In the core of the neighborhood, a playground, splash park, and four baseball fields make up the ten acres of Murray Hill Park. Established in 1941, its history goes back almost as far as the neighborhood itself.
Murray Hill native Joey Umstead, 23, met his lifelong friends playing baseball there as a kid. As they grew up together, they would talk about coming full circle and coaching there as adults.
Umstead is a teacher by trade and by spirit. By day, he works at Ruth N. Upson Elementary as a reading teacher. After school, he coaches pick-up baseball at the park, which happens to be right across the street.
For the past few years, the park has been a “ghost town,” in Umstead’s words. Since none of the buildings were being monitored, they were occupied by homeless people and drug users. City maintenance stopped tending to the park, and it slowly became trashed and overgrown.
“At some point I noticed the grass was up to my shin,” said Umstead, “It was almost like the city didn't know that they had stopped caring for it.”
Consequently, the baseball program also experienced a downswing. Registration declined and the park went from having five teams, to two, to none by 2019. This was the first time in 60 years the park had gone a season without baseball.
“It’s really sad to go there and see trash on the floor, spray paint on the buildings, people breaking into the buildings… growing up, it wasn’t like that at all,” said Umstead.
“The park used to be packed. There were five or six teams, at least 100 kids playing baseball at a time,” he said. “We all kind of grew up and new powers-that-be took over and ran it to the ground.”
Jose Lazcano is an at-large member of the Murray Hill Preservation Association and a dedicated advocate for the community. When he noticed the state of the park back in 2015, he organized clean-ups to bring attention to its condition and get it back up to par.
Umstead approached Lazcano about the deteriorating state of the park and the baseball program at a school event last year. He had been taking care of the park as much as he could, but needed the connections and resources to make a significant change.
At that point, though, Lazcano was disillusioned and had just about given up on the park.
“When he came up to me, I was over it. I was like, ‘I don't wanna deal with this park anymore,’” said Lazcano. “I’d been trying and the city was kind of ignoring me, and I couldn't get a hold of the athletic association people. They were totally squandering the athletic association.”
Lazcano brushed him off before realizing how earnest Umstead was in trying to bring back the park he remembered.
Soon after that, Lazcano, Umstead, and what was to become the new board of the Murray Hill Athletic Association (MHAA) met to create a plan to get the athletic association back in good hands.
From that point forward, any maintenance on the fields was done by the hands of Umstead and his friends, who were at work every weekend cutting the grass, raking the fields, and fixing lights and sprinklers.
After months of corresponding with the city, park managers, and the former athletic association, they were finally able to secure the MHAA. They had it reinstated and sanctioned by the state as a 501c3 nonprofit, with Umstead as the president and Lazcano as the vice president.
The MHAA is starting anew with a young, energized Board of Directors, most of whom played baseball at the park themselves and wish to cultivate the space for the next generation to do the same.
“It's been a long time coming. Baseball is an integral part of the community here,” said Umstead, “I talk to people that played baseball, and they have their own families now and they're asking me what's going on with the park. They want their kids to play baseball like they did.”
With the help of community donations to pay insurance fees and stock concession stands, MHAA hopes to bring the baseball program back in the spring.
City council allocated $225,000 to the park by the end of next year to fund building renovations and a new playground, ensuring that the park will be clean and comfortable by the time baseball is back in full swing.
In the meantime, Umstead and friends continue to prepare the park for the season ahead and look forward to coming full circle and coaching together on the fields that made them.
Donate to the MHAA here.