Richard Buckner carries himself like a professional baseball player. The resemblance is more than coincidental. After finishing high school in Decatur, he attended Bradley University on a baseball scholarship and graduated with dual master's degrees. In the early '80s he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, but never played in a Major League game.
"I wasn't really big enough to be a third baseman, so they put me in the outfield. Second base really should have been my place, but there was so much talent ahead of me, there was no way I was going to move up," he says.
Buckner went on to play independent baseball in Texas and on minor league teams in Mexico. "Timing and karma have a lot to do with your arrival at a certain place and time," he says.
About five years ago, Buckner came to Springfield and began umpiring at local West Side baseball games. Recently, he launched Play Like a Pro, a baseball player development program for young people from the age of 10 to 15. The goal is to form teams of players on Springfield's East Side. Buckner says the program is modeled after the Breaking Barriers program launched many years ago by baseball great Jackie Robinson.
Behind his recent focus is special motivation.
"Years ago, I always found a way to come home for Thanksgiving to be with my mom, who was my biggest supporter," he recalls. "In 1989, we talked on the phone and I told her I'd be with her the next day. But before I left the next day, a friend came by with the news that she had died that night.
"One of my motivations behind this project is that if I do good work, I'll get to see her again. It's by the grace of God that I know what's in front of me regarding making it back."
The 52-year-old coach and educator stresses: "This is not just a baseball program, this is an empowerment program. We're going to empower not only individuals, but the community as well. I want to get the kids onto the field, but I want to get the parents involved, especially black men, as mentors."
Buckner hopes to bring organization representatives out to share information about their programs. "I envision tents being put up and information being shared. When you come to the ballpark, there will be games, of course, but there will also be information centers. I hope to put on a college fair." Buckner adds, "A big part of the program will be community service. Kids will be asked to give back to the community, picking up litter in neighborhoods, painting houses, that kind of thing."
The Play Like a Pro program is not limited to young people of color. "We're not turning down any kid who wants to play ball," he says.
Buckner is working with Springfield Park District and has arranged for Jaycee Park to host the first games. "Manny Velasco from the Washington Park Tennis Association gave me a bunch of tennis balls for indoor practice," he says. "Dan O'Connell, with the West Side Baseball Association and Tony Kulavich are donating equipment. Lou Myers and Mike Pittman have been very encouraging."
In March, Play Like a Pro will begin meetings at church-based gyms on the East Side to start working out. "We'll talk with kids and parents about motivation and commitment, talking about breaking barriers," he says. "Then we'll start working out the details." The goal is to establish an East Side league.
"Baseball has been turned over to the associations. The park district is doing very little because of reduced budgets. So that's why I'm working on [Play Like a Pro]. If there's a good enough turnout to establish a league, that's fine. I want to establish what's best for these kids first. Once that's done, then we'll be ready to go out and play teams elsewhere. And I'll want other teams to come to this part of town, knowing they are safe, and that here is a program that is being run right."
For more information, call Buckner at 691-2827.