Sports

‘You gotta believe’: RJ Krause cast a lasting legacy in East St. Louis

Richard “RJ" Krause speaks during dedication of the Catch 22 “Miracle Field” in April 2014.
Richard “RJ" Krause speaks during dedication of the Catch 22 “Miracle Field” in April 2014. znizami@bnd.com

Whatever record there is of this particular softball game likely died with RJ Krause, so I'll have to relay it to you from my own sketchy memory.

It was 1989 (or there about) and the barn-storming Men of Steele's slow-pitch softball team arrived at the former St. Clair Park on Old Collinsville Road for a demonstration of tape-measure home runs and an exhibition game against whatever team would offer itself up for sacrificial slaughter.

The buffed-up gorillas of Steele's spent about a half hour in batting practice, entertaining the assembled crowd by denting up the aluminum siding on the bowling ally 400-or-so feet away from home plate.

Then RJ Krause and a team of his "Young Stars" stepped forward with a challenge, but nobody told RJ it was just an exhibition.

When the seventh inning rolled around it was still a game and RJ, known for his booming voice and ceaseless cheerleading, was in rare form.

STORY: RJ Krause, long-time coach and mentor, dies in his home

"E-e-e-everybody hits!" he shouted from a stool on the first base side, with whistle and stop watch on a chain around his neck. "You gotta belie-e-e-e-ve!"

You gotta believe.

How many times must RJ have said this to himself?

He grew up in the Harding School neighborhood of East St. Louis during the 1960s and stayed there nearly his entire life, even as his hometown crumbled into economic despair.

He also spent the better part of a 38-year teaching career in East St. Louis, where the kids became increasingly tough, the streets became increasingly violent, and sometimes the only hope a teacher could have was to save the ones who still believed they could have a future.

What was left of his hometown for RJ to believe in?

But he stayed. More than that, he gave.

And he believed.

RJ was like a lot of us who believe athletics serve as a powerful training grounds for life itself and that the lessons it teaches — teamwork, discipline, toughness and resilience — can be plied toward more important pursuits in adulthood.

At the very least, he believed sports provided an alternative to the allure of gangs and drugs.

So in 1979, RJ organized his All-Stars Sports Club. He sponsored and coached teams of at-risk youth in basketball, softball, football, track and field, and even cheerleading. He also took them on field trips to Cardinals games, Missouri Tigers football games, Six Flags, and the circus.

By his own estimation, he connected with some 5,000 East St. Louis kids, coaching them in more than 6,200 games.

He even entered teams of older teens into local men's slow-pitch softball leagues throughout the area, which is how I came to meet RJ. His Young Stars were the chief rivals of my Miller Lite Sox — they beat us in league championship games two years in a row.

Which takes us back to that Friday (or Saturday) night at St. Clair Softball Park, where RJ Kraus matched the sharply-uniformed muscle men of Steele's with a rag-tag group of East St. Louis kids who without RJ would have been lost.

"You gotta believe!" he told them time and again.

I wish I could tell you RJ believed his team to victory that night. He did not.

I don't remember the circumstances or even the score, but more than 25 years later I do remember that booming and exciting voice urging those kids on through the final out and how the Young Stars made believers of the mighty Men of Steele's.

"You gotta believe!"

Over 49 years, can you imagine the impression those words left on the ones he said them to? The ones who believed only because RJ convinced them they could?

How many young men and women in East St. Louis have been sharpened because RJ Krause believed? And how many friends have they, in turn, sharpened by his example?

East St. Louis lost a powerful and persistent ray of hope when word spread of RJ's death Tuesday.

But his ceaseless support of his hometown and dedication to its youth created a legacy that will live on a whole lot longer.

You better believe it.

Sports Editor Todd Eschman can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or 239-2540. Follow him on Twitter: @tceschman.

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