Diamonds in the rough

Detroiter Greg Johnson is something of an anomaly — an African-American kid from Detroit who’s going to play college baseball.

Johnson caught the baseball bug when he first stepped up to the T-ball plate at age 4. Baseball became a part of his life. The fruits of 13 years of practice on damp spring afternoons and sweaty summer evenings have paid off: This fall, he’s off to Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., the recipient of a full-ride baseball scholarship. It’s a grant he got by hustling. He contacted the university, not the other way around.

Excitement wells up in his voice as he discusses his sport.

“I fell in love with baseball as soon as I started playing it, and I don’t want to stop,” says Johnson, a senior at Detroit Renaissance High, which won last year’s City League Public School Championship. He is focused on his next goal: To someday play shortstop for his dream team, the Atlanta Braves.

Johnson is a solid 3.0 student whose slight build (5-foot-8 and a mere 150 pounds) might not look like that of a slugger’s. But his powerful, smooth swing has made him one of the top players in Detroit’s public schools, proving that baseball prowess doesn’t require a big and brawny build.

“Being a little guy, I love proving them wrong when they move in when I come to the plate and I hit the ball over their heads,” he says.

Johnson is one Detroit baseballer who was lucky enough to have found his passion. He has been exposed to the best caliber of baseball Detroit has to offer. He represented Detroit in a nationwide Major League Baseball program — Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) — during the league’s playoffs last year in Houston. He’s on the roster of the highly competitive Detroit Eagles 18-and-under travel team, which plays upward of 62 games all around the country during the spring and summer season.

Even so, Johnson says he’s frustrated that, game after game, as inner-city teams toil away, only a few fans, mostly parents, are there to support. And he sees no sign of scouts from Michigan universities turning up to watch him and his teammates. To land his scholarship, he contacted scouts from Shaw, a historically African-American college.

“It’s hard playing in the inner city,” he says. “I love going to play in the suburbs, where they have grass and nice dugouts. I really dislike that people think there’s no talent in the inner city. We don’t get a lot of exposure because of the field conditions.”

At 17, Johnson is bucking a decline of inner-city baseball that’s older than he is. Observers cite a number of causes — from the ascent of basketball to the inability of cash-strapped cities to keep fields in decent shape. From pessimists, there are dire predictions that baseball could disappear from African-American communities in the near future. Optimists say a revival has already begun, though its success is hardly assured. Clearly there are groups and individuals, from the national to local levels, mobilizing to keep baseball in play.

Sticky situations

Johnson’s passion for baseball is no coincidence — he comes from a baseball family. He has been encouraged and guided by his stepfather, Norman Taylor, who coaches baseball at Martin Luther King High School as well as for the Think Detroit league, for traveling baseball squad Team Detroit and for the Orchards Children’s Services league.

“Overcoming adversity and learning how to persevere are things we have to deal with in the inner city,” says Taylor, who adds that he faces such obstacles as getting parents and kids to pull weeds off the fields, driving kids across town to a playable field, and doing his best to deal with divots.

“A real baseball field has a grass infield,” he says. “We play mostly on dirt that is rock-infested with glass. A lot of times adults will play and leave beer or liquor bottles.”

It also means dealing with sticky situations. Taylor says that during a recent game at a suburban school, in a dispute over a call, an umpire told him, “That’s why you should stay in the city!”

Taylor has been involved in Detroit baseball for 32 years. He remembers its heyday, when he played for legendary coaches Charlie Moore and Ron Thompson at fields where legendary Detroit Tiger Willie Horton played ball. He recalls northwest Detroit’s Bishop and Jayne fields back when the smell of freshly cut grass wafted through the summer air, and the clean, white lines edged fields. Old-timers turned up at games to see quality players whose skills were honed by attentive coaching and a strong grasp of fundamentals — waiting for the right pitch, hitting the cutoff man, stealing a base.

These days, Greg Johnson’s coach at Renaissance, Philip Vaden, fears the sport’s future in Detroit is in jeopardy.

“If we don’t do something right now to change it, I think in the next five years, it’s going to disappear from the community altogether,” Vaden says.

There is no citywide umbrella organization that addresses obstacles to a thriving youth baseball program in Detroit. What does exist is a hodgepodge of leagues, programs and high school teams that vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. They survive because of the sheer determination and dedication of baseball enthusiasts who’ve often taken matters into their own hands — getting teams organized, finding volunteer coaches, hitting up sympathetic businesses for sponsorship money, fighting for nonprofit status and getting fields in good enough shape to play.

In Detroit, decent fields are scarce and often poorly maintained. Youth leagues struggle to meet costs. Coaches themselves often lack the training to teach the rules and the fundamentals of the game. Public school programs operate on budgets that barely cover equipment costs. And as kids get older, they are losing interest in a sport that is underfunded and unnoticed.

