Saturday, August 23, 2014

Baseball. Boys. Sunflower seeds. A field. And dreams.

The Sweet Season
Part II
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team recently captured the national Little League World Series title, each year boys—and girls—play the game on local diamonds in seasons filled with life's lessons, with hopes and dreams.

The only thing stolen: bases
This is the second in a series
By John W. Fountain
No fatalism. No pathology. Simply a slice of life in middle America. Of little boys and men with Little League hopes and dreams. No gang. Team. No guns. Bats. The only hitters are base hitters. The only thing stolen: bases.
No OGs. Just older men, graying, or balding or simply seasoned by life and eager to share their wisdom. To see black boys thrive. No courthouse holding pen. Just a dugout.
No sagging. No prison orange. Uniforms—blue shirts tucked neatly into gray pants. Shoes laced and tied, caps not cocked to the side.
No bullets flying. Fly balls. No murder tally. Only runs. No running for cover. No guns. No fighting, except the fight to win.

Tears. Over a missed ball. Over a big victory. Losses, but no loss of life. And here, on this field of dreams, the possibility of tomorrow is itself season enough to keep trying, to do it all again and again, believing that sooner or later, if you just keep at it, just maybe, you might win.
The sweet season: Baseball. Boys. Sunflower seeds. A field. And dreams. Little League Baseball teams.
This is the story of a team of boys called the Cubs, most of them from Ford Heights—a forlorn hamlet of 2,787, about 30 miles south of Chicago. A story about boys, who, this summer, would discover baseball. It is the story of a season filled with challenges. A season beyond their wildest dreams.
Miles from Williamsport, Pa., where Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West baseball team competed in this year’s Little League World Series, each year boys—and girls—play the game on local diamonds in seasons filled with life's lessons, with hopes and dreams.
Jaheim is a lanky quiet kid, a natural athlete, even if his propensity for baseball wasn’t yet clear when the season began. There is Tony—Coach Kirby’s grandson—a coffee-brown boy with big eyes. There’s Isaiah, a sure catcher, who at 8, already has years of baseball experience. He happens to be one of two boys who live in Olympia Fields. His dad Leland White III is a college grad and has coached his eldest son and namesake who blazed the trail for younger brother Isaiah. He’s one of two boys from Olympia Fields. Mostly, the boys, like Jaheim, are from Ford Heights: Sharod, Caleb, Brandon, Teron… 
From the beginning, the task of Kelvin Oliver aka “Coach K” and Coach George “Kirby” Green was comprehensive.
‘Throw a ball with two fingers, not your whole hand.’
‘Don’t hold a bat like you’re sweeping with a broom.’
‘Put the glove on your hand, no, the other one.’
“Run…” a coach yelled at a practice.
Other coaches chimed in with one tip or another: “You can’t be afraid of the ball.”
“Don’t sling the bat.”
 “Don’t slide into first!”
“Hey, come over here, hurry up, run. ‘I said run’.”
In the beginning, some of the boys duck and dodge. Or the ball rolls through their legs. Or they run away from it—too fast, too hot. They learn that getting hit by a baseball can hurt. The boys fumble and stumble about, look lost. It’s soon clear that this is going to be a learning season rather a winning season. The coaches figure they had better focus on the fundamentals first, worry about winning later. Much later. Like maybe next season.

Walk this Way
 On 12th Street, not far from where he lives, Coach Kirby, 52, stood on a field of overgrown wild grass and weeds, green and straw brown. Kirby knelt down and pulled back some of the growth in search of evidence that this was once a potential field of dreams. “See, here’s some gravel.” There are also still the remnants of the fence that hugged home plate. Partially rusted and with its top missing, it marks the place where home plate once shone but now sprouts grass.
Providing a guided tour to a reporter on this day, Kirby pointed out old haunts while recounting the history of his hometown as he rolled past blight, past the area where the drug boys hang out, past abandoned buildings. There is the barren plot of land where a housing development—so troubled and violent that everyone around here called it Vietnam—once stood. And nearby are the boarded and decaying low-rise buildings called “the Bronx.” The story goes: the boys in the Bronx and the boys in Vietnam didn’t get along—were always fighting and shooting at one another. It didn’t matter that there was no real line of demarcation other than a single street. Nor did it matter that they mostly grew up together. Bulldozed or vacated now, there is no sign of animosity and the violence that Kirby says once marred this section of town. Nor any more inhabitants—only poverty, decay and the sun shining down on potential-rich fields of green that now lay barren.
Around the corner from the former baseball field stands a site that Green blames for helping to put the death nail in baseball. It used to be a tennis court. But on this day a group of girls sat on metal stands overlooking a basketball court where young men played a pick-up game. Other boys dribbled on the sidelines, or else watched the older boys shooting jump shots, driving to the basket, stutter stepping and crossing over. Basketball and football are the sports of choice for young black men, both Kirby and Oliver say.
And in their eyes, the elevation and transcendence of basketball and football in the eyes of many a young black boy—aided by the likes of Dr. J and Walter Payton, Michael Jordan and others whose star power and success over time—left baseball in the dust. Ultimately, this has meant fewer and fewer black boys playing baseball—creating a well-documented dwindling of African Americans from the game integrated by Jackie Robinson 67 years ago (1947). It is a baseball legacy that includes the Negro Leagues and names like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Gone is the golden era of baseball for African Americans when names like Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams were on the tips of the tongues of black boys as their favorite sports heroes. Today they have long since been replaced by names like D Rose, Durant, Briggs, Vick, “Bones” Jones…
Oliver and Green know that’s what they’re up against. And yet, both coaches are not willing to concede that baseball is out for the count.

