In youth baseball, after winning a championship, kids charge onto the field tossing gloves into the air and diving onto each other to make a mountain of bliss on the pitcher’s mound.
But when Wilson routed McKinley Tech to win the D.C. public high school title last year, nobody seemed thrilled. Few even smiled.
McKinley had scored its only run in the top of the first, then gave up 16 runs over the next four innings. The league rule book says umpires should halt any game in which a team is ahead by 10 or more runs after the fourth inning, but the mercy rule had been waived for this title game, played on a gray June afternoon at Nationals Park as part of the all-day D.C. Baseball Classic.
So for the fifth and sixth innings, Wilson head coach Jimmy Silk ordered his batters to either strike out or bunt and not run.
The spate of feeble swings made a hideous contest even more hideous.
Silk met with umpires and league officials after the sixth inning and appeared to beg them to end the game. Finally, Wilson was declared the winner.
While the Wilson players solemnly filed out of the dugout to shake hands with the McKinley nine, the few spectators wearing Wilson colors in the grandstands were mostly quiet.
“They knew Wilson would win this one,” said Janis Guerney, mother of Wilson third baseman Aaron King. Another city title meant little to them, she explained with some embarrassment.
“That’s their 21st consecutive league championship!” the public address announcer yelled.
The Wilson baseball program is the greatest scholastic sports dynasty this city has ever seen. Players graduate, and coaches and athletic administrators are hired and fired, but Wilson keeps beating the heck out of every other public school in the city.
In the past 21 seasons, the Tigers have lost just one game to a league opponent, none in the last 141 / 2 years. The win over McKinley was the Tigers’ 167th consecutive league victory.
But that streak is not the source of pride you might imagine. Even Wilson’s supporters acknowledge that it says less about Wilson baseball than it does about the abysmal state of the rest of the league, a league that has been dysfunctional for years and is only slowly starting to right itself.
Athletic Director Mitch Gore has run Wilson’s sports programs since 2010. He’s thankful for the work put in by his coaches and players, but by now watching Wilson compete against a league foe bores even him.
“Most of our games are called after three to five innings because of the score,” Gore says. “We’ll be up 20 runs, and we’re bunting to get the outs just to finish the game. That’s not fun.”
The day before last year’s championship, Mayor Vincent Gray discussed scholastic baseball in Washington. It’s a subject he cares about. He was a baseball star at Dunbar High in the 1950s, and in the last decade as a member of the City Council, he pushed for what is now the D.C. High School Baseball Classic. When asked how the public league could be so lopsided, Gray shook his head.
“There’s only one team in the city, really,” he said. “But that’s not Wilson’s fault. Don’t blame Wilson.”
As dedicated to winning as Wilson obviously is, the rest of the city’s public schools are just as resigned to failure. It takes a village to kill off baseball as surely as it has been killed off in every D.C. public school except one.
As a new season begins, it’s important to note that the lousy state of the District’s public high school baseball wasn’t formed in a vacuum. All scholastic sports in the city’s public league, the DCIAA, have been a mess for some time.
A 2001 report titled “Unlevel Playing Fields,” prepared by the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, blasted D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) for the quality and quantity of the sports opportunities offered city students, compared with those available to their suburban counterparts. The report detailed the shabby treatment of coaches and kids here dating to the 1980s. The same group a year later concluded that “interscholastic athletics programs for DC students fail the most basic standards of adequacy.” The study pointed to “woefully deficient” athletic facilities and a District athletics budget that shrank from $3 million in 1992-1993 to less than $2 million a decade later.
Stephanie Evans was taking a hot potato of a job when she was named DCPS athletic director in November 2011. Evans was the fifth AD in four years, and the district’s sports were in horrible shape as she came in. In 2009, there were 558 athletes named to The Washington Post All-Met teams, in all sports, male or female; only five, or less than 1 percent, were from DCIAA schools.
Even high-profile sports such as football and basketball were plagued by problems. Every football season was a circus of forfeits, ineligible players and mismatches. In one weekend just before Evans took over, four DCIAA football teams forfeited their games.
Coolidge High administrators called off a matchup with McNamara saying they couldn’t round up enough security guards. The previous week, the same Coolidge officials infuriated counterparts at Archbishop Carroll by claiming they couldn’t show up for a game because of a minor earthquake that had hit the region three days earlier. And Coolidge is considered to have one of the league’s more stable athletic programs.
Eastern Senior High forfeited its whole 2008 football season for lack of eligible players, and its 2010 squad was outscored 293-0 over a forfeit-shortened, seven-game schedule.
There were additional problems as the school district’s rules allowed athletes to transfer from school to school year after year, and schools were regularly caught allowing students to participate in sports despite not living in Washington or meeting academic requirements. Coaches and referees went months without being paid. At the DCIAA track meets at the D.C. Armory, coaches poured Coke on the track to make it sticky because it was so worn out and slippery. In basketball, the competitive balance that once existed between public and private schools is long gone, as the city’s best players now avoid DCIAA schools.
