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With help from Cal Ripken foundation, Tampa opens synthetic-turf youth baseball field

Retired Major League Baseball hall of famer Cal Ripken Jr.  talks to reporters about the dedication of the new youth baseball complex at Springhill Park Community Center at 1000 E Eskimo Ave. in Tampa on Monday. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation partnered with the city of Tampa to build a youth baseball field in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Retired Major League Baseball hall of famer Cal Ripken Jr. talks to reporters about the dedication of the new youth baseball complex at Springhill Park Community Center at 1000 E Eskimo Ave. in Tampa on Monday. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation partnered with the city of Tampa to build a youth baseball field in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 29, 2016

TAMPA

With its all-new everything, flawless green synthetic turf and laser-straight foul lines, the new baseball field at the Springhill Park Community Center is custom-made for what Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. described Monday as youth development.

But, really, the $1 million field is for community development, too.

"These places are transformational," said Ripken, who came to Tampa's hardscrabble Sulphur Springs neighborhood to open the field — the 56th created nationwide with help from his family's Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

"This is a big-league surface," Ripken told a crowd of young players and community leaders. "Kids get to come out here and play. The community sees it. They embrace it and they protect it, and they don't let the element that might lead (kids) astray come on this field."

Ripken's foundation built its first park in Baltimore, where Ripken played 21 seasons with the Orioles. Baltimore is also where Tampa parks and recreation director Greg Bayor worked before moving south. When Mayor Bob Buckhorn hired him in 2012, Bayor brought the idea of creating a Ripken foundation youth development ballfield with him.

The city of Tampa put up $500,000 for the park. The foundation kicked in $150,000 of its own money and raised the rest from groups that include the Tampa Bay Rays, the Conn Memorial Foundation and CAN-DO, also known as the Children's Athletic Network and Dance Opportunities Inc.

The money paid for the artificial turf as well as a new scoreboard, dugouts, backstop and bleachers.

"A safe and amazing place," said seventh-grader Gabriel Pollard, a 13-year-old infielder with the North Seminole Little League. He played on such fields when he went to the 2014 RBI Junior Classic in St. Paul, Minn., but they're something "I never thought I would see here in Tampa."

Beyond raising money for the fields, the Ripken foundation stays involved through clinics and programs like Badges for Baseball, a mentoring program that teams at-risk youngsters with law enforcement officers.

"This will be a place where these kids can come and be kids," Buckhorn said, "and not worry about all the other things that they struggle with in these sometimes tough neighborhoods."

The city's goal is to make Sulphur Springs — historically one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods — safer, cleaner and eventually a place that families will "want their kids to come back to," Buckhorn said.

So the city has bulldozed more than 50 vacant, abandoned houses in Sulphur Springs and hired contractors to build 11 homes on the empty lots through an initiative called the Nehemiah Project.

The city also has added police patrols, assigned code enforcement officers to the neighborhood, organized mass trash pickups — 75 tons hauled away in 2015 alone — and worked with Tampa Electric to install more than 400 streetlights.

Last week, the city put out a request to expand the Nehemiah Project by seeking a contractor to build a second round of 20 houses with $1 million in funds from grants and other city sources. Responses are due April 11.

"Our mission from day one was to target the neighborhood that was most at risk and the neighborhood where we thought we could have the biggest impact," Buckhorn said. "I'm not sure we're ever done. This took 40 years to get to this point. It may take 40 years to restore it. We're not where we want to be, but we're a whole lot better off than we were 4½ years ago."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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