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Gomes busily giving back to baseball - with eye on its future

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: August 19, 2007
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Gomes busily giving back to baseball - with eye on its future
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 14, 2007

When former major league pitcher Wayne Gomes proposed starting a baseball program on the Peninsula for inner-city youth, he heard "great" and "absolutely" and "count us in" from community-center leaders.

He heard one more thing, too, loud and clear: "Just be sure it's over before football starts."

"They knew I'd lose all the kids to football," said Gomes, the No. 4 pick in the nation in 1993 out of Old Dominion. "These kids play football and basketball. Baseball's something out of the norm."

That's been a reality among urban black youth for years, and it's put participation numbers in college and pro baseball at a crisis level. Black American players made up only about 8 percent of Opening Day big-league rosters.

Somewhere along the line, the word went forth that boring, cob-webbed baseball had no place in what Gomes called "the hip-hop culture, love it or hate it."

So Gomes, who is black, joined the battle to make baseball matter again, the way it mattered to him as a kid playing in Phoebus.

"If I'm going to talk about it," Gomes said, lounging on a sofa in his Suffolk home, "I have to be willing to help solve it."

Gomes, 34, stuck his foot in the door by creating the non-profit Wayne Gomes Youth Baseball Diversity Foundation. It raised money, interest and, with some 120 teenagers who played from March to July, confidence it can at least make a dent.

"I'll tell you how good a year this was," said Douglas Sessoms, who coached one of Gomes' five 13-15-year-old teams (there was also an 18-under squad). "Since this started, other youth centers that never even thought about baseball are gearing up to be in it next year. That's a great thing."

Gomes' foundation operates with the blessing of Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program - Norfolk has an RBI presence, too - but not its financial support. That's because Gomes said he wanted to attack the issue his way and not necessarily be bound by someone else's structure.

For Gomes, who last played in the majors in 2002, that essentially meant adding a full-time job to his "retirement" list that includes running his own indoor training facility, giving private lessons, coaching the Peninsula Pilots college summer-league team and pursuing an MBA.

Somewhere in all that, Gomes also answers to husband and daddy; he and wife Melissa have a 6-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

"I felt like it was my duty," Gomes said. "Our kids just aren't playing the game. Or they're stopping at age 8."

Reversing a runaway trend is ambitious stuff. Gomes' major weapon this year was a budget, from grants and sponsorships, of $70,000 that allowed kids to play for free. Gomes even provided equipment and took two all-star teams to a recent RBI tournament in Pittsburgh, no charge.

He'll tweak some details next year, he said, such as providing more training for coaches and starting a league for pre-teens. One time around was enough to get Gomes past his shock over the unfamiliarity with baseball's skills, rules and language he saw.

That's why his goals are modest, but firm.

Gomes hasn't shouldered this burden to produce pro players; the Pilots and his Virginia Baseball Academy indoor facility give him that outlet.

Rather, Gomes said his reward will be persuading more black kids, even if they're starting from square one, to hang in and go for high school, even college baseball.

"I want one guy," Gomes said. "I believe it can happen."

Gomes is proof of what can happen from there.

-- Tom Robinson, (757) 446-2518, tom.robinson@pilotonline.com

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