CINCINNATI -- The separation may only be a 20-30 minute car ride, but many perceive the distance between Cincinnati's inner city and the suburbs as light years apart -- and not just geographically. Kids from both sides of the community are proving that there can be more similarities than differences. As the Gillette Civil Rights Game returns to Cincinnati this weekend to remember the journey of baseball and race relations, the Reds Community Fund's Match Program is clearly looking forward.
"The Match Program is diversity -- living, breathing and doing something," said Charley Frank, the executive director of the Reds Community Fund. "Of all our outreach programs, the Match Program is the one that resonates the most during the Civil Rights Game weekend." The Match Program pairs youth baseball teams from the suburbs with inner-city teams. Each team played a home-and-home series, but there's a twist. Instead of inner city kids vs. suburban kids, or poor vs. rich, or black vs. white, the teams are blended together and the games are friendly. "They talk together. They're split up and mixed together with some people they may know and others they don't know," Frank said. "A kid from West Chester could connect with a kid from Bond Hill. People think suburban kids speak a different language than the inner city. But baseball is the common language. They also find out they play some of the same music, the same video games and are interested in the same stuff." While the Reds do the matching, help coordinate logistics and budgets, the Community Fund lets the individual organization's do the work and heavy lifting to make it successful. "I think it's working very well," said program co-founder Charles Kelly, who leads the Six Men Tigers, a youth team with kids from inner city Evanston and Walnut Hills. "One of the things that make it a success is the removal or reduction of stereotypes and stigmas that were previously present. They're finding things are not much different as individuals. The differences are in location and the availability of opportunity." Besides baseball, the Match Program will hold post-game cookouts, opportunities to mingle and icebreaker events for the parents. Some perceptions and differences are easier to melt away than others, however. "The children are much easier to work with," Kelly admitted. "The parents are a bit slower in making connections and actually following up. The kids -- they see someone they identify with and make the connection. The parents are more about supporting their children than about connections. "They blend, work together and in some cases, they might not even play baseball. We had situation where the kids went to Coney Island and played games, went swinging and broke bread together. One of the missions is to involve the kids in as many things other than baseball. We attempt that in some of these events." One of the more popular moments from last year's Civil Rights Game weekend was the Youth Summit at Fountain Square that was followed by a march of about 2,000 kids to Great American Ball Park. Kids from the Match Program and other youth baseball initiatives -- like RBI-Rookie League and Knothole baseball -- will be back to participate again this weekend. From 12-7 p.m. ET on Saturday, the youth summit and the MLB's "Wanna Play?" event will be back on Fountain Square and is free and open to the public. The Delta Youth Baseball march is scheduled for 5 p.m. "That was one of the hidden gems from last year," Frank said. That could be said for the success of the Match Program itself. What started with two teams in 2006, now has 22 teams matched together for 2010. "You're bringing people together that otherwise wouldn't connect," Frank said.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.