This is how bad it was when Evans arrived: In 2010, the National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights accusing a dozen major school districts across the country of ignoring female athletes in violation of Title IX. Washington was left off the list — not because it complied with Title IX but because the city’s athletics were such a mess systemwide that DCPS wasn’t worth suing, according to Janice Johnson, founder of an educational watchdog group called the Sankofa Project and a consultant to the law center.
Athletic extracurriculars that are commonplace in school districts outside the city aren’t available to D.C. girls. In the city’s fall sports season, less than half of DCIAA schools fielded girls’ soccer teams; Wilson was the only traditional high school in the city to play field hockey. Westfield High in Chantilly had 10 girls’ sports teams; girls at Coolidge could play varsity volleyball — and nothing else.
Evans is trying to address this by introducing two all-girls sports: flag football and bowling. But Johnson points out that there are no scholarships available in flag football and D.C. has no bowling alley fit to host a youth league.
“We’ve got two rivers,” she says, naming the Potomac and Anacostia. “I have been trying to get D.C. to focus on adding crew and rowing instead of bowling.”
Evans says the sports choices were made based on the results of “surveys conducted in high schools, prior to my arrival.” Bowling finished with the most votes, she says, followed by flag football and swimming.
While forfeits, gender inequity and eligibility problems still reign, Evans has tackled the problem of intra-league football mismatches with a realignment that places schools with better teams in one division (Stars) and struggling teams in another (Stripes). Also under Evans, DCIAA finally got a Web site, providing parents and athletes easy access to game schedules, scores and the league rule book. And that book will include a restrictive new transfer rule that puts the city in line with other school districts.
As of this school year, athletes can move from one D.C. high school to another without penalty only until the end of their freshman year. After that, transfers will be ineligible to participate in interscholastic athletics for one calendar year. Thus ends the era where a kid can switch schools just to, say, join a dynastic sports program.
The league’s advances under Evans have not gone unnoticed: In June, three years after deciding DCIAA was too broken to sue, the National Women’s Law Center went ahead and filed a complaint alleging chronic Title IX violations.
Wilson’s last league loss came in April 1999 in a regular-season matchup with Dunbar. The Tigers hadn’t lost a DCIAA game in more than seven seasons going into the game.
“I’m stunned right now,” Eddie Saah, then the team’s head coach, told The Washington Post after the 5-4 defeat.
Ballou, the defending DCIAA baseball champion, repeated as titlist in 1992, Saah’s first season heading up the Wilson program. But Wilson won the league crown in his second year, and has stayed atop the conference since. Some years were better than others: In 1997, Wilson won every DCIAA game by the mercy rule. In 2008, Saah’s squad outscored league opponents 146-10.
Overall, Saah’s teams won 16 DCIAA titles in his 17 years as manager. In his final 211 league games, the Tigers went 210-1.
Wilson High’s ascent on the diamond coincided with the decline of youth baseball programs in all sections of Washington except predominantly wealthy upper Northwest — or, everywhere but Wilson turf.
The two top youth baseball camps in town, HeadFirst Baseball and Home Run Baseball, were spawned in the 1990s and based near Wilson. Home Run, owned and operated by Wilson alumnus John McCarthy, even holds its clinics in the school’s gym in the winter.
Teams representing Capitol City Little League, which uses nearby Chevy Chase Field as its home diamond and draws its kids from neighborhoods adjacent to the Wilson campus, won every tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds from 1993 to 2008.
During that same time frame in the rest of the city, youth baseball was falling apart. Only recently have there been attempts to put it back together.
Evans hopes the long-awaited Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy jump-starts a broader youth baseball scene. “You want grass-roots programs, things that build the sport, and that has to start with the younger kids,” Evans says. “If we can get that with the [Academy], then our students will come into middle school and high school [ready to play] baseball.”
But, years in the planning, the Academy has yet to launch.
Announced shortly after Major League Baseball returned in 2005, the Academy was to be a multimillion-dollar cooperative effort of the National Park Service, the Washington Nationals and the D.C. government to make baseball accessible to low-income and minority kids. Several proposed opening dates for a facility, to be located at Fort Dupont in Southeast, have come and gone.
Nationals officials unveiled drawings in July 2008. Alphonso Maldon, president of the Nationals Dream Foundation, the team’s charity arm, said the academy would be “done by 2009.” Yet the Nats didn’t even hold a groundbreaking until May 2011, saying then that the academy would be “ready for play in approximately one year.”
Mayor Gray, who gets credit for conceiving the idea for the academy and pushing it forward as a council member, told me last spring that the facility should open “sometime in September.” As of last month, the Nationals Web site still said the facility “will open in the fall of 2013.” Nope.
In an interview just before press time, Tal Alter, who took over as executive director of the academy last April, insisted that the complex will be open “in March” and added that he expects DCIAA squads Woodson and Anacostia to play there this season.
Previous big-money efforts to rebuild the game in the city’s east side haven’t had any noticeable impact. Putting a major league team in a new stadium in Southeast didn’t do anything along those lines. Neither has pumping dollars into a D.C. outpost of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, an MLB project aimed at bringing young urban blacks back to the diamond.
