On a chilly spring day, under a clear blue sky, the seasoned players of the Hunting Park Indians run drills over a patch of sandy dirt. In years past, they have practiced over lumpy, uneven fields featuring overgrown grass, rusted gates, and splintered benches.
That will all change Friday afternoon when, about 200 yards from their practice spot, a world-class field will be dedicated.
The lush, emerald-grass field doesn't flood. There are new bleachers, lights, and a giant scoreboard in left-center field. As part of a large-scale effort to revive Hunting Park, it is a dream realized.
"The field was so messed up," 17-year-old shortstop Manny Ocasio said a few minutes before practice Tuesday evening. He grew up a short walk from the park, starting in tee-ball. He has competed with the Indians' 15-and-under team in two city league championships.
He now eyes a college baseball scholarship, and eventually the chance to turn pro.
"Now, it's something we dream about playing on," Ocasio said of the new field.
During the dedication ceremony, Indians players and coaches will compete in an inaugural game. An elementary-school choir will perform "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Speakers will include Kathryn Ott Lovell, director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, which is leading the revitalization project; Mayor Nutter; and Phillies All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard.
The Hunting Park revitalization plan was sparked by Howard. The slugger wanted to build a ball field in his adopted hometown through his family foundation. The list of needy sites was long, but the historic, iconic park won out because it had the greatest need.
The neighborhood, which runs from Broad to Fifth Streets and from Roosevelt Boulevard to Erie Avenue, has been battered by hardship - 38 percent of its residents live in poverty.
The park itself is bordered by rowhouses, a church, and a Catholic high school. Once a destination with its lake and carousel, the 87-acre park fell to drugs, prostitution, and crime after decades of flight and neglect.
From a series of community meetings in 2009, the Conservancy put together a 127-page master revitalization plan, with an estimated implementation cost of $20 million.
With Howard's donation of $150,000, and his family's continued involvement in the neighborhood (his brother Corey handed out hundreds of jackets and turkeys last Thanksgiving and Christmas, encouraging kids to do well in school), the Conservancy has raised $3.7 million through public money and private donations for phase one.
Funding sources include the city's Parks and Recreation Department, state grants through State Reps. Tony Payton and Curtis Thomas, Citizens Bank Foundation, local philanthropists, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. Such a partnership is key to uplifting blighted communities, Lovell said.
"Hunting Park was a game-changer," Lovell said. "Not just because of the scale of the project, but the fact that we were investing in a community over a long period of time."
Now, the dead trees that haunted the park are gone, and hundreds of new trees have been planted. The three broken swings have been fixed, and two new playgrounds have been added. Half a dozen new tennis courts are coming, along with a year-round Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis program.
A 60-plot community garden (with only 15 plots left) has been added, as well as a farmers market operated by the Food Trust, a youth environmental stewardship program, and the patch of land being dedicated Friday. Since Howard broke ground on the baseball field in 2010, registrations for the baseball program have tripled.
"It's a major milestone in the reclaiming and revitalization of Hunting Park," said Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, who oversees Parks and Recreation. "It's bigger than just the baseball field. It represents the journey of the park."
The plan also fostered the Hunting Park United community group, now with 160 members. And fund-raising is under way for phase two, which includes a healthy-food concession stand, streetscaping along Hunting Park Avenue, and a handball court.
"The park is alive now," said Indians program director Steve Irving, 41, a barrel-chested, married father of four, overlooking the practice.
"It just shows there are people who really care about the community," Irving said, "and they want the children of the community to have a chance. The field represents a chance."
In many ways, baseball here symbolizes the community's resolve.
Irving, who works as a health-insurance billing coordinator, founded the league three years ago with just 30 kids, including his then-10-year-old son, Steve Jr.
"We started this basically from nothing," Irving said, as dozens of children played throughout the park, as he once did as a neighborhood kid.
Player uniforms were T-shirts. The team held fish-fry fund-raisers. Parents carpooled players to away games and manned concession stands at home games to raise money, while the Indians played over a broken field.
"We were willing to have humble conditions to make this team happen," Irving said.
Leagues here have come and gone, but season after season, the Indians have stuck. Howard's foundation donated top-of-the-line uniforms, along with batting gloves and turf shoes with cleats. The Indians have grown to six teams, with nearly 150 players, from tee-ballers to high school seniors. Last year, the 12-and-under team won the City League Liberty championship.
For their "Lexus" of a baseball field, Irving said, the Indians raised $900 through a fish-fry and all-you-can-eat pancake raffle at Applebee's.
"We're taking ownership of the new field," Irving said, nodding with pride. "We want to say, This is our new home."