Tanisha Velez grew up in the Clark Fulton community and graduated from Lincoln West High School in West Cleveland. Today, she is a business owner and community activist helping to revitalize the park she remembers playing in as a child. Velez and a group of volunteers are trying to revitalize Roberto Clemente Park on West 38th Street north of Clark Avenue by creating a new farmers’ market there and bringing back the Roberto Clemente baseball league.
Last year, Velez worked with a group of volunteers to improve the park, adding new benches, seating areas and playground equipment, and painting the baseball field fences. The city provided $500,000 to renovate the park and pay for new playground equipment and chess tables, with volunteers contributing public art and seating. Improvements, including a mural of Clemente on the concession building by local artist Angelina Irizarri, were completed just in time for Roberto Clemente Day on September 15 as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Roberto Clemente was a pioneering Puerto Rican baseball player who, in 1972, became the first Hispanic baseball player to score 3,000 hits. He also became the first Caribbean and Hispanic player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On December 31, 1972, Clemente was carrying donations to Nicaragua when his plane crashed into the ocean. In 1995, Cleveland Mayor Michael White and Council President Jay Westbrook dedicated Roberto Clemente Park in his honor.
“Most of us played in Roberto Clemente’s Little League when we were younger,” recalls Vélez of a youth baseball league that operated from 1990 to 2012. “I remember growing up, it was all our weekends, it was all we did.”
This summer, Vélez hopes to bring back some of Clemente’s old school magic by recreating the league for the younger generation, thereby breathing new life into the park, rekindling interest in baseball, and helping young people in her community. Roberto Clemente’s league is trying to raise $100,000 through an Ioby crowdfunding campaign and sponsorship opportunities to run the league this summer. Vélez said 240 children aged 5 to 16 can participate in 16 teams. The focus of the league will be Hispanic youth, but anyone can play and it will be a bilingual league. Adults interested in coaching can register in English or Spanish.
On league days, Vélez also wants to host a farmers’ market in the park through the non-profit organization Jardin 4 Life (“Garden for Life”) she founded. Vélez said it’s especially important to remember Clemente at a time when a book about his life is banned in some places due to allegations of discrimination, and during investments in the Clark Fulton area. She wants the league to be free because the median household income in the Clark Fulton area is about $26,000, according to the US Census.
In the long term, Vélez would like to see a statue of Clemente installed in the park. She joined forces with other bands, including New Era Young Lords, to launch the project. “We all join forces and bring something to society,” she said. “We’re trying to draw attention to the park and who Roberto Clemente is.”