Mike Fintak and Charles Castle saw too many low-income kids getting priced out of America’s game. They saw the exorbitant registration fees and pricey equipment that were too often prerequisites for signing up for baseball.
The idea that if kids wanted to play, they better have money, bothered Mike and Charles. They checked the U.S. Census data and saw most families in midtown and southern St. Pete were from minority groups, and many of them lived at or below poverty level.
Charles knew that youngsters from these areas tended to go home after school to empty homes, and almost none had the opportunity to play organized, outdoor sports or to interact positively with peers. In almost every case, the cost of registration for a baseball league was the primary obstacle to playing ball.
So he and Mike decided to do something about the problem. With no funding but strong connections in the coaching community, they decided to start their own league.
They picked baseball because they wanted to expose the younger generation to a game so deeply rooted in American history, across all cultures and backgrounds.
They wanted to share the pure joy and fun of the game and to reach the children who typically drift toward football and basketball, sports that have lower barriers to entry.
They felt confident that baseball could serve as a vehicle not only for athletic improvement, but also for life skills like discipline and determination, skills that could translate from the classroom to the streets, and beyond. Skills that could help mold these kids into adults who could grow up knowing not only to love the game, but also the communities that foster it.
It was tough at first, as Mike personally sunk much of his own money into buying equipment and other startup costs. Baseball was his life and passion, and it consumed all of his time during the early years.
In the beginning, Burg relied on the help of generous sponsors. The first team initially had no place to play. RJ Huff, former owner of R. Huff & Son’s Lawn Care, let the league work on the Meadowlawn Ballfields. Burg was also invited over to Cross Bayou Little League.
Tom Ryan, the athletic director at Eckerd College, and David White, an assistant basketball coach at Boca Ciega High School, helped connect Burg to the right player organizations, city and state leaders, business contacts and other professionals to learn about the legal aspects of creating a youth sports league.
Coach Chris Blackwell pointed Burg to one of its most robust fundraising activities: a concession stand at Tropicana Field that allows parents to offset fees for playing the game with volunteer work.
To date, more than 90 percent of ballplayers in Burg, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, have had their registration fees waived. Our volunteers have sweated through more than 34,000 hours of work.
In its first decade, Burg sadly lost Mike. But his legacy endures in the positive mark that the league has left on the lives of more than 1,800 St. Petersburg youth. We have grown from just one team to 11, including three travel squads.
From the outset, our coaches have emphasized teamwork, effort and dedication. Every player is expected to maintain an equally high level of academic performance. Ultimately, we hope our children leave with the tools to play baseball beyond the middle and high school levels.
Rough, decaying neighborhoods, single-parent homes, little or no disposable family income, pervasive drug abuse and gang presence — all of these are the opponents to young people here looking for a better way. Burg has served as a safety valve, a chance for kids to exercise their bodies, occupy their minds, and nurture their spirits on the baseball field.
We’re deeply proud of the work we’ve done, and we can’t help but feel like it’s just getting started.