Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The Homeless Diamond hits a homer 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.

So Carabello was looking forward to the third season — but Sonny Lawson still wasn't ready in early July, and he knew that no other place would work as well. The same things that make urban planning challenging in this part of town also make it ideal for the Homeless Diamond. Finally, after weeks of delays, the renovated field was declared ready for play. And it was beautiful — so beautiful that Carabello's players were disappointed their season was going to be cut short. So Carabello added a three-game fall series.

September 24, the first Tuesday of fall, was a perfect day for baseball. A cadre of fans — homeless men wearing grimy Broncos jackets and hats — gathered on the new bleachers to enjoy the day, hurling good-natured insults at the players on the field and discussing each play. "No more comments from the peanut gallery," said the volunteer catcher. A few players were sporting Broncos attire, too; others wore T-shirts that spoke of more distant pasts: Army, Navy, Y. Carabello's T-shirt advertised the Wood Bat Classic.

The teams named themselves the Reds and the Rockies, and what they lacked in finesse, they more than made up for in heart. Like the members of the peanut gallery, they all knew something about the game, whether they'd learned it in a park or on a playground or just from TV. Many had never played, and you could tell. "They don't know the rules, and they don't care," Carabello says.

Over the years, he's made adjustments to both the rules and the equipment, "to fit our demographic and their circumstances, to make games simpler and more fun," he explains. For example, players can overrun any base without fear of being tagged out, which cuts down on injuries from sudden stops. This season, Carabello also eliminated hard softballs, locating a company that manufactures a low-impact softball that's "just awesome," he says. "I no longer have to worry about injuries...or those foul balls they keep knocking into California Street."

That wasn't the only innovation this season. "We've been more engaged with attempting to help people find work," Carabello says. "We have some pretty good contacts between myself and my volunteers. But even with those contacts, it's so hard...especially for anyone with a record. I had no idea. That's been an eye-opener."

Other discoveries have been far more pleasant. Those volunteers, for example. They help with the game, donate and set up the lunch that follows each game. "It's been remarkable to me that people, just common citizens, have shown up and they volunteer their time and their money and their energy," Carabello says. "They contribute — not just figuratively, but literally."

And in the end, it's really not whether you win or lose — but that the game is played at all. "What means most to me is when I hear the players talk," Carabello concludes. "Once they come in the gates on Tuesday morning, for two hours they forget everything as far as all the challenges they have. They're happy, they're focused, they have a sense of purpose."

The streets can be scary. Here they feel safe. They feel at home.

Batting practice for the final Homeless Diamond game of the season starts at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, October 8. From those bleachers, you can look across to the rest of Sonny Lawson, where the city will start the second round of projects at the end of the month. The children's playground will be fenced off, and no adults without children will be allowed in. But there will also be new lighting and picnic tables and seating for both the homeless and the newcomers who now call Five Points home. Triangle Park is about to become an enclosed garden; after coming to an agreement on that plan, CCD #1 handed off responsibility to Denver Urban Gardens. Members of the group are still watching over Sonny Lawson, holding monthly meetings to make sure everyone understands how important diversity is to this neighborhood. "It's going to take that understanding to make it work," advises Carabello.

Play ball.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun