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Rounding Home

A baseball coach fields an unlikely team in the inner city.

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The boys in gray-and-yellow uniforms are chanting, soaking up the mayhem on a sticky sweet summer night at Hotchkiss Field on Brookland Park Boulevard, in the city's North Side. The hanging faces and tears have evaporated, the cruel justice of the men in blue a distant memory. The weight of the night, the pressure of a championship game, the screaming and fussing from parents and grandparents, has lifted. Dozens of people line the fence and dugout, their fingers curling through the chain links, while the Mosby Spartans, ages 8 through 10, huddle on the edge of the outfield near third base.

Summer Little League is hardly remarkable. It's near impossible not to run into boys in polyester pants and cleats on nights like this — in the parks, at the McDonald's, at the corner gas station, the grocery store. The inner city, however, is different. Somewhere along the way baseball lost its place, gave way to basketball and football, dreams of becoming the next Kobe, the next T.O. But there's a buzz at Hotchkiss, an understanding that something bigger has taken hold on this particular June night.

For most of the Mosby players, baseball didn't exist four months ago. The game played by their fathers and grandfathers, sparking a Civil Rights movement when Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, isn't supposed to be relevant. There are few baseball gloves in the projects, where football and basketball rule the streets, and there's no good reason to explain why these boys started showing up at dusty Lucks Field after school.

“My son was at the playground playing basketball in April,” says Keyana Wright. Her oldest son, Darquante, 12, was playing basketball when the Mosby coach, Lawrence Day, asked him if he'd like to try baseball. “He said, ‘I don't think I like baseball,'” Day recalls, but he agreed to strap on a glove and take a few grounders. Coach then gave him a bat. Darquante hit just about everything tossed his way. Afterward, Day stopped by Darquante's house near Chimborazo Park. “He came by and asked if they could play baseball,” Wright says. Day got one for two: Darquante, who plays on the older team, and his 8-year-old brother, Keyante.

 

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Mosby coach Lawrence Day finds himself again in the dusty sanctuary of youth baseball. “Baseball is a passion for me,” he says. “I had to do three things growing up: go to church, go to school and play baseball.”

Day, a crisis counselor at John Marshall High School, was working in the summer parks and recreational program in his old neighborhood in Battery Park when he was reassigned to the Mosby community center last August. Initially he dreaded the move. The project kids, most from broken homes, were supposed to be tougher to handle, less disciplined, uncoachable. He also knew the area was rich in athletic talent. Day played baseball in Richmond in the 1970s for a semipro team, the Washington Park Blue Sox, and played little league ball in Battery Park. He recalled how the teams in Church Hill were always amazingly athletic, how difficult it was to play at Lucks Field.

“To get to the championship, you had to go through Lucks Field,” Day recalls. “I knew there were some athletes here.”

When he received the green light to start a baseball program in the fall, Day worked the neighborhood passing out flyers, knocking on doors. It didn't take long for Day to change his tune. He remembers telling a parent, “Other teams might have more experience than us, but we are gonna win on discipline alone.” Other coaches marveled at how his players sat quietly on the bench, awaiting coach's orders, how they showed up early for practice. When they take the field, they sprint to their positions, facing the batter, knees bent, gloves nearly touching the ground. When they started playing their first games in the spring, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters came out in droves, filling the aluminum bleachers on game nights. The owner of the market nearby sent him a double cheeseburger during a weekend game. Miss Rosa down the street brings him tea, and sometimes a slice of cake. 

 

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Mosby's catcher, Keion Ewell, anchors the defense during the team's championship game against the Hotchkiss Eagles.

“Look at how it's galvanized the community,” says Tariq Waajid, the city's recreational program manager, who stands a few feet from the packed bleachers during Mosby's championship game at Hotchkiss Field last week. Waajid played baseball in the city in the early '70s when baseball wasn't just a game, but salvation. “It parallels our rise in society. It opens doors — and we can't forget that,” he says, eyes widening at the sight of parents and grandparents screaming excitedly, berating the umpire, fussing when plays are botched, their lives put on hold for two hours while they hang on every pitch. “When someone comes along and teaches it properly,” he says, “it's hard not to love.”

Most players walk to Lucks Field where the team practices, at 20th and T streets, cutting through some of the city's toughest neighborhoods. “I have to walk around Fairfield to the gym” when it rains and practice moves indoors, says Terrell Hancock, a 10-year-old at George Mason Elementary School. “It's dangerous.” The lack of opportunity and the tempestuous lure of the streets perhaps explains why the boys are so eager to take the field, to absorb coach Day's direction, to return to baseball. All are polite and respectful, and offer on cue the message ingrained in them by their coaches.

“I'm playing baseball, staying out of the streets,” says Taejon Morris, 9. “Play baseball, do something with my life, stay out of the streets.”

 

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Intensely focused, Keyante Wright awaits his turn at the plate.

Larry Robinson, who last coached baseball at Mosby and Fairfield four years ago before being reassigned to run the baseball program in Westover Hills, says it's more difficult to convince kids today to play their father's game. “A lot of people got away from baseball. It's easier to get a basketball and play — there's a court anywhere,” he says. “A lot of people say because kids come from the projects, they won't do anything.”

Coach Day has showed everyone differently. He says the kids are easier to coach, and the parents are more responsive to his disciplined approach. He preaches the virtue of being on time, shoes tied, shirts tucked in, sitting on the bench while being quietly attentive. “A child is a child, but a man is a rarity,” Day says. Most of his players don't have male role models in their lives, and they respond to Day's paramilitary approach. On the North Side, he says, the children are spoiled; parents often get upset when the coaches offer strict dictums and admonishments for failing to listen. “Over here, you know what the parents say?” Day says, marveling. “Thank you.” 

Beating the Hotchkiss Eagles 5-3 to take the title took about two hours. Chasing down their coach and dousing him with an ice-filled water cooler took a few seconds. Bringing baseball back to two of the city's largest housing projects, Fairfield and Mosby, took four years. But its impact on the community is just beginning. On the return trip back to Lucks Field after the game last week, neighbors sitting on their porches were waiting to hear the news. “Did y'all win?”

The Mosby Spartans, exiting the bus, hoisted the trophy. The boys' faces gleamed, Day recalls, but it also did something else. After years of working at Philip Morris, and working the rough hallways of John Marshall, Day found himself again. The 52-year-old recalls winning his first Little League title at the age of 10. He's found a purpose, a calling. “Baseball saves me again,” he says.

 

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Antoine Bruce, Mosby's star pitcher, received the MVP trophy but was the victim of a force-out at home plate (below) during the game.

 

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All the Mosby players adhere to Coach Day's mantra of discipline and toughness.

 

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Keyante Wright, Eddie Pressley, Antoine Bruce and Corey Baker wait in the dugout early in the game.

 

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Joseph Evans cheers on his nephews, Terrell “Dex” Hancock and Jerrell “Speedy” Hancock, during the championship game at Hotchkiss last week. He says baseball is in the boys' blood, whether or not they know it.

 

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Mosby's team mom, Patricia Mealey, keeps a stern watch over the team spirit, offering occasional pep talks and organizing team trips. “I go everywhere they go,” she says.

 

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The Spartans manage to take a 5-3 lead in the fifth inning and go on to beat the Hotchkiss Eagles. Afterward, the boys give Coach Day the customary Gatorade bath.


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