When their suburban counterparts clobber inner-city teams, the disparity between city and suburban youth programs is painfully obvious. Looking at the makeup of college teams, it’s clear that Detroit youngsters are missing out.

Major problem

The decline of baseball in inner cities, home to large populations of African-Americans, is reflected in the major league. In 2003, African-American players accounted for only about 10 percent of major league rosters, a decline of nearly half from 1995, according to statistics from the Racial and Gender Report Card authored by Richard E. Lapchick of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The institute reported that African-Americans made up only 6.7 percent of Division I college ballplayers in 2000. These numbers do not show signs of improving in the near future.

Pro scouts flock to Latin America, where baseball is played year-round and enjoys a stronger cultural identity.

Unlike football and basketball, baseball seems less contemporary for city kids. It’s rooted in venerated tradition and lacks the flashy hip-hop appeal that piques kids’ interest. It’s a slow game that requires patience, teamwork and skill.

The New York Times’ Murray Chass, writing about the issue last month, called it a crisis and quoted former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent saying that it will take 20 years to turn the situation around.

Diehard baseball proponents in Detroit are working toward that turnaround today. They are a diverse group of adults who won’t forget the joy of competing and the life lessons instilled on the diamond as they grew up in Detroit.

In some cases, they’re expanding on the baseball traditions of the past.

Renaissance High School, in addition to its success with boys, has become fertile ground for girl’s softball. Though it lacks a home field, the team ranks seventh in Michigan, and all of its players are maintaining good grades.

“The biggest thing is communicating with them, having discipline and understanding the game,” says coach Garrard Taylor (no relation to Norman Taylor). “If you go to the suburbs, they have three teams, freshman, junior varsity and varsity. We only have a varsity team.”

Taylor says it’s rewarding to see girls develop into well-rounded student athletes, despite struggles with resources.

Ashleigh Smith, a Renaissance senior and all-state shortstop, is off to Georgia Tech to study engineering in the fall. She played softball in the Rosedale Park league before enrolling at Renaissance. “It’s more so like a team sport, not one person who can shine. Everybody has an important position,” Smith says, extolling the lessons of the game. “ I think I’m a better person because I do play softball.”

Southwest revival

One place where baseball thrives is in southwest Detroit. On any given summer Sunday, this area is bustling with adult baseball, as the Detroit Mexican Baseball League attracts throngs of spectators. It’s one of the few spots where kids might toss a baseball in a pick-up game. Baseball and soccer are the hottest sports in this community, with its dominant Latino population — but even where there’s a demand for baseball, resources are scarce.

League President Orlando Medina, who coaches at Holy Redeemer High School and holds a master’s degree in sports management, started the nonprofit Detroit Sports Health Academy last year as an umbrella organization for the Detroit Mexican League. He works with high school coaches, supportive businesses like the Honeybee Market, and community volunteers to spiff up fields and raise money for baseball and other sports.

And the efforts by Medina and others in southwest Detroit are apparently paying off. Both Western International High School and Southwestern High School are undefeated in the city league, with several players in the running for college scholarships. Tom Markowksi of The Detroit News named Southwestern High’s Leonard Ford as one the state’s top players in his April 18 high school prep preview.

“Kids are starting to get back into really having a passion for the game,” says Mike Vazquez, one of four coaches at Western and a former player at Nazareth College in Kalamazoo.

He cites Clark Park’s informal summer baseball program (run in conjunction with the city Parks and Recreation Department) as another impetus for interest in southwest Detroit.

“I’m Mr. Blackwell during the school year and I’m Morris in the summer,” says Morris Blackwell. He coaches in Dearborn during the school year, but he has run the baseball component of the Clark Park summer program since 1974. About 120 kids each year attend the free program that stresses skills and knowledge (like running through first base), but with a laid-back approach. Some of Blackwell’s former charges are making an impact far and wide, including Vazquez, Medina and rock music icon Jack White.

However, even on the southwest side, opportunities are dwindling, with longtime leagues like the one at St. Hedwig Catholic Church shutting down due to lack of funding. “There’s a lot of talent, but the kids don’t have anywhere they can go to use their tools,” Medina says.

Gilbert Munoz, who coached for St. Hedwig, says, “It’s sad because there’s a lot of kids who want to play. The problem is we lack the funds, someone organized running the program, getting enough coaches. Money is a big problem. A lot of parents can’t afford it. We have so many kids. Usually on a baseball team you have 13 [players]. I had a baseball team with 25 kids because there are not enough coaches.”

It costs several thousand dollars to fund a baseball team and much more to cover league costs for umpires, field maintenance, equipment and insurance — upward of $80,000 for larger leagues. With organizations unable to keep up, the development of young players is in jeopardy.

Saray Medina (no relation to Orlando) lives in southwest Detroit, and hasn’t had any luck finding a league for her 9-year-old son, Julian.

