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Little League returns in Historic Westside, brings ‘community together’

Updated February 23, 2021 - 8:41 am

When Silvia Elzy signed her kids up to play in the Bolden Little League three years ago, she didn’t know how much it would help her family.

Though her sons — Marcel, 13, Markez, 9, and Marlon, 8 — were disappointed that they couldn’t play baseball last season because of the pandemic, Elzy said their coaches, who are officers with the Metropolitan Police Department and other community volunteers, checked in with the family regularly to see what they needed.

“Their coaches would send them YouTube videos and let us know what batting cages were open and even all of the food banks in the area, asking us if we needed things to be dropped off or picked up,” Elzy said. “They were all in constant conversation with us and letting us know that they were here.”

League president Mario Berlanga said the league was designed to bridge the gap between the community and its police department in an area where racial remarks and police brutality fostered distrust.

Berlanga, who grew up in Historic Westside and owns Mario’s West Side Market, said that he has watched the community’s relationship with Metro ebb and flow, and he has seen a drastic improvement over the past five years.

“I think that it’s very important to understand that what we’ve been doing the last few years has actually changed some people’s lives, and it’s brought the community together,” Berlanga said. “When you go over to the park they’re not police anymore, they’re friends, and that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to accomplish.”

He said the idea came to him when then-Capt. Robert Plummer took over the Bolden Area Command and asked what the department could do to improve the community. Berlanga said he brought up the fact that they hadn’t had a Little League team in about 10 years, so the two decided to start the Bolden Little League.

“I thought to myself, it’s gonna be one of those, they come by and say hi, and then they’re gone,” Berlanga said. “But it hasn’t turned out that way. He came back, and we made it into something.”

The league, which started in 2016, is named after the late Larry Bolden, who was the first Black man to reach the rank of deputy chief with Metro. He died in 2000, nine years after retiring from his 33-year career.

The league started with three or four teams in 2016, Berlanga said, and has grown to nearly 15 teams’ worth of registrations this year. He said there are six Metro officers from the Bolden Area Command volunteering to coach, and the rest of the coaching positions will be held by community volunteers.

There is no registration fee, and uniforms, cleats, bats, helmets and gloves are free to any child who needs them. Elzy said her sons have received all the gear they needed, and she has kept what they’ve grown out of to pass down to families with younger kids as needed.

Sense of community

Elzy said officer James Bryant, who coached her son Marcel in 2018, always went above and beyond for his team, making sure they had top-of-the-line equipment and trips to the batting cages.

“I remember there was one day officer Bryant had to work, but he came in uniform and was watching and coaching the game through the fence,” Elzy said. “He was staying close enough to his car with his radio right by him, but absolutely nothing was going to stop him from coming and seeing those kids.”

She said it has been evident that everyone involved in the league, whether from Metro or community partners and volunteers, participates out of the kindness of their hearts. She said she almost expected the officers who volunteer their time to seem uninterested, but it has been the opposite.

“In the past few years I’ve been able to watch us get this sense of community that we really didn’t have on the Westside,” Elzy said. “And even after the season we’ve always had officers call and text to keep us in the loop on other events in the community and also to let us know if anything dangerous was happening in the area. They don’t have to do that.”

Bryant, who coached in the 2018 season before becoming the league’s coaches adviser and players agent, said he has loved the opportunity to spend more time with residents, especially out of uniform.

“Those kids remember you, so when we go to calls, the kids recognize us,” Bryant said. “They feel so much safer, and it’s a huge relief when they see us and they know us outside of the job.”

Berlanga said one season an officer volunteered and was really hard on the kids. He wanted to remove the coach from his position but ultimately gave him a chance and said he was able to watch the officer’s perspective change over the season.

“He’d sit there and he’d holler at the kids, but by the end of the season they were wearing his vest, they were jumping in and out of his car,” Berlanga said. “What we were trying to accomplish, we did. And not only on the kids’ side, but on the officers’ side.”

Bryant and five other officers from the Bolden Area Command received the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing in November to honor their work with the league in the 2019 season.

“Their actions are a testament to what law enforcement officers contribute to our nation each day, keeping us safe from violent crime and building more trusting communities, and they are deserving of our collective thanks,” then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement announcing the award.

2021 season

Tryouts for the 2021 season will take place over the first weekend in March, and teams will practice until opening day, on the first weekend of April, Bryant said.

The Elzy boys said they’re excited to get out and play again, even if things are a bit different. The fields and dugouts at Kianga Isoke Palacio Park, 951 W. Lake Mead Blvd., will be sanitized after each practice and game, and players and coaches will be required to wear face masks, so Berlanga had masks made with the league’s logo on the cheek.

Throughout the season, parents will likely have to watch the games and cheer from their cars to limit the number of people on the field, but Elzy said that won’t stop her from cheering on her boys.

“That horn is going to be put to work,” Elzy said, laughing. “That’s gonna be hard for me, but anything to get the kids out there. They need it right now.”

The league is open to children through eighth grade. Registration is open until March 1 at clubs.bluesombrero.com/boldenlittleleague.

Contact Alexis Ford at aford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0335.