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Gang Ball: Chicago Police Play Peace League All-Stars at Thillens

By Benjamin Woodard | August 9, 2013 9:29am
 Chicago Police and former and current gang members faced off in a game of baseball.
Police vs. The Street
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WEST RIDGE — On the street, a showdown between a battalion of Chicago cops and a dozen gang-affiliated young men could turn violent.

But on the softball diamond, the only glimmer of hostility is born from a true competitive spirit.

"Where you get these cadets from, man?" first-base coach Johnny Payton, 33, shouted toward a dugout full of police officers after one of their own whiffed on a pitch lobbed across the center of home plate.

The annual game at Thillens Stadium in West Ridge pits all-stars from BUILD Chicago's Peace League against members of Chicago's finest, all in hopes of breaking down barriers and keeping young men off the streets.

Freddie Santiago, 28, has played in the league for eight years, with most players coming from the West Side. The native of Puerto Rico used to run with a gang, he said, but two years ago he got shot twice while sitting in a car with a friend. The injuries permanently limited the mobility of his left hand.

For the sake of his six kids, he left the life behind.

"I wanted to show my kids a better way," he said. "You don't have to be out there. Play some sports."

Santiago said he has "no hatred" for the police officers who would have locked him up for some of the things he'd done.

"I try to give that up," he said.

Bo Ramos, a 37-year retired veteran of the Chicago Police Department, now heads security for the Chicago Park District.

He said he used to be in the opposite dugout, playing against the Chicago police.

"I was involved in the gangs," the 59-year-old said, but BUILD and the league "showed me the errors of my ways, and how to escape the stronghold of the gangs."

Ramos hopes the same for the young men he plays against.

"I was one of them," he said, but "I was able to escape."

At 22, he took an exam to become an officer and was sworn in. Ever since, he's played in the annual game, and the cops have only lost three times.

"That's better than the Sox, right?" he said with a grin.

Rosalind Blasingame-Buford, BUILD's executive director, said the all-star game has been a tradition for decades.

"I've seen some really interesting things happen over the years," she said.

One game in particular — when the Peace League all-stars were "beating the mess out of the cops" — an officer in fine competitive spirit fired back, "That's all right, I'll get you on the street!"

In the end, though, the games "break down barriers" between the police and players.

"The highlight of tonight," she said, "is they all get together."

Chicago cop Gaspar Castro, 30, agrees.

The game helps build "a little trust" among the men of the street and those who patrol them, he said.

In the city's neighborhoods things can naturally become hostile between a gang member and a police officer.

"But here," he said, "it's a level play field."

That didn't stop the game's announcer, David Mendoza, from taking advantage of a chance to poke fun at Chicago's finest.

"Once again, CPD changing the rules in the middle of the game," said Mendoza over the stadium's speaker system. "I should have a lawyer up here to read this roster. Next up, Ivan. He holds the record for giving out the most tickets to girls at strip clubs."

Officer Castro and his teammates, named the "Lock Down," held a strong lead, 4-1, by the end of the fourth inning, but were barely able to edge out a victory in extra innings.

The final score: 13-12.