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In Atlanta, a baseball game narrows the gap between cops and the community

The Safe at Home game started after Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri

Mike Brown had just been shot.

Across the country, the black community’s relationship with police departments had not been that strained since three officers were acquitted in the 1991 beating of Rodney King. In Atlanta, a former Chicago Cubs outfielder decided to channel his love for baseball into a way for both sides to see the other’s humanity.

The outlet? A baseball game played between the Atlanta Police Department and black teenagers from low-income areas across the city.

When CJ Stewart, 42, co-founded L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) with his wife, Kelli, in 2007, his mission was simple: show inner-city black boys that anything was possible. The Northwest Atlanta native was a walking testimony to that idea. Not many make it out of the notorious Hollywood Court projects, but Stewart did and played two years in the Cubs’ minor league system in the mid-’90s. He created L.E.A.D. to help others make it out as well. A combination of elite baseball training and academic support, the program seeks to produce the next generation of community leaders, called “ambassadors.”

These ambassadors will take on Atlanta police officers in the fourth annual Safe At Home Game, set for Aug. 4. The game will culminate a week’s worth of activities, including a picnic, joint practices and ride-alongs.

“When I found out about Stewart and looked into him, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. He came out of Hollywood Courts,’ which is one of the areas I was predominantly around,” said Officer Micah Davis, who has played in all three Safe At Home Games. “He got out and made it with the help of APD, and he’s got no shame in that he did get out and he had help.”

The game itself is unlike most ballgames you’ve seen. Two strikes are an out, two balls are a walk and there’s not an umpire in sight. While the first two elements were designed to increase the speed of the game, the lack of an umpire might be the most important, according to Stewart.

“The self-officiating part, quite frankly, allows me to pay attention to how everybody handles adversity, how everybody handles failure,” said Stewart.

“Oh, my God. He came out of Hollywood Courts. … He got out and made it.”

One beneficiary of L.E.A.D. and the Safe At Home Game was Antonio Pierce, 17, who credited both entities for shifting his perception of the police. Growing up in one of the roughest areas in the city, he was no stranger to seeing the police. A few interactions in which Pierce remembered excessive force being used had cast a negative shadow on all officers. The game offered the rising senior at Carver Early College an opportunity to see that not “all cops were bad.”

“By me playing the game, [my opinion] changed a little bit, but [the negativity] is still there,” said Pierce, who will be participating in his fourth Safe At Home Game. “I trust the few that we’re around. Like the ones in the game, I trust them because I know them.”

Stewart credited Brad Jubin, a motivational speaker and co-founder of his own youth sports-oriented nonprofit, for coming up with the idea for Safe at Home. After witnessing a L.E.A.D.-sponsored game in 2014, just weeks after the events surrounding Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, Jubin was in awe. The game took place near where 2012’s Snow on Tha Bluff was filmed. But the mainstream culture’s portrayal of black boys didn’t quite match what he saw on that field. Jubin, who was quick to describe himself as a “white guy from the suburbs,” admitted the game changed his entire way of thinking.

“At 50 years old, I experienced the greatest demonstration of respect in the last place I thought I would,” Jubin recalled. “I went onto that field with concerns; I left that field on cloud nine about what I just experienced. It made me a better man.”

Jubin connected Stewart to the Police Department, and the inaugural Safe at Home Game took place on Aug. 1, 2015. The game is financed by L.E.A.D. and Jubin’s nonprofit APIVEO (Always Play IV Each Other) in partnership with the Atlanta Police Foundation.

To think this game will end police brutality would be to misconstrue L.E.A.D.’s message. Rather, the bonds formed through this game afford ambassadors the opportunity to help mend the black community’s relationship with law enforcement.

“In the midst of all the protests, rallies, memorial services and pushes for policy change, though, we gotta learn how to co-exist,” said Kelli Stewart, who serves as L.E.A.D.’s executive director. “Building meaningful relationships through this game between our ambassadors and the police is about finding a way for us all to get along while pressing for change to come.”

Three years later, some ambassadors have told CJ Stewart that they want to pursue a career in law enforcement. More officers are becoming interested in the game. One officer who just caught wind of the game was Sgt. Curtis Davenport. A 27-year veteran of the force, Davenport will play in his first game this weekend. This game hits home for him because he grew up in the city and has seen what can happen to young men without proper guidance. At this point in his career, Davenport is a fan of anything that helps kids expand their horizons.

“This puts inner-city kids in an environment with police officers on a more personal level,” said Davenport. “It’s not good guys versus bad guys or cops versus robbers or anything like that. It’s just people getting together, sharing experiences and life lessons, and they’re doing it through the game of baseball.”

Despite his success with this game, Stewart is not satisfied. There’s only one thing on his mind now: expansion.

“My primary focus is black inner-city youth and cops,” said Stewart. “In those communities that are having those issues, we want to have the Safe At Home Game.”

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.