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Notebook Sports

Raytown redemption

Suydam coaching at Graceway’s facility (Handout photos)

Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

Sierra Leone’s men’s soccer team

Sports

Raytown redemption

A Kansas City church's sports leagues bring salt and light to a struggling community

Two miles south of the sun-baked tarmac surrounding Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium sits the much smaller Zimmerman Park. The fence may be chain-link rather than padded, but with four baseball fields, batting cages, and half a dozen soccer fields painted in the outfields, it gets the job done. 

The complex is more than a playground for the next-door Raytown congregation of Graceway, a nondenominational church with Baptist heritage. Gentrification and failed schools in downtown Kansas City have forced often-broken families to the old suburb, where more than half of students receive free or reduced lunch. “We are the inner city,” youth baseball director Rod Suydam said. “We’ve been this for 10 years, and nobody wants to admit it.”

The YMCA folded last year, and the decline of other leagues has left Graceway’s multisport rec leagues in a unique position. Many Raytown schools depend on the church for coaches. The decades-old baseball league now serves more than 60 teams and 600 kids, stretching its 150-plus volunteers. 

When he’s not working at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Suydam is often at the field. He moves pitcher’s mounds and base paths for different age groups, recruits and trains the next generation of coaches, and teaches them how to connect with families. 

Baseball coach John Tweedie became a Christian 16 years ago in the church’s adult basketball league, and the coach who led him to Christ is still there. Grandparents who played are now coaching their grandkids. “I’m getting to see some of the people I’ve helped coach … becoming rock solid members of our church,” Tweedie told me. 

Suydam cringes at the thought of turning away kids and this year drafted one too many teams, asking God to provide the coach. The volunteer who came, a school administrator, recognized the signs of abuse in two of his kids and was able to intervene. “It’s some blood, sweat, and tears, but to see what God is doing and to try to keep up with him …, it’s a blessed ride, I’m telling you,” Suydam said.

That ride took Suydam to the Wild Card game Sept. 31 to see the Royals face Oakland. One of his three sons nominated him for the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat, named for the late Kansas City baseball icon and community builder. Volunteers judged to embody O’Neil’s community-minded ethic are invited to sit in his old seat behind home plate.

The 9-8 extra-innings victory awakened a rabid baseball city and propelled the Royals to their first playoff run in 29 years. And that success may mean a few new baseball fans show up when Graceway’s league fires up again in March down the street. “Me and Rod were joking—we better start praying right away for more coaches,” Tweedie said.

Flagged for Ebola

Most of Sierra Leone’s men’s soccer team, barred from playing in their Ebola-ravaged nation, haven’t visited home in months. But some of their African host nations still subject them to multiple daily tests and effective quarantines in their hotels. Players report that in the Democratic Republic of Congo in September, fans derided them with Ebola chants unceasingly. “You feel humiliated, like garbage, and you want to punch someone,” goalkeeper John Trye told The New York Times after one such episode. 

The Leone Stars aren’t alone—the racially charged Ebola stigma facing West Africans worldwide even extends to Pennsylvania high schools. Referees ejected 16-year-old Ibrahim Toumkara for fighting on Oct. 9, but friends soon accused rivals at Northampton Area High School of taunting him with Ebola chants for being black and Guinean. The Nazareth High School boy’s parents are still in West Africa. “They are safe now, but I pray for them,” Toumkara told Lehigh Valley’s WFMZ-TV. Two Northampton coaches resigned following a school district investigation. —A.B.