Cultivating a Field of Dreams in the Inner City
It's two weeks until opening day, and the Garrison Wildcats are working on their eye contact.
They kneel in a semicircle near the pitcher's mound while Coach John McCarthy drives home the point.
"Eye contact, Anthony. Make eye contact," the coach tells his 10-year-old first baseman, whose attention has wandered during the pre-practice talk.
The team is also working on hitting the cutoff man, catching the ball with two hands, and other fundamentals of the game. But the youngsters from an elementary school in the troubled heart of the nation's capital are here to learn more than just baseball.
They're learning structure. They're learning about what Coach McCarthy refers to time and again as "hustle." And they're learning about discipline.
All in the context of a game that is disappearing from many of America's urban playgrounds.
"Out of 25 kids, we probably have five who could walk onto your average suburban little-league team," says McCarthy, a 26-year-old former minor-league pitcher. "These kids never play catch with their brothers, or fathers, or sisters."
Most have never been involved in organized sports at all. "We have some very basic things we have to work with them on," says McCarthy. And that, he says, is the key to Elementary Baseball, the nonprofit organization he has built around the Garrison Elementary team.
He wants to extend the teamwork and discipline the children learn on the ball field into the rest of their school day. "Baseball gets them out here, then we try to work on other things."
Things like self-control and demeanor. "One of the problems with some of our guys is discipline," he says. "We try to stress eye contact, body language, decorum--the way you carry yourself."
The program stresses academic achievement, too. Once a week, a platoon of high school students from across the Washington area meets with the team members for one-on-one tutoring. A group of employees from the city's court system also works with the children, whose ages range from 7 to 11.
Work Pays Off
McCarthy came up with the idea for the program after visiting Garrison Elementary, located in northwest Washington's beleaguered Shaw-Cardozo neighborhood, a couple of years ago as a guest speaker. "One 3rd-grade class really responded, and I said, 'Hey, let's get a team together.'"
With advice from teachers, he recruited a few children, got help from parents, and persuaded city officials to let him fix up the diamond at the nearby recreation center.
The team helped out with that, too. "We try to teach them field care," McCarthy says. "The more they work on the field, the more they appreciate it."
Their work has paid off. The manicured base paths and smooth green outfield brighten a neighborhood marred by boarded-up or burned-out buildings and gang graffiti.
A few feet from sidewalks strewn with shattered liquor bottles and discarded motor-oil containers, the students carefully remove pebbles, bottle caps, and debris from their field.
Before each practice, the coach assigns them to specific chores: raking the infield, hanging the bats on the fence near the bench, and arranging the batting helmets in a tidy row.
McCarthy considers his emphasis on responsibility and structure to be as important as the actual playing time.
Though he is happy to be teaching the youngsters his own boyhood sport, McCarthy believes he could instill the same lessons with just about any organized activity.
"We could teach these kids swimming, a sport they've never seen before," he says. "It's my theory that all young kids like something that's organized."
After the warm-up talk on the infield, some of the Wildcats take the field while the rest head to the bench to await their turns at the plate.
As the first batter steps up, 9-year-old Jeremy Drummond is on deck, waiting anxiously for his turn.
While the slim, soft-spoken youngster waits, Coach McCarthy quizzes him on some basics. "What position is Larazza playing?" he asks, pointing to 9-year-old Larazza Miller, one of the team's two girls.
When Jeremy misses with his first couple of guesses, Anthony Taylor jumps up from the bench and puts his right arm around his teammate. Pointing through the chain-link fence with his other hand, he leads Jeremy through a listing of the various bases, helping him find the answer: "second base."
"Good job, Jeremy," the coach says. "Good teamwork, Anthony."
For McCarthy, such moments are golden. "Some of the behavior we get here, their teachers would cut off their right arms to get them to do."
Sports on a Shoestring
The team played in a fall league last year, then shifted into the literacy-tutoring sessions during the winter. Now, the players are getting ready for the spring season.
Professional baseball's American League gave McCarthy a $750 grant to support the team. "We bought some balls, gloves, bats, uniforms, and a little banner," McCarthy says. "That pretty much burned it."
A local limousine service agreed to sponsor the team, but the program still runs on a shoestring. Volunteer coaches are in short supply.
Despite the problems, McCarthy says the youngsters are slowly coming around. "They ask me a lot more questions about baseball than they did a year ago," he says. "Throwing and catching is one of our downfalls, but their hitting is better than their fielding."
Jeremy can attest to that. He returns to the bench exhilarated and short of breath after scoring from third base on a ground out. "I tried to smack a home run that way," he says, pointing to right field, "but I hit it to center field and came around to third."
Their play is improving, McCarthy says, and so are their other skills.
After practice, the team gathers again in the infield for another little ritual. "Anthony Taylor," McCarthy says in his commanding coach's voice, "pick a player you saw who did something extraordinary today."
The team's co-captain responds quickly. "Reginald, he didn't get mad. When I used to get out, I would get mad. Reginald, when he got out, he didn't get mad."
Vol. 14, Issue 33, Page 32