“It was his idea, and now he’s concerned because he’s getting older and doesn’t know how to play,” Medina says. And although she has thought about trying to put him in a suburban league, she “would rather have him play in southwest Detroit, more in the community.”

Myth busters

One group attempting to dispel the myth that inner-city kids don’t want to play baseball is Think Detroit, a nonprofit organization that boasts 1,300 baseball and softball players citywide – roughly 800 boys and 400 girls from ages 4 to 19. The league is part of the American Amateur Baseball Congress that bills itself as the largest youth baseball organization in the country.

Think Detroit was founded in 1997 and has made considerable strides in drumming up interest in youth baseball. It received more than $100,000 in grants from the Baseball Tomorrow program, funded through Major League Baseball, which added to the $1.2 million cost of renovating Maheras-Gentry Field, now one of the most sought-after fields in Detroit.

“There were a lot of people who stood up on soapbox in the mid-’90s who said baseball was dead and it wasn’t coming back, with no fields and no coaches,” says Dan Varner, who co-founded Think Detroit. “From where I sit, it’s not only back, it’s close to booming. We’re the largest baseball and softball league in the city.”

Even with the renovation of one field, conditions and upkeep remain a constant issue at Maheras-Gentry and other city fields the league uses.

“It’s hard to learn the game well when you don’t have good fields to play on. It’s been deflating,” Varner says. “In the last 20 years, softball and baseball diamonds in the city have been atrocious. In all fairness to [the city], they don’t have the staff and, even if they did, they don’t have the expertise. We need an agency that handles facilities and provides clean, acceptable, safe places. … I’m a big fan of centralization. There is money for capital projects but not a whole lot of money for maintenance. It has undoubtedly resulted in worse baseball.”

Think Detroit offers a range of sports, but pours more than $100,000 annually into operating its baseball program, says league commissioner Richard Reznik. The money is generated mostly from sponsorships, with about $20,000 coming from player registration fees.

A world series

Think Detroit will host this year’s RBI World Series, which will pit top inner-city squads in five age divisions from around the country. They’ll be vying for the championship of the $15 million program in August, a precursor to next year’s Major League All Star Game at Comerica Park. The citywide Hometown World Series, with 38 teams from Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck, is slated for July, sponsored by the Detroit Sports and Recreation Commission, with support from the Detroit Tigers, indicating the power organizations have when they join resources.

Think Detroit is also looking to improve the quality of its teams, arranging coaching clinics for volunteers. “A lot of these guys are parents who are volunteering, stepping up to the plate, so we feel it’s necessary to provide training,” Reznik says.

Think Detroit is unique, pushing both competitive and recreational opportunities for kids. Kids whose families can’t pay the $40 registration fee are not turned away.

“What I like about them is they said everybody plays,” says William Weir, a parent who coaches a Think Detroit team. “I want to coach to get kids exposed to the game. All of our kids are not basketball and football players.”

With two sons playing ball, he’s currently in the midst of securing a permit to open batting cages in downtown Detroit.

“I just went around and saw there weren’t any in the inner city,” he says.

Meanwhile, Orchards’ Youth Inner City Baseball League hosts most of its teams in northwest Detroit, operating on an $85,000 budget generated mostly from corporate sponsorship and $50 registration fees. Baseball commissioner Denny Borse fields 25 teams for ages 4 to 16, with T-ball drawing the most participants.

“The city is responsible for cutting the grass,” Borse says. “Teams, coaches and our organization try to take care of as much as possible, picking weeds and raking.”

Keeping their interest

Organizations like Northwest Detroit Little League, the Renaissance League, the Rocky Organization and PAL are some of the other organizations that promote baseball in the inner city, but most face the same obstacles.

T-ball garners the most participation citywide, for instance, with leagues like Rosedale-Grandmont Little League, which expects to have 500 T-ballers swinging this summer. But as the kids get older, interest wanes and kids give up baseball for more popular sports or otherwise stop playing.

Some baseball boosters are trying to promote the game by bringing the advantages of suburban support inside the city limits.

Tom Wakefield coaches Wayne Memorial High School’s varsity baseball squad. His players and their parents are actively involved in maintaining a pristine new field that was built after a successful bond issue by Wayne Westland Community Schools.

“It’s icing on the cake when you’ve got a good field and a good team,” Wakefield says. “It makes you feel good about yourself.”

At his school, baseball has breadth — the junior varsity team has 26 players, and 16 students play on the varsity team. Parents chip in to run the concession stand and work at fund-raisers that help maintain the quality of the program and pay for indoor batting cages. His players help with minor upkeep on a field that is exemplary in contrast to those in Detroit. Wakefield, who plays in the Mexican League, has invited the Western High team to practice with his own, on that stellar new diamond.

