Joe Carabello pulled up to the stoplight in his 1995 Jetta, stared for a while at the old, hardscrabble bit of a ballfield, and saw something that wasn’t there.
Decades of neglect had all but ruined Sonny Lawson Park. His father grew up in the neighborhood, played there as a kid, and now it was all weeds, empty cans, broken glass, and fading memories. Hardest of all on the eyes, there were broken lives standing there, upward of 100 homeless people milling about those worn-out basepaths in downtown Denver.
“The irony of the idle homeless,’’ mused Carabello, “standing there in a field of disrepair . . . there was just something about it that hit me.’’
Rather than look away, as most of us have learned to do, Carabello stared for a while, then chose to envision the hope rather than dwell on the hopelessness.
“Honestly, when I hatched the idea, I didn’t tell anyone for a few months, not even my wife,’’ recalled Carabello, a 66-year-old commercial real estate broker. “I guess you’d say I didn’t want to make the [potential] failure public.
“Hey, my wife questions my use of time, anyway. So what was I going to tell her: ‘Uh, look, I’m going to pedal my bike around town and take these softballs to the homeless?’ ’’
But that’s what Carabello did in the winter of 2010-11, thus bringing to life his Homeless Diamond outreach program, which on Tuesday morning will wrap up its third season with an end-of-year finale at that same park. Every Tuesday morning each of the last three summers, Carabello and a growing band of volunteers have hosted a weekly softball game for Denver’s homeless, a game that now routinely brings some three dozen players off the streets and out of shelters.
Initially, Carabello biked to many of the homeless missions in the area, carrying with him softballs listing the date, time, and place of the upcoming game, scribbled between the stitches with felt-tip marker.
“Show up,’’ he also wrote on each ball, a terse invitation to get in the game. And they did. Only 11 came for the first game in May 2011. Then a few more for the next one. Then more. Plenty more.
Carabello figures there will be at least 36 players for this season’s finale. Any more than 36 and Carabello may be placed in the regrettable position of telling someone that, sorry, the game is closed. The sort of thing most of them have heard all too often in their lives.
“That happened just recently for the first time,’’ he said. “That’s a really tough call. But with 30-something players, we have to go to three teams, and every team bats around. It’s about all we can handle.’’
For obvious reasons, Carabello isn’t comfortable providing even first names of the players, if he knows them, if they’ve shared them. They are not in these games to be recognized in the media, to steer their athletic gifts to the next level.
Most of us play games to escape. That’s not any different for the Homeless Diamond players, but the reality they escape for a couple of hours on a Tuesday morning is a life most of us would be afraid to know.
“What they tell me most,’’ said Carabello, “is that they are happy to have a couple of hours in their lives when they virtually go to a different place — a different world. They walk through the gates of that ballfield to forget their issues. And they’re really into it. It’s two hours of intense fun.’’
The field at the corner of 23d and Welton Streets is about six blocks from Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. The tall buildings of downtown, said Carabello, seem almost within reach from the park’s Five Points neighborhood. Tuesday’s game will be the 14th this season, the 40th overall, and an added pleasure is that a local Subway sandwich shop now provides postgame eats for the players, a good number of whom wake up each day praying that there is at least one meal out there somewhere. In their lives, hunger is no game.
Ned (not his real name) is about 30 years old, Carabello estimates, and he is an Iraq war veteran who struggles with alcohol abuse. He lives at a shelter run by Catholic Charities, not far from the stoplight where Carabello pulled up three years ago. Ned came to the first game and hasn’t missed one since, often bringing along a pal, an ex-Marine, who is also homeless. They call their team “The Corps.’’
“ ‘Joe,’ he tells me,’’ said Carabello, relating one of his early conversations with Ned, “ ‘Joe, I’m an addict . . . but coming here to play softball is a habit that’s OK to have . . . I’m absolutely addicted to this game.’
“And you know, he is. He hasn’t missed once.’’
Along the way, Carabello has received ample help, other volunteers who aid in organizing the games, handing out the ‘’Show Up’’ softballs, prepping the field, calling in the sandwich order to Subway. One of his sons, Zeb, is there regularly. Sharon Carabello, Joe’s wife of 43 years, helps out, too. Their other son, Joel, plans to pitch in soon. Tim Carabello, Joe’s brother, has been aboard from the program’s inception, along with family friend Frank Messenger.
“We also have this other core of four to five women volunteers who bring their families along,’’ said Carabello. “They’re there each week with fresh fruit and vegetables, water and ice, home-baked goods. They also give out clothes and blankets and toiletries. Really, it just blows me away to see it all.’’
And it all began at a stoplight, on a summer’s day at the corner of Sonny Lawson Park, where Carabello took in all that wasn’t, and began to dream of what could be.
“What have I gotten from it?’’ said Carabello, pondering a reporter’s question late last week. “Uh, well . . . I think sometimes if you can do something . . . well, it’s most about balancing my life. Yeah, balance. I have room in my life for it, and it feels good, it feels right.’’