The Homeless Diamond hits a homer in Sonny Lawson Park

The Homeless Diamond hits a homer in Sonny Lawson Park
A shrine to a fallen comrade in Sonny Lawson Park.

Down at 23rd and Welton a softball game was going on under floodlights which also illuminated the gas tank. A great eager crowd roared at every play. The strange young heroes of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, pure Indian, were on the field, performing with heart-breaking seriousness.... Near me sat an old Negro who apparently watched the games every night. Next to him was an old white bum, then a Mexican family, then some girls, some boys — all humanity, the lot. Oh, the sadness of the lights that night! Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The third season of the Homeless Diamond got off to a very slow start. The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation had finally decided to spruce up the ballpark that has been at 23rd and Welton for decades, since long before Jack Kerouac stopped to watch a game here more than sixty years ago. By the time the field was officially named Sonny Lawson Park forty years ago, in honor of the first African-American druggist in the Five Points neighborhood — once the center of black culture in the Rocky Mountain West — the area was going downhill, fast. It's on the upswing these days, though, and the ballpark deserved its facelift, the first of several improvements planned for Sonny Lawson. But the work was going slowly — so slowly that Joe Carabello, the real-estate broker who'd fielded his first teams of homeless ballplayers back in 2011, began to despair that there would ever be a third season.

Despair is not an unfamiliar concept in this part of town. While new residents and businesses are moving in, some storefronts remain empty and some homes run down. Down the street at 23rd and Broadway, the tiny park dedicated to Eddie Maestas, the unofficial mayor of Larimer Street, had become such a haven for drug dealers and others who preyed on the homeless that in 2011, Maestas's family had requested that his name be removed. The city complied, and went back to the drawing board on what it now calls Triangle Park but is informally known as the Bumuda Triangle. Rather than hang out in that dangerous wasteland, many of the city's homeless pushed their carts the few blocks to Sonny Lawson, to spend their days in the shade of the park's trees.

That sight planted the original seed for the Homeless Diamond. "I was waiting for the stoplight at the intersection of Park Avenue and Welton," Carabello remembers, "and I saw the homeless community ringing the park, and the ballfield was locked up. It struck me as ironic that the homeless folks were basically doing nothing and the ballpark was doing nothing. I had a thought: What if we could open up the gates and give those people some exercise and recreation for a couple of hours a week? It was as simple as that."

His father had grown up in Curtis Park, and although he'd moved his family to south Capitol Hill, Joe Carabello had been going to Sonny Lawson Field since he was a boy. "My father played ball down there, in the adult leagues," he says. "He used to take the kids down there, to watch, be batboys.... There's a lot of history there." Now Carabello, an adult-league ballplayer himself, was about to start another chapter of that history.

"I knew it was a unique idea, and it needed a unique marketing scheme," he explains. So after he secured a permit to use the field every Tuesday morning that summer, he found a bag of old softballs, wrote the date and time of the first game on them, and started knocking on doors of missions and agencies that serve the homeless. "Whenever I called on them, I had softballs in my hand and asked them to spread the word," he remembers. "I kind of held my breath. I thought at best it had a fifty-fifty chance."

But when he showed up at Sonny Lawson on the first day of the inaugural season, "lo and behold, we had eleven players," he remembers. Once Carabello added his volunteer coaches to the roster, it was enough to put together two teams — before the game got rained out. The next week, fourteen or fifteen players showed up, and the numbers kept growing through the summer. "Our mix of players was about one-third from the missions, one-third through various agencies like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the veterans," Carabello says. "The other third just come literally off the streets." The Homeless Diamond was a hit.

Carabello wasn't the only one going to bat for the neighborhood. At the same time he was starting his second season, a group of area stakeholders — residents and business owners alike — formed Community Coordinating District #1 (CCD #1), and with the city's blessing started looking for solutions at Triangle Park. They soon expanded their sights to include the area around Sonny Lawson — and the homeless who hung out there. While they brainstormed ideas that ranged from walled-off day shelters to art installations, Carabello's Homeless Diamond was going so well that he experimented with a couple of Saturday sessions, so that people who had jobs during the week could join in. Some weekends, he got as many as thirty players.

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