George Kleidon was born and raised in the old Northside. His father, Bill Kleidon, was born and raised in the same San Jose neighborhood. They love it deeply, but there was something about the place that changed for the worse over the decades since they were kids.

"The sports disappeared," Bill Kleidon said one day recently. "Baseball, basketball, football -- the games we played back then, the sports that brought us together as kids and built community -- they were gone."

He recently stood on a baseball diamond at Olinder Elementary School on a bright, warm afternoon, a perfect day for the mighty Owls players to field grounders, throw to the cut-off man and take batting practice. This wasn't opening day. It was better.

"I never played baseball before," 10-year-old Jose Iboa said in the dugout, eager for his at-bat. "This is my first time, my first practice."

Until last year, the sweet, squealing sounds of children learning to play four major sports -- baseball, football, basketball and soccer -- just wasn't heard much on the Northside, one of the city's oldest and poorest neighborhoods. Kids in financially-strapped public schools don't get to play organized sports until eighth grade. The city, youth leagues and clubs don't organize sports teams as they once did, and the price would be too high if they did.

"The nearest and cheapest Little League still costs $150," Bill Kleidon said. "Pee Wee football costs $250. Our families can't afford that."


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No one knows that harsh reality better than the young members of the Olinder Owls, who wear donated Giants T-shirts and play with donated gloves, bats and safety helmets.

"It's kind of hard for my parents to afford," 10-year-old Kaitlyn Wright said in the dugout. The vast majority of students, 95 percent, qualify for free breakfast and lunch at Olinder. "I don't think we would be playing anything if it wasn't for Mr. Kleidon."

Sports start-up

George Kleidon had moved his young family from San Jose a few years ago into a nice, affordable, five-bedroom house in the Central Valley. A physical education teacher, he could have stayed and retired in suburban comfort.

"But I didn't know anybody there," he said after the Owls practiced. He's a stout young man with his father's dark skin, brown eyes and the same, calm and measured voice. "I wanted to come back here, to my community, where I know a lot of the families of the kids I teach now."

He got a job teaching P.E. at Olinder, which mostly amounts to following strict state requirements for youth fitness and reducing childhood obesity, diabetes and other maladies alarmingly rampant among poor American children of color. But still, it wasn't baseball.

Meanwhile, his father came up with a nifty, big idea: Let's introduce competitive sports among 10 local grade schools. A graduate of San Jose High School, he recruited some alumni buddies to chip in a few hundred dollars and launched the Northside Youth Sports League in fall 2012.

George Kleidon visited every principal in the Northside to pitch the idea. "I think what they're doing is absolutely amazing," said Olinder Principal Carla Chavez Torres. "I call George my athletic director."

As they say in high-tech, the league went viral. Some 150 boys and girls from all the schools signed up for flag football. Dozens more joined for basketball and yet more for the current baseball season. Bill Kleidon counts up to 500 kids in the league.

Lots of stuff

A new league of your own requires a lot of people and stuff, preferably free of cost.

George Kleidon recruited volunteer coaches from among the faculty at each school, parents and from After School All Stars, a nonprofit sports program for youth of all ages. He taught them how to teach the fundamentals of each sport to kids, many of whom had no actual playing experience.

During the practice, he demonstrated a baseball throw in front of the Olinder Owls: "Step toward your target. Turn your shoulder, and throw over your ear."

From San Jose High, the Kleidons got playing fields and gym time. They got outdoor court time from the city, orange T-shirts from the San Francisco Junior Giants, donated gloves and bats and $100 here and there from individual donors.

When basketball season started, the San Jose State men's team showed up to teach. When girls at three Northside league schools asked to be cheerleaders for their teams, the university's cheer squad showed up to show them how.

The Northside League is still more idea than institution. It doesn't have a website, office or paid staff to write grant proposals

"This is really not about sports," Bill Kleidon said. "It's about mentoring. This is how you build community."

But you don't have to take his word for it. Take it from Kaitlyn Wright, the girl in the Olinder Owls dugout.

"What I like is that I get to meet new kids from other schools," she said.

But on that day, the talk was more about baseball than sociology. George Kleidon praised the practice but ended by telling the kids that homework was more important. Then the boys and girls circled around him, touched hands and cheered, "Owls!"

Do you have a story for Eastside/Westside? Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or jrodriguez@mercurynews.com.

northside youth league
To donate or play in the league's fundraising golf tournament on May 11, contact George Kleidon at nsyouthleague@yahoo.com.