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A league of their own 

Local Latinos play hard and give back through youth baseball

As a kid, Eugenio Cotto Jr. would come home after school and immediately grab his baseball glove and pair of spikes. He simply couldn't wait.

"Baseball was already on my mind," he says. "I was already at the baseball park."

Unfortunately, Cotto admits, he wasn't all that great at playing the game. But that didn't matter. He still loved the sport, and very early on in his life he realized how important baseball is for Latinos.

"For Hispanics, baseball is what apple pie is to Americans," says Cotto, who is Puerto Rican. "It's like coffee in the morning. It just becomes second nature. Baseball is part of everyday living in Latino culture. I was born and raised in the sport."

That love for baseball stayed with Cotto his entire life, so much so that he developed a desire to pass that love on to future generations of Latinos.

That's why, in 1995, Cotto founded the Rochester Hispanic Youth Baseball League. His primary goal was simple: to give local youth something to do after school, to offer an alternative to the crime, drugs, and gangs Cotto saw infecting the Latino community in particular, and the entire Rochester community in general.

The first RHYBL teams took the field in 1996, with 123 kids lacing up spikes. By 2005, that number had grown to 20 teams with 250 local youth, both boys and girls up to age 19 who bought into RHYBL's philosophy: discipline, respect, academics. Through those principles, Cotto says, youth can grow.

"If we don't teach kids rules and regulations," he says, "they'll never develop respect for them, and they'll never learn a thing."

And while hundreds of kids have benefited from RHYBL, the community has started to benefit too. After a decade of playing at ballfields that often looked like battle zones, RHYBL is undertaking a roughly $400,000 project to remake the league's primary ballfield, Don Samuel Torres Park at School No. 20, into a complete baseball experience, with bleachers, concessions, restrooms, lights, and a fence. Cotto envisions a facility that leads to local economic development and community rebirth --- and one that becomes a source of pride within the Latino community.

"It's all about kids," Cotto says, "because if the kids feel good about where they play, then the parents will feel good about it, and the community can take pride and ownership of something that has been theirs all along."

Cotto says he has already enlisted the support of several city officials, including Mayor Bob Duffy, and has elicited a grant of $100,000 from the state. RHYBL is also planning on applying for a grant from Major League Baseball to help defray the costs. Cotto hopes the project can be completed by the 2007 or 2008 season.

In the meantime, RHYBL will continue to play at various facilities throughout the city, and it will continue to operate largely through community donations. The league's annual budget ranges from $30,000 to $35,000 and includes uniforms for every participant. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including Quad A for Kids (a non-profit volunteer organization aimed at improving the lives of economically disadvantaged kids in the Rochester area), business sponsorships, United Way campaigns, and private donations. Some of the budget is also supplied by participant registration, but Cotto has tried to keep the fees as low as possible --- $35 for each of the first two kids in a family, $25 for each additional player --- to make it affordable for struggling working families.

Practically everyone involved with the league, including coaches and administrative officers, works on a volunteer basis. (Umpires and foul-line painters receive nominal stipends.) Cotto has little trouble finding volunteers, many of whom get as much out of the league as the kids do.

"You get to learn so much about the kids," says Eduardo Rivera, who has coached in the league for five years. "It's a great game, and we have a lot of fun to coach. It's the American way."

On an administrative basis, RHYBL is entering a new era. Cotto has decided to step back from running the league and has passed on that duty to a group of community volunteers, including new president Al Burgos and vice president Noreen Helpern. One thing that will be retained with the new leadership will be RHYBL's emphasis on inclusion of every kind. This year the league is opening its membership to kids as young as 4, and Cotto notes that any Rochester youth, not just Latinos, are eligible to join. He adds that the league often draws teenagers who have never played baseball but want to be involved with a program that accepts and nurtures them.

That sense of inclusion also extends to the Latino community itself. Cotto says RHYBL brings together Latino kids from many backgrounds --- Dominican and Mexican, Cuban and Salvadorian --- and helps bridge the cultural divides that sometimes splinter the Hispanic community.

The message of inclusion is also applied to the kids' sense of sportsmanship and fair play. Because Cotto himself knows how deflating riding the bench can be, RHYBL maintains another simple policy: everyone plays.

"We're not about creating Major League All Stars," Cotto says. "We're about having kids feel like they're part of a team regardless of talent. This is for kids to develop character and be accepted."

Such positive reinforcement has garnered RHYBL praise from many in the community, including Quad A for Kids director Sandy Skiles, who was drawn to the league's commitment to academics and its fostering of self-worth.

"The bottom line is it keeps kids away from the dangers of too much free time," Skiles says. "The discipline it provides allows the development of self-respect, and it gives them role models."

One kid whose life has been positively impacted by RHYBL is Julio Melendez Jr., a shy, quiet 11-year-old who's been playing in the league for five years. While Julio can pitch and play third, he has a special affinity for catcher, and he says his coaches have taught him the skills he needs to play well. "It's fun," he says. "It helps me get active."

Joining him on the field will be his father, Julio Sr., who's been a volunteer and coach since 2000 and who'll watch his 4-year-old son, Julian, play his first RHYBL games this year. "He learned how to play the game," the father says of Julio Jr. "He loves the game, and he's taken it upon himself to learn the game."

The 2006 RHYBL season kicks off at TorresPark on June 3, when RHYBL will hold opening ceremonies, a parade and the first games of the season. The season lasts through playoffs in August, with each team playing 12 to 15 games, including contests with teams from elsewhere in the city and around MonroeCounty.

And most assuredly Cotto will see the same love he has for baseball bloom within many of the RHYBL kids who take the field in 2006. The process will certainly be helped by developments on the national and international baseball scenes, including the recent playing of the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which displayed the massive talent of Latin teams and was passionately followed by millions of Latinos in the U.S. and throughout Latin America.

Also enhancing baseball's image in the eyes of Latino youth are the success and respect gained by Major League stars like David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Johan Santana, many of who, Cotto notes, serve as role models for kids in RHYBL.

However, as much as kids idolize Major League stars and even try to imitate them, Cotto says, RHYBL officials want players to develop their own identity and feelings of self-worth. "It's cool to imitate [stars]," he says, "but we also want you to be yourself."

With baseball, the United States gave Latin America a gift that has become intricately woven into the fabric of Latino culture. By imbuing local youth with a sense of respect, both for themselves and for others, RHYBL in many ways is returning the favor. For Cotto, the league he created and nurtured is the gift of thanks the local Latino population has offered to Rochester as a whole.

"This," he says, "is what we as a Hispanic community give back to the community at large."

The Rochester Hispanic Youth Baseball League will hold its season opener Saturday, June 3, at SchoolNo.20/TorresParkballfields. For more information, call 266-4772 or email

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