Bronzeville Coach Has B.I.G. Dreams for Baseball on the South Side
HYDE PARK — It didn't take long for Keronn Walker to find his life's calling.
When he was 4, his parents were going through a divorce, so his mother, Ginni, decided to enroll him in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Baseball League.
"I wanted him involved in a team sport but to also take him off the focus at home," said Ginni Walker, a Hyde Park resident who became a commissioner and coach in the league.
Baseball and young Keronn had an instant love affair, and those feelings haven't changed in the 30 years since.
After all-star performances as a youth player and a stellar career at De La Salle Institute, Walker, a catcher, was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the 43rd round of the 1999 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
And although his five-year professional career never led him to the majors, Walker never stopped caring about the game.
"It's always where I found peace," said Walker, of Bronzeville. "It's the same thing now."
In fact, Walker's passion for baseball may be even stronger since he founded the B.I.G. Baseball Academy in 2006.
The nonprofit organization, which stands for Best Instruction Guaranteed, teaches the game to players ages 4 to adult.
And by late April, what was once Walker's pet project may have a spectacular new home in Bronzeville.
A group led by Walker has a contract on 2.2 acres. The land includes an existing 12,500-square-foot building at 740 E. 41st St., which would be fitted with an indoor practice area and six indoor batting cages, and have enough outside space on current parking lots to build a youth baseball field.
Walker said B.I.G. has $400,000 committed to the project and needs about $250,000 more to buy the land for the baseball complex.
There currently are 700 B.I.G. Teams players practicing and playing at parks on the South Side and in several gyms, including the one at University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Walker is the head varsity baseball coach.
"In other states, it's so much easier to train year-round, and that's not available for us yet," said Lab Schools sophomore player Luke Murphy, 15, who also volunteers with B.I.G. "For us to have a place to train year-round would be pretty darn exciting."
Buying the Bronzeville building "would be a dream come true because this is something that's always been needed," Walker said. "A lot of people have talked about how kids aren't playing in the city anymore and doing everything except being proactive about it."
In 2012, USA Today published a story stating only 8.05 percent of major league players were black. And while Walker said his foundation is not intended to produce MLB players, he is trying to give inner-city youths as much opportunity as possible.
"My organization is like daddy day care," said Walker, whose mother is white and a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, and father, Kenny, is black and played on Southern Illinois' men's basketball team.
"He really wants these kids to succeed in life," said Jill Heise, a resident of The Villa on the Northwest Side who is on the B.I.G. Advisory Board and has two children that play on B.I.G. teams. "Keronn is a role model for all the children who are exposed to him. He really wants to help them personally as well as be good community citizens."
Murphy said Walker has "helped my confidence a lot and showed me that I'm capable of so much more." His Lab Schools teammates, 18-year-old senior twins Sam and Matthew Lawrence, both said Walker always pushes them to do their best.
"It's been a pleasure growing up with him around. I wouldn't have wanted any other coach," said Matthew Lawrence, of Kenwood, who has known Walker since the mid-2000s. "He makes you a better person and a better man."
Ginni Walker said that's been her son's intention since he founded B.I.G.
And all these years later, she can't believe Walker is still "Mr. Baseball."
"It's his dream. It's his life," she said. "I told him, 'You're Jewish, you're supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer.'
"But I've never been able to get him to do anything else."