There are a number of youth baseball programs in Saint Paul, from city leagues and traveling teams to a handful of Little League organizations. Among these is Midway Baseball, a former Little League affiliate started by the Midway area Dunning Boosters in 1989. Last year, it included more than 275 participants, an all-time high.
What attracts so many kids to the program? One reason is undoubtedly Jim Kelley Field (named for the longtime director of the baseball league), a beautifully manicured stadium built in 1990 with a combination of public and private funds, including support from the former Liberty State Bank, the city's STAR grant program, and the Minnesota Twins. The ballpark-in-miniature features a lush grass infield, enclosed outfield, foul poles, and, since 2003, lights. Although it's just two hundred feet from home plate to the outfield fence, this gem of a ballpark creates the excitement that one might experience at a major league game, minus the bravado and fat paychecks.
Another attraction is the vast number of parents and community members who volunteer as coaches every season, many of whom return year after year even after their own kids have aged out of the program. Unlike the horror stories about parents gone bad at Little League games that occasionally appear on the evening news, Midway has a strong tradition of respect and civility, due in large measure to Jim Kelley, the energetic co-founder of the program, who provides a steadying influence throughout the summer months. But it's also the commitment of the many volunteers who have infused Midway with a generous spirit of giving back to the community, a community whose diversity is well represented among the ranks of adults and players.
Perhaps the best example of this selfless volunteer tradition can be found in the person of Jimmie Owens, a fixture in Midway Baseball who has been a constant on the ball fields for more than twenty-five years. The venerable Owens, now entering his eighty-fifth year, has been volunteering since 1982, when the baseball program was part of Parks and Recreation. He moves with the grace of a man twenty years his junior.
A former customs inspector and postal employee, Owens hooked up with Kelley when the two were coaching at the Jimmie Lee Rec Center. Owens had been a longtime youth football coach but was starting to feel his age when the cold weather rolled around every fall. Although he had only dabbled in baseball as a child, volunteering in the baseball program has been the perfect antidote to retirement.
"It's been a wonderful experience," says Owens. "You show kids that you care about them, that they can trust you, and they open up and start to find themselves. It's a great feeling to know you're helping somebody." Many of those kids go on to become youth umpires in the league or work the concession booth with Owens, where his signature announcement, "Your hot dogs are ready, your hot dogs are ready, your hot dogs are ready" has become a standard ritual during every game.
"It's been a wonderful experience," says Owens. "You show kids that you care about them, that they can trust you, and they open up and start to find themselves. It's a great feeling to know you're helping somebody."
"Jimmie Owens is the Midway Baseball ambassador," says Kelley of his longtime sidekick. "It's amazing the effect he has on people. There's always a crowd surrounding Jimmie, grown-ups checking to see how he's doing, kids reporting back from high school or college on what they're up to. When Jimmie first started volunteering here, he used to wait on the street corners to make sure kids got rides home. A lot of parents have never forgotten [that kindness]."
"Midway Baseball is like a family," Owens says. "It's a chance for kids to learn baseball, learn something about themselves, and learn respect for one another." It's also a place where kids go on to play ball in high school, earn their college degrees, enter professional careers, and then later return as volunteers and coaches themselves, thus renewing the cycle.