Gangs, cops play ball for peace

Los Angeles Daily News

Gangs, cops play ball for peace
Softball game brings unlikely teams together

By Brent Hopkins
Staff Writer

Saturday, December 04, 2004 – ENCINO – They came armed with bats and spikes, but they brought only good intentions.

Gang members from across the San Fernando Valley pushed aside traditional rivalries for a friendly game of softball on Saturday.

The Los Angeles Police Department also fielded a team as did the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Though players swung hard and slid headfirst into bases, they shook hands and saluted one another’s skills without a hint of animosity.

“It gives them a chance to see who they really are and what they have in common,” said William “Blinky” Rodriguez, the executive director of Communities in Schools who helped organize the event. “It’s a lot harder to shoot a guy if you played baseball with him the day before.”

Engineered by the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs, the event brought together nearly 300 spectators – gangbangers, cops, politicians, pastors and family members.

After a rousing series of speeches decrying gang violence at Woodley Park and a peace march to the Hjelte Park ballfield, they brought out their baseball mitts to play. Some brought memories of loved ones lost in gang wars, others came in the hope that they’d never have to carry those sad remembrances.

Though the day came too late for her two sons Steven and Matthew, Lupe Yuhasz of Sylmar had hope that it could save others from gang violence. The two boys were killed in gang-related shootings only five months apart last year, both gunned down before they reached their 21st birthday.

Remembering that both her children excelled in sports and desperate for a way to stop the killings, Yuhasz and her husband, George, began organizing pick-up softball games in their local park. Composed half of gang members from San Fernando and Sylmar, half from their friends, the teams evolved into four squads, two coed, all under the name “Steven & Matthew Forever.”

“I did it for their mom,” said Eric Zavala, an 18-year-old who once hung around the San Fernando gang but now spends his time playing right field. “I didn’t really like it at first, but now I enjoy it. I’m out here with all my friends.”

The young men pulled baseball caps over shaved heads, laced up cleats and helped each other stretch out before taking on the Probation Department. Though they offered good-natured ribbing and laughingly accused the authorities of bringing ringers to bolster their lineup, the street-hardened squad didn’t look much different from any other group of buddies playing in the park.

“They’re playing ball, behaving themselves,” said George Yuhasz, giving his lungs a rest from barking orders to turn a double-play. “At night, the gangs try to get ’em to do something stupid. If we can change just one life, that would be great.”

At the same time the gangsters were trying to channel their energies into a positive pursuit, their blue-suited opponents were trying to engage in a little soft community relations.

“You fall into the stereotype that everyone in a gang’s a shooter, but they’re not,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Ronald Bergmann, creator of the anti-gang coalition and the San Fernando Valley’s top commanding officer. “Cops can see gang members are regular people. They can see we’re human. We have a good sporting contest and go home with a better understanding.”

Former gang member Henry Avalos, now a 30-year-old real estate agent living in Sylmar, got that understanding the hard way. Locked up at the age of 12, jumped into a Pacoima gang by 14, it took three shots to the body and six stab wounds in the back of the head to get him straight. Watching the tough guys of the streets laughingly square off against the men who patrol them, he smiled broadly.

“To have a peaceful outlet like this is huge,” he said. “At one point in their life, they made the wrong decision, just like I did. Maybe things like this will show them love, not gangs.”

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