Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
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
“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
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
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
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
Right. A public
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
(chuckles) Well, that's really
what it amounted to. For years and years, the kids couldn't play baseball in
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
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
Maybe it was because I'd just
gotten into office, but I didn't know enough to be optimistic or pessimistic.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.