They’re All CHAMPS

Of course it was raining in Boston. It was June, after all, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the several hundred kids who participated in “Cheers for Champs” event held last week at Fenway Park. In celebration of the very last days before his return to wage slavery, the Parent Imperfect invited the members of his team from the Regan Youth League. Six kids and two parents took me up on it, along with my coaching buddy, Eric. I had hoped that Connie might come with me, but her priority was a long-awaited ear piercing expedition with her Mom. For four of the six children who did come, it was their very first trip inside Fenway.

CHAMPS (Coaching Helps Athletes through Mentoring and Positive Sports) is a program of the Boston Foundation. The initiative sees sports as a place where young people can develop many life skills, if given a chance. The CHAMPS mission is “to ensure that every child in the city of Boston has access to high quality athletic opportunities—beyond school hours—including equipment and safe and clean fields, and that all youth coaches are of the highest quality and understand the fundamentals of youth development through sports.” With the Positive Coaching Alliance, CHAMPS offers a training for coaches in the Regan League. I’ve not made one of those yet, but I could definitely use it. Those who have gone have found the training to be very useful.

CHAMPS has also done this Fenway event in cooperation with the Red Sox for at least the last couple of years. As I looked at the kids who came with me and the crowd at the CHAMPS event, in general, I was reminded of a recent story on public radio by journalist Phil Martin called, “Making Fenway a Place for Everyone.” Martin did a good job explaining the sad history of the Red Sox on race issues and outlining what he sees as the efforts of the current ownership to change the image of the team in the city’s Black and Latino communities. The partnership with CHAMPS might be part of that effort.

It would certainly have been a different event on a clear, sunny day, but my kids had a great time. As soon as they got inside and picked up their CHAMPS t-shirts, they ran right in to Boston manager, Bobby Valentine, who took the time to speak to each of them and sign shirts, hats, gloves…whatever they wanted. Playworks, the same group that helps organize recess at Connie’s school was there, helping kids to burn off some nervous energy playing four squares.

We skipped the four squares and went outside to the right field grandstand. Not worried about the rain, we grabbed bags of snacks and went right down to the fence next to the visitor’s bullpen. The kids were in awe of a place that had only been on TV for most of them. They so much wanted to swing open the door and run out onto that field, but that was not part of the plan on such a muddy day…or any other day, probably.

Before getting completely soaked, we headed up the stairs to the sections under the roof where kids were gathering for the obligatory speeches. Boston is such a small city. The MC of the event was Robert Lewis, Executive Director of CHAMPS. Many years ago, Robert ran a small community gym I belonged to in Jamaica Plain called “Unique Physique.” Mine was (and is) certainly that. His boss also spoke, of course. I don’t know Paul Grogan, who is certainly among the city’s “movers and shakers.”  I do, however, remember very vividly a difficult interaction with him when I was the unfortunate coach of the team his son was assigned to in the Regan League. But that’s old news. Today, I’m glad that he sees the importance of CHAMPS and its work with coaches and kids.

Many fine speakers took the mike, including the coach of Boston College’s national championship hockey team, a star on the Boston Breakers women’s soccer team and the goalie of the New England Revolution. But it was the same Bobby Valentine who stole the show and moved up considerably in my esteem that day. He gave a short and to-the-point pep talk to coaches about the importance of helping kids overcome the fears they can feel related to sports. The words will stay with me as I fumble along through my own coaching career.

Above the concourse B, the Red Sox have organized a nice little museum highlighting the park’s unique history. There, TV legend Chet Curtis interviewed two of the kids and all of them got to stand right next to the team’s two World Series trophies.

As dusk gathered and the temperature dropped, it was time to head back through Gate B. Volunteers were at the exits trying to get us to take more snack bags. One kid took six of them, without hesitation. The weather had certainly kept down the expected crowd. Before we broke up, we took everyone’s picture together at the Ted Williams statue. The majority of the smiling kids didn’t know the first thing about The Splendid Splinter, but at least they had some idea of what it was like to be inside of Fenway Park and shake hands with the manager of the Red Sox. These kids are, indeed, all champs.

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