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An exchange program brings a Puerto Rican Little League team to Milwaukee.

A crowd of onlookers gathers along a pathway at Mitchell Park. Their cell phones go up, pointed at a large bus where 14 children from Isabela, Puerto Rico, disembark, in red polo shirts.

“One team,” they chant. “One dream.”

They’re here to meet the local Felix Mantilla Little League team at the center of the crowd, and the throng cheers. These young American and Puerto Rican baseball players walk onto the Journey House baseball field to the sounds of live music and cheering, while volunteers grill burgers and brats for them. This opening ceremony, held on Thursday, August 10, was only the beginning of a whirlwind five-day tour of Milwaukee, with more cultural exchange programming to follow.

Felix Mantilla, right, with 1957 teammates Hank Aaron, left, and Wes Covington. Photo courtesy of Felix A. Mantilla.

Last year, the Milwaukee team travelled to Puerto Rico to visit their counterparts there. Also on the trip was Felix Mantilla, second baseman on the World Series-winning 1957 Milwaukee Braves, who visited his hometown, Isabela, and saw many people for the first time in years.

Now, the roles are reversed. While in Wisconsin, the Puerto Rican scholar-athletes will get the full Milwaukee treatment – a boat ride around Lake Michigan, a visit to the Harley Davidson Museum, a Brewers game and more. At the Mitchell Park opening ceremony, the kids from Isabela presented Mantilla with a framed photo.

His son, José, says the program started as a way to “share cultures and share vision.”

Because, as Reginald Harris, one of the main organizers behind the exchange, said in his opening remarks, “If you want to swing the bats outside, you have to hit the books inside.”

The program was funded by a number of local sponsors, including Karen Ellenbecker of Ellenbecker Investment Group, who points to baseball as a unique way to teach kids crucial life skills like cooperation. “Every kid should have that experience,” she says.

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