by Grant Moser
Chestnut Hill resident Steve Parks, 48, had wanted to do a book about the Philadelphia sports community for years, but could never figure out what to focus on. It was his son, Eliot Shorr-Parks, 24, who suggested looking at the relationships and community that are built out of sports. The result is their new book, “More Than a Game: Life Lessons from Philadelphia’s Sports Communities.”
Written over two and a half years, the book collects 30 stories from former professional athletes, community league coaches and participants, and even politicians, about the impact and meaning of sports on their lives.
“At first we looked at how sports generate relationships between parents and kids. That moved into looking at coaches, and that led us to looking at community leagues like the Mt. Airy Baseball League and the Sonny Hill League. We looked at a league out in Kensington started by Danny Diaz, built specifically to combat the drug culture. The book looks at relationships between individuals, parents, and communities,” Parks said.
Stories about sports have a way of bringing people together, and that’s what the two authors were aiming at with the book. “People tell stories about when they went to their first game with their dad. Sports becomes a way to build relationships.
“Sheil Kapidia [sports journalist] said that no matter what was going on in his life with his dad, he could always watch the game. That can’t be discounted. As the economy has declined and the city has suffered, sports have become a way to keep community. There are hundreds of sports leagues and thousands of coaches, putting in hundreds of thousands of hours, and I think it’s because they see what it can do for their community.”
While many fans’ first thoughts of sports turn to the professional leagues, researching the book uncovered the importance of community leagues in the city’s life. “In Chestnut Hill you have a relatively economically stable situation. Sports are this nice addition to the community. I think if you look at Danny Diaz, who is looking at kids under much different stresses and issues to face, for him sports becomes the way of reclaiming childhood, community, a sense of possibility that the kids may not witness on a daily basis.
“So when Danny drives around and pulls kids off the drug corners to come play football, he’s really saying here’s an alternative. Here is what community and support and friendship could look like,” Parks said.
“When I interviewed Sonny Hill, it struck me that he’s spent 40 years sitting in a gym essentially just giving little bits of advice all the time to kids. I think what you see in community leagues is this deep, sustained commitment to youth and the neighborhood. And it’s quiet. Sonny Hill’s on the radio, but most of his time is spent in a gym, talking to kids. A lot of these fathers work full-time, yet they put an equal amount into coaching and being there on Saturday.”
Stories about community is how Parks, a writing professor at Syracuse University, founded New City Community Press, which published “More Than a Game.” “When I was at Temple University, I started to work with public schools who were being ripped at that time for low performance, but if you went to the schools you saw that kids could actually write quite well. But there wasn’t a venue to show the writing.
“So I started New City Community Press as a way to showcase student writing. That led to community groups wanting us to publish their stories, so we did a book on Chinatown, on Mexican immigrants in Kennett Square. For years I wanted to do a book on the sports community in Philadelphia because it has such character but also has this ‘reputation.’ The classic example used to be throwing snowballs at Santa, although recently the young guy throwing up on that girl at Citizens Bank Park has overtaken it. So there’s this horrible image, but if you go to the community leagues, you see this great family community generated …
“You can go to any league and find that coaches use sports as a way to encourage school participation. But also, you develop real strong character traits. You know what hard works looks like. You know what excellence looks like.”
It’s not just the kids who get something out of sports; it’s everyone in the city. “When I interviewed Leonard Weaver [former Eagle], he had just signed a deal and was a real fan favorite,” said Shorr-Parks. “I asked him what the relationship was like with the fans. He said, ‘I think the reason people relate to us is because everyone in their life has a 4th and 1. They know that struggle. My struggle is to get that first down. They want to see that effort. In their life it’s paying that bill. They want to see me make that same effort.’
“That analogy really summed it up for me. They want to see results, but if you’re giving that effort, they’ll respect that. After I interviewed him, he carried the ball one time and tore his knee up; and he’s still a fan favorite.”
Working on this book also helped the father and son recall some of their sports-related memories, and make some new ones as well. “We went to a lot of games together, but the memories I have are of him as my coach in intramural sports,” said Shorr-Parks. “The book is about learning things from sports, and our relationship is the same; he coached me in soccer, and now doing this with him I learned a lot.”
“I wanted a book that showed the value and importance of sports beyond the media stereotypes. I hope people come away realizing what a great thing Philadelphia has in its sports,” added Parks.
The book is available now. You can get it at stores, online and for your iPad. To learn about the other books the press has published, visit http://www.newcitypress.org.