After his 2014 death, New York Police Officer Michael C. Williams’ name was inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in the nation’s capital to honor his service.
But it’s seeing Williams’ name on the back of kids’ baseball jerseys that makes his dad, the elder Michael Williams, most proud.
“This was probably more of an honor than having his name on a wall down in Washington — and that’s an honor,” he said.
Michael and Joann Williams drive several hours from their home in upstate New York to watch the Little League Dodgers play, with each player’s shirt bearing the name of their son.
The Dodgers are part of a unique baseball league in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights that honors all of the NYPD officers killed in the line of duty.
The league began in 1989 after NYPD Officer Michael Buczek was gunned down by drug dealers while on patrol in Washington Heights during the height of the crack cocaine drug epidemic.
To keep his memory alive, Buczek’s family wanted to do something to give back to the community he loved to patrol. Since Buczek loved baseball, which is popular in the predominantly Dominican neighborhood, they started a local Little League in his name.
Buczek’s friend NYPD Sgt. Johnny Moynihan quickly took leadership of the kids baseball league. Now a 33-year veteran of the department, Moynihan was also a friend of Williams.
“He was 24 (when he was killed), I was 23. It just really hit me hard,” Moynihan said. “I really felt like I needed to step up and get involved with the Little League. It was really one of the best decisions I made in my life.”
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Moynihan added the names of fallen police officers to the back of each team’s shirts. Each team’s number one jersey hangs in the dugout during the game, along with a picture of the fallen officer the kids are playing for.
It’s clear the players don’t need the visual reminder. Moynihan, along with the volunteer coaches — all NYPD officers — instill in the kids the sacrifices made by those killed.
“He’s a hero, I’m playing for a hero,” smiles 12-year-old Michael Pena, who wears a jersey bearing Buczek’s name.
A lot has changed since the league started more than three decades ago. Moynihan says he used to spot crack vials on the field. Now the Michael Buczek ballfield has playing turf, lights and an electronic scoreboard.
The league is funded primarily by donations; Moynihan handles the fundraising in his spare time.
Moynihan estimates 10,000 kids have come through the league, and nearly 40 have grown up and become police officers themselves.
Officer Frankie Diaz is one of them. He’s also a volunteer coach.
Diaz recalls Moynihan recruiting him to the league when he was just seven years old. He says Moynihan was on patrol in his neighborhood and Diaz was playing catch with his dad. Soon, he was playing Little League baseball.
“In these streets you could get easily distracted by anything,” said Diaz. “This was a good distraction.”
Diaz played in the league until he was 12. He went on to play baseball in high school, college and abroad, before returning to New York City to join the police academy.
He now works in a midtown Manhattan precinct and talks to kids, just like Moynihan did.
“I always go to the field and look at the kids. I stop by and say ‘hello’ just so the kids can see someone else aside from the uniform, not an authoritative figure. They see Coach Frankie.”
Diaz says he is certain that playing in the league helped guide him toward years of service for the NYPD.
It’s too soon to tell if Pena will feel the same way. When asked if he thinks he’ll become an officer, the 12-year-old player quickly replied, “Yup — if I don’t become a baseball player.”