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Could Unity Softball Games Strike Out? : Diversity: Fourth annual contest between Simi Valley and South-Central teams, born of ’92 riots, draws few fans from suburb. Organizers say format may be altered.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For the fourth time since a jury verdict in Simi Valley sparked riots in South-Central Los Angeles, softball teams from both communities met on a ball field over the weekend.

But this year’s Unity Games could be the last matchup that features teams from just the two communities, Los Angeles organizers say, because the Ventura County suburb no longer shows much interest in establishing ties with the inner-city neighborhood.

“We have built the bridge and crossed over the bridge hand-in-hand,” said Jan Hardy, a South-Central woman who is co-founder and executive director of L.A. Unity Games. “But the people in Simi Valley have yet to wake up, get out of bed and walk over that bridge.”

Keith Jajko, a Simi Valley native active in the games, acknowledged that the community has been slow to embrace the games. “The people in South-Central have really grasped it,” he said. “The people in Simi have been a hard-sell.”

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The Unity Games started in 1992 after a Ventura County jury in Simi Valley failed to convict four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King, a decision that ignited protests and violence in South-Central and other Los Angeles communities.

Last year, six busloads of South-Central fans drove to Simi Valley, but only about 30 local residents turned out.

This year, Simi Valley players and spectators numbered about 40, while 100 or more South-Central residents showed up for the game, played at Jesse Owens Park in South-Central Los Angeles, Jajko said. Simi Valley’s adult team won 10-7, while the South-Central youth won 13-10.

Jajko said many Simi Valley residents may not want to make the trip to Los Angeles.

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“I know a lot of these people here commute five days a week on freeways, and they just don’t want to do it on the weekend,” he said.

But Hardy isn’t giving up. She vows that the Unity Games will not stop and will expand. The organization was recognized in April as a nonprofit agency by state and federal officials.

“We have done this for four years, and yes, we have made friends, and we’ve given them enough time to turn over a leaf, but I think it’s just apathy and racism combined,” Hardy said. “We’ll branch off and open it up to other communities in Los Angeles County and Ventura County. I have no hard feelings. This has touched some Simi Valley residents.”

Dan Davenport, an 11-year Simi Valley resident, said the Unity Games have helped foster friendships among the players from both areas.

“There are a lot of things that the participants may not understand--people of other areas and other races--but this allows people to see how much alike we really are,” Davenport said. His wife, Sue Davenport, worked with Hardy in Los Angeles when the rioting and social unrest erupted in 1992. With Hardy, she helped create the Unity Games as an attempt to erase the tension between their hometowns.

Jajko said they have tried to boost participation and attendance by speaking at Moorpark College and before community groups. Next year, he hopes to invite other teams from across Ventura County, turning the Unity Games into a tournament.

“We’re also trying to serve by example that people should get off their duffs, basically, and see other communities,” he said. “I don’t know how much we’re getting accomplished. I don’t know why.”


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