Those who can inspire youth in short supply these days

BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media August 16, 2014

Members of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team from Chicago, Ill., ride in the Little League Grand Slam Parade as it makes its way through downtown Williamsport, Pa., Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. The Little League World Series tournament begins Thursday, August 14, in South Williamsport, Pa.. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Cooled by the breeze from four Javy Baez all-or-nothing strikeouts Thursday, I headed for the Cell in hopes of seeing Scott Carroll pitch. But the blister that forced the well-traveled rookie to miss his scheduled start last week in San Francisco pushed him back to Sunday, so Friday featured another episode of the Hector Noesi Show.

Carroll, 29, is one of the feel-good stories of an otherwise-uninspiring White Sox season, finally ascending to a major-league roster after nine years of minor-league toil. He calls to mind my friend Bob Kammeyer, and that’s a compliment.

A 21st-round draft pick out of Stanford, Big Bob also logged nine minor-league seasons before earning a call-up to the Yankees for eight games and 212/3 innings in 1978-79. In his lone appearance in 1979, he failed to retire any of the eight Cleveland Indians hitters he faced. All eight scored, leaving poor Kammeyer with an ERA of infinity for the season.

He never pitched in the big leagues again, despite a 43-17 record in his last three Class AAA seasons. The Padres claimed him off waivers after he’d gone 15-7 at Columbus in 1980, but when their best offer was a minor-league contract, Bob went home to California to put his Stanford business degree to work and raise his family.

I caught up with him there. Bob picked my then-10-year-old son, Matt, for the Little League team he was managing, and it was a good deal for both of us. Matt was pretty serious about baseball, and he clearly would benefit from a former big leaguer’s tutelage.

I did, too. Bob’s knowledge of the game was nearly as deep as his commitment to teaching it. The right way was the only way.

The Braves had enough actual players to win the Pacific Little League pennant that year, but Bob was just as kind and reassuring to the airplane-trackers and dandelion-pickers whose parents equated our squad with day care.

Two years later, four Braves were members of a Pacific all-star team that came within two victories of a trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Sixteen games in three dizzying weeks all over Northern California. It’s still one of the most enjoyable summers in McGrath family history.

And it all began with a man who cared enough about kids to share his knowledge, his passion and his heart with them. I hope the Jackie Robinson West kids who are making Chicago proud are as fortunate.

Kammeyer was only 52 when he died in January 2003. We were saddened but somehow not surprised. He had put an awful burden on that heart by being so generous with it.
The Bob Kammeyer of my own youth is still with us, thankfully. Mike Sheahan, the future Cook County sheriff, was the youth-activities director at Kennedy Park when the place was my second home, and it’s an understatement to say he took the title seriously. From softball leagues to basketball tournaments to touch-football marathons, Mike always had something going on to keep us occupied and out of trouble.

He was probably the park’s best athlete, too, and it was always a thrill to be summoned to play in a big-boy game with him and his buddies. If you were on Mike’s team, you didn’t want to let him down — ever.

He’d call b.s. on anyone who’d refer to him as a hero, but you couldn’t do much better as a mentor/role model.

The South Side parks I pass coming to and from work these days are comparative ghost towns. The basketball courts might get some traffic, but the softball diamonds, football fields and swimming pools are empty, of no use to the braided, hard-eyed dudes hanging insolently on nearby street corners. There’s no fun — and certainly no winners — in the games they choose to play.

Where, I wonder, are the Bob Kammeyers and the Mike Sheahans? Where are the people who can bring life to these parks, purpose to these kids and hope to these neighborhoods? Are they gone, apparently for good, with the jobs and the commerce?

A kid without hope is a kid without a future. If that situation is allowed to persist, Chicago’s frustrated young people will continue to cannibalize each other.

I work with kids myself these days, at Leo High School. Kammeyer and Sheahan are never far from my thoughts. It’s not just my hope to do as well by our kids as they did by me. It’s my duty.