The thud of a baseball against a glove and the ping of a ball striking a bat are more than the sounds of summer at the Kerrie Orozco Memorial Ballfield.
Those are the sounds of hope growing out of tragedy.
On Wednesday, the first youth baseball game played on Orozco Field — built and named in honor of slain Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco — got underway with much celebration. A Kerrie Orozco flag was hung at the field, and there were speeches, the national anthem, free hot dogs and a ceremonial first pitch. But not just any first pitch.
Orozco’s husband, Hector, stood with their 4-year-old daughter, Olivia, as she threw out the first pitch at the field near the corner of 24th Street and Kansas Avenue in Miller Park.
Officer Kerrie Orozco's husband Hector and her daughter Olivia throw the first pitch at the field dedicated to Kerrie. Thank you for being such an important part of our #OPD family. The field is officially open! via @OPDKelsey pic.twitter.com/KWli1Ldp90— Omaha Police Dept (@OmahaPolice) June 26, 2019
Orozco, 29, was shot on May 20, 2015, while she and other Omaha police officers were trying to apprehend a fugitive gang member. The man fired multiple times at police, and one of the bullets hit Orozco just above her protective vest. The day she was killed was her last scheduled day of work before she was to start maternity leave to care for Olivia, who had been hospitalized after being born prematurely. Orozco had been with the department seven years.
A member of the gang unit, Orozco devoted much of her energy and time to getting kids away from gang life. Youth baseball — such as Wednesday’s game between the Miller Park Grays and the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club Jaguars — was an important way of doing so.
Her passion for kids, volunteering and police work inspired the mantra “Kerrie On” after her death, a reminder to live as she did. Orozco had served as a Spanish interpreter for other officers, volunteered with the Special Olympics and coached baseball for the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club.
Orozco Field was born out of tragedy, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer noted at the dedication. But the caliber of the field that has sprung up is an extension of who she was.
“There is a little bit of Kerrie in all of us to continue the legacy,” Schmaderer said.
Orozco coached in the Police Athletics for Community Engagement program, which uses sports to reach at-risk kids. The program seeks out kids who wouldn’t normally join a team because of cost, family problems or lack of access. Officers and others volunteer as coaches. The program fields teams at the neighborhood level. PACE was started in 2005 in South Omaha by members of the Latino Peace Officers Association and has spread to other parts of the city.
“This was a way to honor her memory,” said Ken Fox of the Black Police Officers Association. Orozco was a founding member of the group, whose membership reflects the diversity of the department.
“She loved baseball, she loved coaching it, but really it could have been anything,” Fox said. “She loved the kids. If she had coached them in swimming she would have been just as passionate.”
In 2014, when the BPOA formed the first youth baseball teams in north Omaha, the field at Miller Park was little more than weeds and an old backstop, Fox said Wednesday. Before her death, Orozco, Fox and other officers had talked about the need for a ballfield for kids in north Omaha, so teams wouldn’t have to drive to South Omaha to compete.
“There was no running water, no restrooms, but the kids kept coming back,” he said.
Orozco’s team beat Fox’s team in their first face-off, he recalled with humor. And he learned a lesson from her in the way she coached her team to victory, he said.
“It’s not about wins and losses, it’s about building love and trust and building relationships,” he said. “There’s something powerful when you impact a young person.”
After Orozco died, Fox said he approached the Omaha Parks Department and Sherwood Foundation with the hope of getting as much as $75,000 to improve a then-deteriorated ballfield at Miller Park. “That ($75,000) was my high point. It would have gotten me a couple of bleachers, maybe clean out some dugouts, things of that nature.”
But the response from the community was immediate and generous. About $1.7 million in donations later, kids in north Omaha have a Little League-size field with batting cages, a scoreboard, a concession building and lights. And, yes, those bleachers and cleaned out dugouts.
“It was a pretty cool thing to watch it unfold,” Fox said.
At Wednesday’s inaugural game, one of the players on the Jaguars hit the field’s first home run — smacking the top of the scoreboard on its way out of the fenced park. The Jaguars were the team that Orozco coached.
The news was quickly tweeted out by PACE coaches. “1st Homerun, a bomb. ... Great way to honor Kerrie, homerun from her former team!”
PACE Executive Director Rich Gonzalez, a retired Omaha police captain, said the program has succeeded in keeping kids off the streets and has forged a connection between police and the community.
From its beginnings with soccer teams in South Omaha, it has grown to include baseball, flag football and CrossFit. This year, more than 5,000 kids ages 7 to 14 are expected to participate, Gonzalez said. The baseball program is part of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
“You don’t see this in many other communities ... and everybody is playing a huge part in making this successful,” Gonzalez said. “Kerrie was always so excited about everything, she would be thrilled to see the kind of field these kids are going to be able to play on.”