Journey House little league players to compete in Puerto Rico

14 young athletes chosen for cultural exchange trip

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In late July, 14 kids will travel more than 2,100 miles from Milwaukee’s near south side to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where they will play baseball against the backdrop of the Caribbean island’s green mountains and tropical rain forests.

A Felix Mantilla Little League player slides toward home plate during a game in the summer of 2015.
A Felix Mantilla Little League player slides toward home plate during a game in the summer of 2015.

The trip, sponsored by the Journey House, North Star Providers and Marquette University High School, is meant to be a cultural exchange for a group of all-star and scholar athletes who play in the Journey House’s Felix Mantilla Little League. Its organizers see it as a unique way to broaden the horizons of young athletes who may not know much about the world outside the city limits.

The Milwaukee little leaguers will play in a tournament against local teams in Puerto Rico and also go on educational outings, including a trip to the island’s tropical rain forest.

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“Our mission is to move families out of poverty through youth development and part of that is education, relationships and exposure, and this really combines all three,” said Michele Bria, chief executive officer of Journey House. “Even though many of our scholar athletes are Puerto Rican or Latino, they’ve never been to Puerto Rico. Their world experience is right here in Milwaukee. All the different dynamics of the Caribbean and the way of life there is different than here. It might be a different type of poverty that might be experienced there.”

Many of the kids, each either 9 or 10 years old, have never left Milwaukee. Their opponents will be the same age, but years ahead in technique and experience; While Wisconsin players are forced to hang up their cleats and stash their gloves for the winter, in Puerto Rico, the baseball season never ends.

“The problem we’re going to have is this: there, they play all year,” said former Milwaukee Brave Felix Mantilla. “But I think they will do pretty well. Maybe they won’t win, but they’ll enjoy it.”

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Felix Mantilla as a Milwaukee Brave.
Felix Mantilla as a Milwaukee Brave.

Mantilla, a teammate of hall-of-fame slugger Hank Aaron in the late 1950s, was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to the Midwest in his late teens to pursue a career in professional baseball. He played his first major league game as a member of the Milwaukee Braves in 1956, when he was 22. He started at second base during the Braves’ 1957 World Series victory over the New York Yankees.

Though he played for the New York Mets, the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros during his 11-year career, he’s had a house in Milwaukee since the late 50s and raised his family here. Now 81 years old, Mantilla is still a proud Milwaukee citizen.

“This is a great city,” Mantilla said. “Nice people. I decided to stay and I’ve been here ever since.”

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In the 1970s, he started a little league program for kids ages 4 to 15 on the south side that focused on health, citizenship, character-building and sportsmanship. For years, the league was run through the United Community Center. Journey House took over in 2014.

Though he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the league, Mantilla is proud of what it has become and excited about the idea of a cultural exchange to the island where he learned how to play. He’s especially excited about the idea of Puerto Rican kids visiting the mainland for the first time in 2017 as part of the exchange.

Sponsors of the trip are holding a fundraising dinner at Marquette University High School on April 2 from 5 to 8 p.m. Their goal is to raise $80,000 for the exchange — $40,000 to send Milwaukee players to Puerto Rico this summer and another $40,000 to bring Puerto Rican players to Milwaukee next summer.

“We want to create this experience for these youngsters — to be able to open up their eyes to the world,” said Jan Neis, founder of North Star Providers. “The goal is for this to continue. To eventually to grow this exchange program into a bigger cultural exchange program, but one step at a time. I think that other cities with Major League Baseball especially will be looking at this program.”

North Star has been responsible for the bulk of the exchange’s fundraising efforts, and will be running the fundraiser on April 2.

The 14 kids will each be accompanied by one parent. Team coaches and two umpires will also be traveling with the team.

“A lot of these kids have never been anywhere, and when they get to Puerto Rico they’ll see a lot of things that they’ve never seen before,” Mantilla said. “And for the ones from Puerto Rico getting here, it will be the same.”

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