“It gave my kids respect for inner city baseball,” Wakefield says. “They see how hard kids had to work and they saw some of the kids are legit players.”

Kevin Saunderson is best known as a pioneer of Detroit techno music, but he’s also a baseball devotee. He will bring his Metro Detroit Dodgers, a mostly suburban traveling team of several age divisions, to play games at Maheras-Gentry Park, thus bringing suburban and inner-city kids together. He sees a marked difference in the quality of baseball played by kids who’ve grown up in the inner city.

“It’s not because of talent, it’s because kids don’t start as young. These kids in the suburbs, they play 65 games a summer going to different cities. When you get that kind of experience, you’re already being developed a certain way. Baseball’s not one of the sports you can pick up. You need fundamentals. You need to start at an early age,” says Saunderson, whose team uses indoor practice facilities in the wintertime.

Detroit also shares a tradition of travel team baseball — the kind of organizations that hone players with high aspirations. The Detroit Eagles and the Yankees represent Detroit in tournaments around the nation in six age divisions. These groups have survived because of diligent coaching and parental support. Angelo Jones, coach of the Eagles’ 10-and-under division, gets choked up when he talks about the state of Detroit baseball.

“My biggest goal is to help bring competitive baseball back to the city of Detroit,” Jones says.

But travel teams like the Eagles and the Detroit Yankees field a very small percentage of Detroit’s estimated 240,000 youths. And, for parents who are unable to afford these teams or devote time to transportation, these dream teams are simply not an option.

Where Horton played

Despite pressure from baseball advocates, the city of Detroit is notorious for making promises it hasn’t been able to keep due to budget constraints. But there are signs of hope.

Near the corner of Connor and Mack on the East Side is Manz Field. The field where Willie Horton once played ball is part of a citywide initiative to repair parks. After a year of hold-ups, the field is scheduled to open in early May, says Lee Stephenson, deputy director of Parks and Recreation for the city.

“There are 200 ball fields throughout the recreation department and they have not been maintained up to any standard,” Stephenson says. “One of the reasons it hasn’t been maintained is we don’t have qualified or trained staff to do it.”

The recreation department plans to renovate 15 diamonds this summer, a costly undertaking. Stephenson joined the Recreation Department last year, coming from Chicago, where lakefront diamonds have won awards.

Historic Jayne and Bishop fields are on the list for renovation as candidates for the RBI tournament. Stephenson says that the city is working with the Board of Education and the Detroit Tigers to refurbish fields and eventually build new diamonds. But after years of promises, players and coaches are skeptical.

The Detroit Tigers still carry weight with area youth, and the team is attempting to improve efforts to reach inner-city kids, with players visiting Northwestern and Western High School. The Tigers were instrumental in refurbishing Maheras-Gentry Field. They’ve formed a group called T-ball for Tigers of about 20 adults who are active in Detroit baseball, including representatives from the city and Detroit Public Schools who try to address the obstacles facing inner city baseball.

“We listened to this core group,” says Elaine Lewis, vice president of public affairs for the Tigers. “We don’t have enough fields for our kids to play baseball that are safe. Our kids are missing basic fundamentals of baseball.”

The Tigers arranged for their groundskeeper to train a group of Recreation Department employees earlier this year. “The only way this is going to work if we’re coming together committed to making a difference and improving the fields.”

The Tigers have also hired an urban scout to home in on inner city youth, but have yet to draft a kid from Detroit.

Jay Alexander serves on the T-ball for Tigers committee and coaches for Saunderson’s Dodgers in the off-season. He has a keen understanding of the issues in Detroit, having grown up in the city and assumed the job as head baseball coach at his alma mater, Wayne State University. Alexander is the only African-American head baseball coach at a Michigan university. As it stands, none of his players come from Detroit.

“The inner city is competing with Nintendo, soccer, basketball and football,” Alexander says. “It takes specialized skills. The most difficult thing in athletics is to hit the baseball. Baseball is a thinking man’s game. It’s such a tedious sport. It’s about overcoming obstacles, having a challenge, enduring challenge. Baseball is just like life. Players have always failed and gotten back up.”

Lewis Colson, assistant coach at Northern High School, is another Detroiter seeking creative solutions to the problem. He works with the Detroit Amateur Baseball Association, a group of about 20 adults who are developing plans get high school players involved with middle school players. He is developing a program — Project 58 — to give middle school kids the baseball fundamentals necessary to be competitive in high school. He emphasizes that without sufficient organizational support, baseball’s future in Detroit remains shaky.

“We’ve been on a steady decline since the ’70s. We want to start 58 teams in 58 middle schools. If you learned the fundamentals as a Little Leaguer, that carries you through life,” he says.

He echoes the hopes and fears of many in the city, that baseball is a game of the future in the inner-city and not only of the past.


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Tamara Warren is a Detroit freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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