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Baseball, Not Bullets

Richard Reznik helps keep Detroit kids off the streets and on the diamonds.

Think Detroit PAL's opening day last year

The crack of a bat, not the pop of a gun is the sound Richard Reznik, 42, of Macomb Township wants to hear more of in the city of Detroit. The associate athletic director for Think Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League) runs the organization’s baseball, softball and T-ball league involving about 1,400 children ages 4-18 and hundreds of coaches, umpires and volunteers.

Each day, Reznik starts out with a 45-minute drive into the city where preparations are now in full swing for the upcoming season. But, what’s happening beyond the baseball fields where the children play is alarming. It’s been an unusually violent year in Detroit; police report more than 50 murders since the start of 2012. Many of those crimes involve teenagers and young children. In some cases, police have arrested and charged teenage shooters. In others, school-aged children and even babies have been the innocent victims of gun violence.

“The number of shootings in Detroit is at a record pace right now,” Reznik says. “It’s just a shame that every time we turn on the news it’s another kidnapping or shooting or some violent act in Detroit — and it’s enough already!”

Richard Reznik

During a recent youth violence prevention program, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing echoed those sentiments.

“Stopping youth violence is about parents and guardians giving loving attention to young people,” Bing said. “Unfortunately, the sad but real fact is that when violence affects the innocent lives of our children and our seniors, it has gone too far. No Detroiter should have to live in fear. We can no longer tolerate terrorism in our city.”

Reznik and his wife, Renee, an English teacher at the Academy of the Americas public school in southwest Detroit, are two people making a difference. Both teach countless children the skills they need to get ahead in life. They’ve been married for more than three years and have no children of their own.

“My primary goal is to help get kids off the streets and get them doing something more productive,” Reznik says. “The toughest time for kids to make good or bad decisions is after school, from 3-7 p.m. If we can keep them on the sports field, they’re less likely to get into trouble.”

Oak Park Roots
Reznik’s passion and love for baseball began when he was a child growing up in Oak Park and rooting for the Detroit Tigers. He also played softball and bowled with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. (He proudly remembers bowling two 300 games back in the day.) Reznik celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Moshe in Oak Park. He’s a graduate of Oak Park High School and Michigan State University.

In the mid-1990s he began working for Southfield-based Orchards Children’s Services; an organization formed 50 years ago by the National Council of Jewish Women. It’s now an independent child welfare agency providing foster care, adoption and family preservation services to more than 4,000 Michigan children in six counties.

A swing from last year's Pee Wee Reese Championship Game

Reznik was initially a foster care worker. But in 1996, he started running Orchards’ baseball program and his career took off. In 2002, he did the same thing for Think Detroit Inc., which merged with the Detroit Police Athletic League in 2006. After taking a few years off, Reznik returned to Think Detroit PAL in 2010. He also runs the boys and girls school basketball leagues.

“Of course, we have children from two-parent homes, but many come from single-parent homes living well below the poverty line,” Reznik says. “We rely on outside funding, individual donations and grants to keep our programs afloat. I work for Think Detroit PAL because I think it’s the youth of Detroit who need [a program like this] the most. Generally speaking, the resources are there for most children in other Metro Detroit communities.”

Detroit’s Police Athletic League started in 1969. The nonprofit organization runs one of the largest inner-city sports programs with 90 baseball teams and more than 270 coaches. But, according to its website, “There are more than 160,000 young people ages 5-18 living in Detroit who are not involved in any type of after-school activity. Think Detroit PAL aims to serve one out of every 10 Detroit children.”

Reznik handles every detail from preparing schedules to ordering equipment and uniforms. Parents sign their children up for the program and pay a fee of about $50 (there are also scholarships and discounts). Opening day for baseball is in early June; the season runs through August.

“The toughest part of the job is to see a child quit for any reason,” Reznik says. “To see even one child potentially go down the wrong path is bothersome to me.”

Arthur Horwitz, founder and president of Renaissance Media, the parent company of the Detroit Jewish News, was elected to the Think Detroit PAL board of directors in October 2011.

Touching All The Bases

Youth athletes compete in last year's Pee Wee Reese Championship game.

Teaching the fundamentals of baseball is only part of the goal of Think Detroit PAL. The program is also meant to help build character in children, parents and volunteers. Coaches go through intensive “impact training” classes to learn how to be good role models. Detroit police officers are involved; several are on staff.

“People don’t realize how impressionable kids are,” Reznik says. “They are going to emulate their coaches. We make sure our coaches realize that while it’s OK to be competitive, it’s also about sportsmanship, shaking hands after the game and things like that. Anything we can do to motivate kids and be a positive influence so they can become better athletes and better people.”

Think Detroit PAL also maintains many of its recreational athletic fields. Reznik has seen some amazing transformations on those fields. One example is Mark Brown, a Martin Luther King High School graduate who was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 2010. The 5-foot-9-inch leftie first started playing in 1996.

“He was 6 years old,” Reznik recalls. “We took him to a tournament in Indiana, and he struck out and cried.”

But, Brown stuck with baseball and 12 years later became a professional athlete. He also took part in a Major League Baseball-sponsored program called Detroit RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which he credits with “changing his life.”

“If I wasn’t playing baseball, there’s no telling what I could be doing in Detroit,” Brown is quoted as saying. “There are a lot of distractions going on.”

As a new baseball season begins, Reznik, his coaches, umpires and volunteers will be encouraging hundreds of young people to keep their eye on the ball — where there’s no room for distraction — and no time for trouble.

“If I can help in any way possible, I’m gonna help,” Reznik says. “I’m just trying to do my part to make Detroit a safer place to be.”

By Robin Schwartz/JN Contributing Writer




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