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PLAY BALL: Baseball training center coming to Darby Park

INGLEWOOD — The new Inglewood Baseball Training Center is expected to open to the public sometime later this year now that civic activists raised $100,000 and city officials approved improvements to the baseball field at Darby Park.

The nonprofit Inglewood Baseball Fund (IBF) recently solicited support from more than 50 donors to finance the training center, which will feature state-of-the-art batting cages and offer constructive recreation for scores of Inglewood youngsters, organizers said.

City officials unanimously approved the construction of the training center at the park on Arbor Vitae Street, less than a block away from the NFL’s new Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park.

”I’m excited for Darby Park,” said City Councilman Alex Padilla, who represents District 2, which includes Darby Park.

IBF’s founder and director Erikk Aldridge said he’s excited, too — not just to give kids a chance to play ball, but also to help them build life skills that can serve them for years to come.

“Baseball is just a conduit. At the end of the day, we’re trying to help produce productive citizens, young people, especially boys of color, that will grow up and go to the workforce and be successful [and] be good dads, husbands, et cetera,” said Aldridge, community affairs director for sports and entertainment giant AEG.

“They are at the very early stages of that, but as I remind the parents, they grow up quickly and every brick that you lay early on is a foundational brick,” he added.

Aldridge and his volunteer coaches hope to build character and perseverance as they mentor young boys ages 9 through 14 through youth baseball. That’s why the fund not only provides financial support, but also focuses on development, college counseling and coaching internships, which support boys who want to stay active in baseball beyond their days as players.

“I try to focus on things like accountability, respect, teamwork,” said Aldridge, an Inglewood native who started playing sports at Darby Park and ultimately played college baseball at UC San Diego. “Those are things that regardless of what line of work you’re in, you’re going to need those skills.”

In a matter of months, parents say they already can see the positive impact on their boys.

“Leadership… He tries to lead by example,” said Inglewood parent Gardner McKay, when asked what his 9-year-old son, Jason, is learning from Aldridge and his volunteer coaches.

Aldridge, who previously worked for the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers, says the number of African Americans playing in the Major Leagues has dropped considerably over the past 30 years. That reality trickles down to youth baseball participation in urban communities, he said — a fact that he and his supporters are trying to change.

“The big thing that we’re trying to accomplish is we really would like to see more African-American players playing NCAA baseball,” he said.

At the end of the day, Aldridge said the Darby Park training center will represent tangible evidence that things are continuing to improve in Inglewood.

“That was something that’s really important for the Inglewood Baseball Fund is to have something that is for everyone in the community,” he said.