PONY baseball gets new Chicago field director, seeks more players
November 1, 2019

Photos by Martha Padilla
PONY baseball participants have the opportunity to play a diverse array of opponents throughout the city and suburbs.

By Dan Kolen

PONY (Protect Our Nation’s Youth) youth baseball this year picked up its only Chicago-based field director in Dan Ernst, a resident of West Pilsen.

Beginning in 1951, PONY has a long history in the Chicago area and currently has more than 500,000 Little Leaguers in more than 4,000 leagues in the U.S. and around the world.

Little League enrollment has been declining since 1997, when it hit its all-time high of three million participants. Today it counts 2.4 million participants. The decline stems from many reasons, including a diverse array of youth sports options, a prevalence of video gamers, and the rise of highly competitive and often expensive travel teams, according to Ernst.

By bringing PONY league leadership to the city, Ernst hopes to expand access to youth baseball in Chicago.

“I’m trying to get kids to play baseball, get them ready for high school, and keep them out of trouble,” Ernst said. “It’s a nice way to build a community network. I’m hoping to revive PONY baseball, to turn that tide.”

Coaches are working to get more youngsters to play baseball, as participant numbers have decreased since the 1990s.

More options for players

Ernst has coordinated with coaches throughout the city and suburbs to create more options for young athletes to play with a diverse array of opponents.

“It shouldn’t be that hard to have a baseball game with people near you, to not pay a fortune, and you should be able to find a game that’s a good fit for where you’re at,” Ernst said.

“It’s been a pleasure working with Dan over the years,” said Mark Valentino, who serves as editor and publisher of Gazette Chicago. “I’ve been coaching Little League baseball since the mid-1980s and as my son grew older, he and his friends were looking for a baseball home.

“Many of the young men I coach are between the ages of 16 to 18 and are finding summer jobs and don’t have the time to play, or have been burnt out by travel baseball. Working with Dan and the other coaches in the Chicago area offers me a chance to have my team play a 15-to-20 game season,” Valentino added.

Another Chicago coach with whom Ernst works is LaVonte Stewart, executive director of Lost Boyz Inc., a South Side-based youth baseball organization created in 2008 to help children, mostly African Americans, employ baseball as a means to avoid anti-social behavioral patterns.

Lost Boyz works with more than 100 boy and girl players and has fielded as many as eight teams.

“On top of physical fitness and mentoring, baseball is part of the passing of culture and tradition to our children,” Stewart said. “Individually, I’m just proud of the trajectory of the quality of many of their lives over the last ten years. Kids who were on the path to an early grave, and those kids are thriving and they’re still here.”

Stewart has enjoyed the cross-neighborhood, crosstown application of youth baseball in the city.

PONY baseball has a long history in the Chicago area. “It’s a nice way to build a community network,” said Dan Ernst, field director and West Pilsen resident.

Coming together

“It comes to what I’m doing with Dan and other guys,” Stewart said. “I’m proud of what we’re able to do. To come together regardless of our race, religion, orientation—we’re able to come together and do something that’s beautiful.”

Many of the areas where Ernst’s and Stewart’s youth teams play are plagued with gangs and violence. Decisions these children make about the people with whom they associate can mean life or death.

“PONY league is seventh and eighth grade, when gangs are recruiting kids,” Ernst said. “I would hope that having some male bonding, having a male role model at that age, is a counter force to kids getting into gangs.” 

The path of youth baseball extends outside the city and suburbs, including into Kankakee where Steve Cantway coaches both junior high and high school baseball, along with other youth baseball teams in Colt (16 and under) and Palamino (17- and 18-year-olds) leagues.

“There’s no jurisdictional barriers,” Cantway said. “Dan has been instrumental at trying to incorporate more teams that are PONY franchised in the city, and I hope he can do that and add more teams to the PONY system.”

Brandon McNair is a league administrator for the Athletes for Christ Association, a baseball league based in the Auburn Gresham community.

“Our goal is to play against most if not all neighborhoods,” McNair said. “Kids understand there are different sides of the city, there are different folks, but there’s a common bond, and that’s the game of baseball.”

“I would encourage families to reach out to Dan and get their sons involved,” Valentino said. “We could really use more players, coaches, and teams. For me, getting out in the fresh air in the spring and summer is a relief from working long hours. More importantly, I enjoy the conversations I have with my players. I’ve coached many of them since they were in Little League at Sheridan and McGuane Parks. Our conversations are more about life and plans for and after college than they are about balls and strikes.

“I’m grateful to Dan and the others who are so committed to keeping baseball alive in the Chicago area. They are so committed to the game, to the players, and to making playing baseball very affordable,” Valentino concluded.

Contact Ernst at danernst42@gmail.com.