MILWAUKEE — For the fourteen 9- and 10-year-old all stars in Milwaukee’s Felix Mantilla Little League (FMLL), their recent trip to Puerto Rico was an opportunity of a lifetime. Not only were they selected to travel to the island to play baseball, but they got to travel with baseball legend Felix Mantilla.
A former Milwaukee Brave and roommate of Hank Aaron, Mantilla drew crowds of fans – and even a mayor – as he travelled with the Milwaukee little leaguers, their coaches, umpires and parents on his native island.
Mantilla, who played between 1956 and 1966 on four Major League teams, was one of the first Latino players in Major League Baseball. He founded Felix Mantilla Little League in 1972.
Journey House, a community center on Milwaukee’s near south side, has managed FMLL for the past two years. Journey House’s mission is to empower families on Milwaukee’s near south side to move out of poverty by offering adult education, youth development, workforce readiness and family engagement.
Mantilla’s son, Felix “Tony” Mantilla, a coach in the league, embraced the opportunity to partner with Journey House.
“We wanted to create a first class baseball playing infrastructure and combine that with a first class academic experience,” Tony explained. He hoped parents in the community would want their children to play in the league and would be attracted by the high quality facility as well as the academic opportunities.
Tony, a 1972 graduate of Marquette University High School, Milwaukee, and a member of the school’s Hall of Fame, understood that many of the children in the neighborhood would not have the same opportunities without Journey House and FMLL. In creating the trip to Puerto Rico, his hope was that the kids would have new experiences and that a sense of wonder would result.
“I hoped they would be inquisitive, have fun, and their worldview would change without them even knowing it,” he said.
Tony believes typical middle class family vacations are learning experiences which lower income children don’t get to experience.
“When families go off on summer vacation, their kids are being exposed to new things, new perspectives, new people. That changes them in very positive ways. For a lot of the families that Journey House serves, their kids are never going to get that experience. They miss that opportunity to have their world view shaped and changed as a result of going to different places,” he said.
In April, a five-star fundraising dinner held at Marquette University High School by North Star Providers, a Milwaukee-based philanthropic organization, raised enough money to make the Aug. 18-22 trip to Puerto Rico possible.
North Star Providers was founded in 2014 by Jan Neis, a graduate of St. John Vianney Elementary School, Brookfield, and Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha, as a way to provide uplifting experiences for deserving individuals.
Next summer, a team from Puerto Rico will travel to Milwaukee for a similar educational and baseball tour.
On the first day of travel, a group of players, parents, coaches, umpires, and Journey House staff took a bus to the Museo del Deporte (Museum of Sport). When they got off the bus, there was group of 12 people with Puerto Rican flags and hats along with a photographer. They were actually there filming a commercial for Olympic gold medal tennis star Monica Puig, but quickly turned their attention to the Wisconsin visitors.
“Our first steps on the island they welcomed us and they were singing and chanting,” said Michele Bria, chief executive officer of Journey House.
The Little League players were impressed when they got to see Mantilla’s baseball uniform displayed in Museo del Deporte.
“You could tell the kids my father played,” recalled Tony, “but they are like, ‘Yeah right, he’s 82 years old.’ But then you walk in the museum and they see his picture all over the place and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this is who we are travelling with!’ When you see his name there with the greats of Puerto Rican baseball history, it’s a very cool thing. Those first guys are immortal because they opened the door to a life-changing baseball experience. That’s what the major league is and was to those guys back then.”
Bria was struck by how welcoming the people were.
“They kept apologizing for the food they brought,” Bria explained, “saying the cheese pizza was all they could get the first day. The next day some of the moms came with cut-up mango and passed cheese trays around the stands.”
Tony, a member of St. Mary Parish in Mundelein, Illinois, observed the liveliness of the games themselves.
“All game long there was salsa music playing,” he said. “Not between innings. All game long there are people dancing in the stands. You don’t see that when you go to Baran Park (where FMLL plays). It’s a whole different baseball experience.”
The American players brought a new experience to Puerto Rico as well. Mantilla heard some of the local fans speaking Spanish saying “eso es una chica” (“that’s a girl”) the first time Emily Martinez, the female player on the trip, went to bat. They were even more surprised when she hit a long drive to right centerfield. The crowd went crazy.
“On most of the teams in Puerto Rico you don’t see girls play,” Mantilla explained. “Girls play with girls.”
A highlight of the trip was Mantilla’s hometown of Isabela. It was here the Milwaukee players got their first sense of the island’s poverty. Bria observed the stadium was run down and there was no running water.
Each game started with a prayer in Spanish, a common practice among the Puerto Rican teams they played. Despite the sweltering heat, FMLL beat the team from Isabela. After the game, the FMLL players decided to give the all-star jerseys they were wearing to the team from Isabela.
“We lined up and the first kid took his jersey off and gave it to the first kid and so on down the line,” said head coach Guerrero “Chato” Duran. “For most of my players, it was their first all-star jersey, which is something memorable. It’s a thing of value to them. The fact that they were willing to give it to someone else has such a profound meaning. To me that put everything together.”