“Green Machine”
  Green grew up playing baseball in Ford Heights, back when the town was East Chicago Heights, before the town’s name was changed in 1987 in an effort to give it a makeover, even if it didn’t work. Even if poverty and some systemic issues that can ail a town are more stubborn. Back in the early 1970’s, when Green was a kid, most boys played baseball.
From nearly sunup until sundown, everybody played hardball on the baseball field next to Cottage Grove Elementary School. Or sometimes Green and the boys played “strike ‘em out” at the fence in his yard, or else on the home-made baseball diamond on a lot adjacent to his home, where he lived with his parents and seven siblings—a brother and six sisters. He was a Cubs fan back then and can still recite the lineup—Hundley, Beckert, Santo, Kessinger...
Back then, Green lived and slept baseball—his father’s first love. A Ford Heights policeman who later drove a truck for a living, his father George W. Green, drilled into his sons the game of baseball. In those days, all of their fathers were around. The boys in the town used to go out to the baseball field every Saturday and play against their dads. Green recalls the devotion of a man named “Excel Walker,” who coached Little League baseball and also youth football. How the man didn’t have a car. But he would walk up to the community center and beg up on uniforms. How the uniform tops and bottoms would be two different shades of green. But it didn’t matter to the boys. They always had uniforms. The “Green Machine,” they used to call them. There was a sense of community back then. Back then, it was unusual to see someone without a dad around. Times have changed.
Green and his wife are high school sweethearts. Born a day apart, they have been together since they were 17 and have four grown children. He moved away from Ford Heights for years, farther southwest to University Park, where they raised their children. He moved, in part, because he could see the handwriting on the wall for Ford Heights, which had long been marred by corruption and poverty. Then, in 2007, 19 years after he moved away, he and his family moved back to the family’s house where he had grown up, a brick ranch on a sprawling emerald plot of land.
Green still sees baseball as blue collar, a skilled game, a team sport, a teacher of lessons for life. As an opportunity to instill discipline in young men and to mentor boys whose fathers are MIA, imprisoned, inebriated or simply not around. In his estimation, most boys in his town are growing up today without the influence of a father. And he believes simply that good coaches can be good surrogates.

The way Coach K sees it, you have two options:
 You do something. Or you do nothing.

  Still, coaching comes with a price. Green admits that his wife sometimes scolds him for spending so much time coaching and says he should spend more time with his own family. Green understands, he says. But somebody has got to help these boys. At least that’s the way he and Oliver see it. Or else, they say, we’re doomed.

By Any Means Necessary
  Oliver, 58, has been married 31 years. He and his wife Pam, a television news planning producer, have raised a son and two daughters. Although Oliver lives in a comfy suburb, 30 miles south of the big city, he doesn’t feel entirely removed from the social elements that plague it. A village of Olympia Fields trustee, he is also an advocate for education and involved with a community of men working to improve the troubled Rich Township High School District 227, where discipline, poor test scores and a feuding school board have been well documented.
Oliver sees evidence of the same kinds of issues that affect poor black Chicago neighborhoods encroaching upon the south suburbs, if not already totally enveloping some of them. Issues like poverty, poor quality schools, familial breakdown, a disintegration of community and an erosion of the social and cultural fabric in a way that threatens us all.
Oliver sees these issues as symptomatic of a larger failure to simply put children first. And he sees the politics, red tape and status quo bureaucrats, including some school board members and administrators, as roadblocks to success for black boys and girls. For him, the issue of education couldn’t be more critical. Oliver, who, in April 2013, launched an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Olympia Fields, also sees mentoring as a way to point young people in the right direction and also to help shepherd them.
The way Coach K sees it, you have two options: You do something. Or you do nothing. Coaching baseball is one way for him to do something to help create community, to provide a lifeline for boys, to be “fathers” in the community. To use the lessons of baseball as lessons for life. To save black boys by any means necessary. One player, one game, one season at a time.

Batter Up!
 After a month of forfeits and rainouts, they finally played their first game in late May. The Cubs were nervous and plenty green: missed balls, fielding errors, swinging at bad pitches… The mercy rule is invoked in the 4th inning. Cubs lose: 18-6.
 The next game isn’t much better. Cubs lose 23-3. Soon five players would drop off. Then more losses: 5-3, 7-6… But there are signs of progress, including, finally, a win. It was enough for coaches to point to for the sometimes bewildered, sometimes frustrated, sometimes embarrassed boys as evidence of their growth. And yet, proof that there were lessons still to learn.
Work hard—nothing good comes easy. Be a team player. Don’t slack or sulk. Keep your head up. Never give up. And never underestimate the power of hard work and having a dream.
Win or lose, the team forms a circle on the field after each game. All hands in. “On three…”
“Cubs!” they all yelled in unison, ever hopeful.
 With losses mounting as the season winded down, the good news was: the Cubs were getting better. Also clear—by their effort and by the passion shining in their eyes—was that these boys no longer simply wanted to just play the game. They wanted to win.

Next: The Impossible Dream