- Associated Press - Sunday, July 30, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - 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 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2v8Tcbg ) reports that 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.”

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.”

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.

Altogether, 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.

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 alumnus 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 break-in, players not being able to pay a registration fee, a lack of players, a burglary or lack of equipment.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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