It took some wheeling and dealing, but the children at P.S. 25 Bilingual School, an English and Spanish elementary school in the Longwood neighborhood in the Bronx, will soon have a bit of an athletic program—Wiffle ball. A clinic will start in May, before the school year’s end. And proponents see it as a way not only for kids to play, but to learn something about their own baseball-loving culture.
It’s a program spurred by Julion Pabon, a South Bronx political activist and former social studies teacher, and Michael Cronin, a 4th grade special education teacher, in conjunction with trainers from Major League Baseball.
Longwood, where the median household income is $26,300, is one of the borough’s poorest districts. In addition “our school is doing full construction. It looks like a war zone,” said Cronin. “The outdoor play area is filled with construction equipment.” The children have no area to play and exercise.
The solution? P.S. 5, located a few blocks away, will provide their outdoor field to P.S. 25. In return, 150 P.S. 5 students also get to participate in the program, along with 150 P.S. 25 students. The Wiffle ball clinic entails coaches and trainers teaching them how to slide, throw, and bat. The students will then have a tournament in early June.
“Baseball is expensive,” said Pabon. But for Wiffle ball, basic equipment is a plastic ball and bat. “When I didn’t have a lot of money to do things I’d take my kids to the park for Wiffle ball.”
Pabon became interested in P.S. 25 last year. Every year in December, Pabon runs the 21 Days of Clemente initiative, to honor Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican professional baseball athlete and Pittsburgh Pirates right-fielder. Not only was Clemente’s athletic success an inspiration, but Pabon cites Clemente’s activism—opposing Jim Crow, supporting the Black Panthers, and an ill-fated trip to deliver aid to victims of the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake. “He died to help a country that was not even his own,” said Pabon. “That’s a perfect role model for kids of all nationalities.”
The 21 Days of Clemente Initiative has students in the South Bronx create artwork, poetry, a report, or a specific project honoring Clemente. The projects are then exhibited around the South Bronx. In exchange, the students get free tickets to a Yankees game, courtesy of the MLB.
After the 17th annual Clemente Initiative, Pabon says, he was inspired by P.S. 25, where 200 students participated in the program, a high number compared to recent years. Cronin supported the initiative there. His mother grew up in Pittsburgh, he said, and he recalls Clemente’s death as like that of family member.
Pabon noticed that a lot of students were initially disinterested in baseball. “A lot of students are from Central America,” he said, and also from Africa, “where baseball is not popular.”
That aspect was a draw for the MLB. “Capturing people in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade helps create fans for Major League Baseball,” said Tony Reagins, MLB Senior Vice President for Youth Programs. “We started our department for the last two years going to South Bronx, Brooklyn, Florida, implementing programs designed to engage young people.”
“They watch baseball, but don’t know what goes into it,” said Cronin. The program is a “way to learn about their culture” where baseball is integral to the community. “It’s important that baseball is introduced in all communities,” said Reagins.
P.S. 25 Bilingual School has an after school program where students do homework, but the Wiffle Ball program is seen by Cronin as an opening door for children who want to carry their athletic interest into middle school, playing for their school teams or for other leagues.
Academics are also an important component of the program. The school’s first-ever basketball program started last year. “We verified if kids were following directions in the classrooms and doing homework,” said Cronin, for a “can play” or “can’t play” form. The program had 12 kids, but only six were able to play for second game, prompting students to more diligently participate in basic curricular lessons.
Pabon also hopes the Wiffle Ball program will help thwart social ills in the community, especially around health and exercise. “Most of the people in my elementary school are dead or are in jail,” said Pabon, who says he became an activist because of bad interactions he witnessed with police and landlords. He sees today’s conditions as much worse. “The food is ten times worse. In South Bronx we have some of the highest asthma rates, child obesity and diabetes rates, and number of mothers singly raising children,” he said. “It’s all about economics.”
According to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 23.3% of Bronx public elementary and middle school students are obese, the highest in the city. “There are not a lot of fields,” said Cronin.
The Wiffle ball program is seen by its planners as a way for students to create friendships, learn values such as discipline and respect, exercise—and have fun while doing it. Meanwhile, Pabon is trying to secure tickets to Mets or Yankees games from MLB outreach.