July 2, 2004
The Ahwatukee Cardinals pick up trash along the road and run for charity. All to play baseball.
The Ahwatukee Cardinals Baseball Club was brought to the attention of the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission by the Arizona Diamondbacks when asked to help find a team to represent Phoenix in a youth baseball team exchange program, said Sara Elgin, program director for the commission.
One of three major youth exchange programs, and the only sports-related one, the baseball team exchange is expected become an annual event, with Ahwatukee Foothills and Himeji, Japan, sending teams to the other’s country on alternating years, Elgin said.
In March, the club plans to send its 10-and-under team to play against Japanese teams and also learn about Japanese culture in Himeji.
The team will be the youngest group to participate in a Sister Cities exchange program like this, said Ahwatukee Foothills resident, team coach and club founder Erik Kelly, who has coached baseball for more than nine years.
The club that began as a "rag-tag group of kids who wanted to play baseball" has grown from 15 to 50 in just three years, Kelly said.
These kids truly love baseball, some practice multiple times a day and all of them plan on playing "forever."
The team encourages more than just baseball skills, though.
"We want to develop good baseball players, but really develop great kids," Kelly said.
The club engages in a number of community involvement projects throughout the year. The Trot for Tots with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and Adopt-A-Street, where the group helps keep clean a stretch of road near 32nd Street and Liberty Lane, are just a few of the undertakings designed to help the kids create a social conscience, Kelly said.
Their community involvement helped get them chosen for this endeavor, he said.
In Japan, the team of 11 will spend eight or nine days touring historic sites, attending a professional Japanese baseball game, and playing at least three exhibition games against Japanese teams.
"It’ll fun to play against one of the best countries for baseball," said 10-year-old Dylan Dodds of Jordan Elementary School in Chandler.
The trip is estimated to cost $30,000, and while he would not say how much the team has already raised, Kelly did say the team has a lot of fund raising left to do.
The team has been organizing some fun activities to help raise money, including selling programs at Bank One Ballpark, and is looking into hosting a golf tournament, Kelly said.
The players are excited to experience some of the elements of Japanese culture.
"You have to wear slippers in the house," 9-year-old Tyler Viza of Ahwatukee Foothills said.
Despite the enthusiasm, most seemed more than a little hesitant to try Japanese food.
"I’ve never tried sushi," said 10-year-old Connor Kelly of Ahwatukee Foothills. "I don’t know if I’ll try it there or not."
-- By Adam Stern, for the Tribune