to after-school programs in sports and the arts. We'll see how that goes. In our district, it's been a huge positive.

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