BUFFALO, NY – Six weeks after a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people at a local supermarket, the Buffalo Bisons and Major League Baseball have recognized a youth sports program located in the still reeling neighborhood. of the tragedy.
In Sunday’s final of their six-game homestand against the St. Paul Saints, the Bisons — the Triple-A affiliate of the Blue Jays — hosted executives and attendees of the educational and athletic program Willie “Hutch” Jones . More than 200 of the program’s participants cheered on the Bisons and were surprised by the announcement in the third inning that MLB was contributing $10,000 to the program.
The funding will boost Jones’ program, which uses the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Complex as one of its main locations. The complex sits on the site of the old War Memorial Stadium, which was the home of the Bisons from 1960 to 1969 and again from 1979 to 1987. It is located a few blocks from the site of the May 14 shootings.
“It’s important to show interest in the city. This is our neighborhood,” said LeRoi Johnson, chairman of the organization’s board of directors, who was among those on the ground when the announcement was made. “Our goal is to fill the gaps left by a lack of funding for community centers across the city.
“All we do is replicate what we had in the 1950s and 1960s, which has been abandoned in one way or another. We are one of the few establishments that offers children something to do during the summer and throughout the year. We are lucky to have people like Major League Baseball supporting us.
David James, vice president of baseball and softball development for MLB, asked Johnson and board member Charles Wilson to turn around during the announcement to see an image on the scoreboard of a giant check representing the donation.
“I thought he hit me in the head,” laughed Wilson. “I thought I was seeing stars.”
“With the tragedy, we were thinking about what we could do,” James said. “We have been working with them for a few years. They are committed to providing more baseball and softball opportunities. We have decided to donate. They need equipment as they start to grow.
“[Learning about the donation] was another blessing,” Johnson added. “The partnership we have now with baseball helps. We are recognized through what happened, unfortunately. People see us as a food desert, with low economic development. We have been providing services for over 38 years. This role must be continued and expanded. We can do a lot for the community. »
The recognition of Jones’ program coincided with the Bisons’ commemoration of “The Nine,” Minor League Baseball’s new initiative to honor and celebrate the pioneers of black baseball and their historic impact on the sport and to provide youth with opportunities to participate in baseball and softball. “The Nine” is named after the number worn by Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals during his only season in the Minor League in 1946.
“Baseball was one of the things that held the city together for such a long time,” Wilson said. “When you connect ethnic communities, you need a common thread, and here it is baseball.”
On Sunday, the Bisons showed various videos on their scoreboard highlighting major contributions by black players throughout the team’s history, including Hector Lopez’s tenure as baseball’s first black manager. professional above Single-A level in 1969. Robinson’s tenure was also highlighted. with the Royals, noting that the icon batted .379 against Buffalo in nine games in the 1946 season.
Johnson wore a replica of Robinson’s Montreal jersey for the occasion, and Wilson sported a version of Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers road uniform.
“Seeing them wear those jerseys straight away, and they had no idea what gifting it was, it was great that the timing worked out so perfectly,” James said.
Jones, a 62-year-old Buffalo native who was unable to attend but watched the ceremony via video stream, was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982 and went on to play 13 NBA games with the San Diego Clippers of the time. before spending seven years playing professionally in Italy and Spain.
“He is very intentional when it comes to education [first] then sports,” James said of Jones, who established his youth program while playing in Europe. “I like that they tell these kids that if you’re an athlete and you’re good enough [regardless of the sport], do your studies first. Be sure to explain to these kids and their families that there are plenty of opportunities in sports that don’t involve being on the field.
Last year, when the Blue Jays were in the middle of their Buffalo residency, Jones’ program was named a member of their MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Sunday’s activities proved to be further validation of the parties’ collaborative efforts.