In #RaiseMKE

Kids ages 4 to 15 play in the Felix Mantilla Little League. (PHOTO: Edgar Mendez, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)

Public-private plan would build youth baseball complex at Baran Park

Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews ... all these years later, we still all know the big names of the World Champion 1957 Milwaukee Braves. But there's one name on that roster that remains a Milwaukee all-star today.

That's Felix Mantilla, second baseman, shortstop, outfielder, Milwaukee resident and inspiring leader of Felix Mantilla Little League, which every year since 1972 has helped hundreds of kids learn and enjoy the game of baseball but also to develop important skills like teamwork and leadership.

Now, a public-private partnership has been floated to build a $2.8 million Felix Mantilla Little League baseball complex that would help further promote athletics and academics on the South Side.

The project – a collaboration between Journey House, which is currently running the Mantilla league, and Milwaukee County Parks – would renovate Baran Park, 2600 S. Chase Ave., where the league is currently located.

Journey House, located in the Clarke Square neighborhood on the South Side, provides adult education, youth development, workforce readiness and family engagement programming and services.

According to a news release issued today in conjunction with the issue being discussed by the Parks, Energy, and Environment Committee of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, some funds have already been committed by local philanthropists and the national Cal Ripken Foundation.

"A potential WHEDA New Market Tax Credit could support an innovative workforce development program focused on careers in sports turf and landscaping, and culinary arts/hospitality," the statement notes.

The plan, modeled on a similar project at Mitchell Park – the Journey House Packers Football Stadium – would include three little league fields with artificial infield turf and natural grass in the outfield; a tee-ball field; a regulation high school field; field lighting; dugouts; bleachers; a storage and equipment facility; potential renovations to a concession stand; and enhanced stormwater management.

According to Brian Rothgery, the public information manager of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, the committee did not adopt the proposal on Tuesday.

"Committee members asked solid questions and we look forward to this project moving ahead in 2017," said Tony Mantilla, son of MLB legend Felix Mantilla and a key driver behind the project, after this morning's meeting.

"We were pleased that the committee understood and embraced the main goal of this project. Our focus is not purely on baseball, but instead on serving adults and youth by leveraging athletics to promote academics and workforce development."

Earlier this year, Journey House proposed a $2.3 million upgrade for the park, which Journey House CEO Michele Bria told Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service was dilapidated.

"Our granddads and dads have to go out and clean up the fields so the kids can play (safely)," Bria told NNS. "We want to make sure that our young scholars have an opportunity to play … on world-class fields."

According to this morning's release, "planners believe the project will help reduce crime, gun violence, graffiti, and litter while also enhancing leadership, team-building, academic performance and innovation."

Participating in the Mantilla league requires a focus on both academics and sports and players – called "scholar athletes" – must write essays and give oral presentations, take part in a structured study hall and provide progress reports from teachers.

Among the league's former players are Ald. Jose Perez and Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Pedro Colon, who was the first Latino elected to the state legislature.

The Felix Mantilla Little League also has an Education & Cultural Exchange Program – funded by foundations and private donors, including retired pro baseball player Alex Rodriguez – that hosts Puerto Rican players in Milwaukee and sponsors baseball, learning and adventure trips to Puerto Rico for groups of Mantilla league players.

The Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation helps fund the league and other MLB teams have reportedly expressed interest in creating similar experiences for children in their cities.

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