Chase Boykin’s imitation of the Craig Kimbrel delivery caught the attention of White Sox fans tuning into a home game in early September, but a far more difficult maneuver drew all eyes to the young shortstop last Thursday at the Pullman Community Center.
Chase, 10, made a sliding backhanded grab, popped up and fired to first base for the last out of the inning, late in a tie game.
His teammates mobbed him, but Chase barely broke stride, a steely expression on his face.
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“Be swag,” he explained after his team’s victory. “You’ve got to play it off cool.”
Major League Baseball, which launched an entire ‘Let the Kids Play’ campaign to try to shake off a reputation for being stodgy and boring, should be thrilled a kid as cool as Chase has fallen in love with the sport.
Major-leaguers like Tim Anderson, who inspired the White Sox’ ‘Change the Game’ slogan, have pushed MLB away from old unwritten rules, facing public scrutiny and intentional hit-by-pitches to do so. But capturing the attention of the next generation, and breaking down barriers to access, is crucial for baseball, as the NBA and NFL threaten to eclipse MLB in popularity.
Major League Baseball feels the urgency. Its investment in youth baseball includes donations as well as programs at the league-wide and club levels – the White Sox’ ACE (Amateur City Elite) program, for example. Then last year, MLB hired notoriously cool Ken Griffey Jr. as a senior advisor to the commissioner, focusing on youth baseball development and diversity.
On a day-to-day level, however, it’s the coaches working directly with kids that make the lasting impact. And for Chase, the West Englewood Tigers have been that influence.
“The reason this program thrives is because to us, it’s bigger than baseball,” said Lacey Rogers, who coaches Chase on the 12u team. “We're trying to get these kids prepared for life after baseball. We prepare them for high school, for college and even those that are going to play beyond that.”
Chase wore his purple West Englewood hat to that fortuitous White Sox game four months ago. The video clip of him mirroring Kimbrel’s motion from the aisle of the Guaranteed Rate Field stands that day circulated nationally, the feel-good story of the week. And while the logo on Chase’s cap might not have meant anything to most of the baseball fans who saw it, astute Chicagoans recognized it as one of the state’s top travel ball teams in Chase’s age group.
Dennis Butler founded the West Englewood Tigers in the mid-2000s, when his grandkids started playing baseball. But the way Dennis Butler Jr. tells it, the beginnings of the club can be traced back to when he and his brother Darold were kids, playing baseball at Ogden Park in Englewood.
“He used to just go pick up all the kids on the block,” Butler Jr. said of his father, “take them to the park, and we just had practice. And then just got us some little cheap uniforms, and we’d just go out there and play.”
The second iteration started small, too, with one team. But it’s grown to seven, from ages 8 to 14. And it’s a family affair.
“We want them to become a complete young man,” Butler Jr. said. “So, we’re big on discipline and character, and at the same time, we’re still trying to teach baseball and still trying to get them to play at a high level.”
The West Englewood Tigers are one of just a handful of travel ball programs on Chicago’s South Side, with travel teams more concentrated on the other side of town. The imbalance reflects a nation-wide issue, with elite youth baseball resources often more accessible and common in affluent and predominately white communities.
At the MLB level, the number of African American players declined from 17 percent of players in the early ‘90s, to less than eight percent by Opening Day 2020.
"There's a lot of African-Americans that can play,” said Cubs 2020 first-round draft pick Ed Howard, who is Black. “There's not that many in the league right now, but I definitely think there's a lot more coming.”
Howard, too, came up through South Side baseball programs: Jackie Robinson West Little League (coached by Darold Butler), the Lou Collier Stars, the White Sox’ ACE program.
Dennis Butler Jr., who coaches the Simeon Career Academy team in addition to the West Englewood Tigers, agrees: “I feel like we’re coming.”
Chase joined the West Englewood Tigers at 7 years old. As Chase’s dad, Mike Boykin, put it: “Once we played rec for a little while, we wanted a little more competition.”
Now, when it comes to fielding, Chase’s coaches say he has the “best hands” in the program, regardless of age. He usually plays up an age bracket, in 12u. An honor roll student, Chase already has his sights set on an NCAA Division I scholarship.
“He's introducing that language himself into the conversation,” said Chase’s mom, Farah Boykin. “So, to me, that's pretty awesome. I know he's still young, he's still a pup, but he is the driving force behind all this, believe it or not.”
Chase’s ultimate goal?
“Of course, make it to The League,” he said. “Hopefully the White Sox. But we'll see.”
Chase’s love of playing baseball also stoked his fandom, and the Red Sox’ 2018 World Series introduced him to Kimbrel, who became one of Chase’s favorite players. Chase was drawn to the closer’s unique stance when taking the catcher’s signs, something Kimbrel started a decade ago to relieve the pain from an arm injury. He bends at the waist, throwing arm hanging at a right angle.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that stance is pretty funny,’” Chase said. “And then I was just doing it because it seemed cool.”
Three years later, when Chase and his parents watched from the stands, and Kimbrel took the mound for their favorite team, of course Chase stood to imitate the reliever’s motion. None of them realized an NBC Sports Chicago camera had caught Chase in action and put him on the broadcast.
“I'm mama bear,” Farah Boykin recalled, laughing. “So, I'm like, ‘Chase, get out of the aisle. The security’s behind us, they're going to put you out of here.”
Days later, the White Sox invited the family down to the field before a game. Kimbrel gave Chase a signed ball and a pair of cleats. Anderson made sure to say hello to the young middle infielder.
“It was swag,” Chase said with a nod and just the hint of a smile.