MLB undertook these efforts in response to a dwindling number of African American players on its rosters: A 2013 survey showed that non-Hispanic black players made up 8.5 percent of teams’ opening-day rosters, down from a high of 19 percent in 1986. Of the 50 active players in last year’s Red Sox/Cardinals World Series, only one — Boston reserve Quintin Berry — was black.
These campaigns to bring youth baseball to more D.C. neighborhoods have also been hurt by the higher-ups. Harry Thomas Jr. was known as a huge supporter of youth baseball before he followed his father, Harry Sr., to the city council. He coached for the Woodridge Warriors team in Northeast Washington. But in 2012, he pleaded guilty to defrauding the city of almost $400,000, including $306,000 that prosecutors described in a sentencing statement as “earmarked by the Council for youth baseball programs in the District.” Thomas is now serving a three-year sentence in a federal prison in Alabama.
Wilson may be the best that public school baseball has to offer in Washington, but it isn’t regarded as one of the area’s top programs. In the past four seasons, Wilson has been 25-38-1 against non-league opponents, and has lost in the finals of the D.C. Baseball Classic every year to an intra-city private school. (Maret prevailed over Wilson in last season’s championship game, 10-1.)
And despite its ridiculous intra-league winning streak, Wilson has not produced lots of talent. During Wilson’s 21-year championship streak, no Wilson baseball player has made The Washington Post’s All-Met team. (St. Albans’s 2008 team alone had five future NCAA Division I pitchers on its roster, including Danny Hultzen, the 2011 No. 1 pick of the Seattle Mariners.)
Emmanuel “Manny” Burriss is Wilson’s rare exception.
Burriss is a switch-hitting infielder who later played college baseball at Kent State and was a first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants in 2006. Burriss made the big leagues in 2008, the first D.C. public school product to make the majors in 38 years. He recently signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals.
He’s now hailed as the best player to come out of D.C. schools since Los Angeles Dodger great Maury Wills.
Burriss grew up in Shaw, and his home address should have left him playing ball for Wills’s alma mater, Cardozo. “But I wanted to play for Wilson,” says Burriss, Wilson class of 2003.
Wilson was the only real destination for any city kid who wanted to play ball. And even Wilson had serious issues.
Burriss remembers how Saah got by without much in the way of facilities or support from administrators at the school or DCPS. During Burriss’s high school career, the Tigers played home games on Wilson’s football field, where there was no room for a real right field: Down the line it was just 180 feet from home plate to Nebraska Avenue NW — or about 130 feet shorter than a normal schoolboy ball yard. So any ball hit over the fence in straight right field was a ground-rule single; to right-center, a double. (Wilson began playing its home games on a new, federally owned field at Fort Reno Park in 2010.)
But Wilson’s digs, funky as they were, still shamed every other DCIAA school’s.
“There was a lack of facilities and equipment and authority figures at the other schools,” Burriss says. “I remember we had a game scheduled for Banneker. We show up, and second base was missing. Rocks and broken glass were all over the infield.”
Burriss recalls that his father and Saah hectored the umpires until that game was moved to a less glass-infested diamond.
Participating in high school athletics isn’t just an opportunity to be part of a team or to learn sportsmanship. For some, it’s also a ticket to college and a degree.
Eddie Smith knows better than most that the wholesale neglect of baseball in other public schools means any kid who doesn’t play for Wilson has no realistic chance at a baseball scholarship.
Smith was Wilson’s starting pitcher in its last DCIAA loss; he is now 32.
“I was not the pitcher of record!” Smith says, laughing, when asked what he remembers about getting beat by Dunbar. (He left the game after breaking his thumb in the fourth inning.)
Like Burriss, Smith had grown up wanting to play for the best team in town — and followed that dream by heading to Wilson.
Baseball had lost its foothold east of Rock Creek Park by the time Smith was coming of age near Union Station. Nobody in his neighborhood wanted anything to do with baseball. But as an 8-year-old, Smith went with his great-grandfather to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles play. Smith, who says he never knew his father, brought home a plastic glove in Orioles colors and a baseball as souvenirs. The glove and ball became his best buddies. Baseball became his obsession.
“I’d spend every day throwing that ball against my steps in front of my house,” he says. “I never had anybody to play catch with. I always had those steps.”
From his earliest days in Little League, Smith began hearing that Wilson was winning all the city titles, and set some goals for himself: When he got old enough, he was going to pitch the Tigers to more championships, and baseball was going to get him out of the neighborhood and into college.
Coaches and teammates didn’t endorse his plan. “They told me I’d never get to Wilson, because that was the white school, and Wilson baseball was for white kids,” says Smith, who is black.
Smith ignored his peers and ended up commuting from Capitol Hill to Wilson. By his sophomore year he was the ace of Saah’s pitching staff, and as a senior was named team captain. His final game in a Wilson uniform came less than a month after the Tigers’ streak-breaking loss, in a rematch with Dunbar with the DCIAA title at stake. Smith threw a complete game four-hitter in Wilson’s 8-0 win, and he was named MVP of the championship game.
He ended his Wilson career with a 15-0 record as a starter over three seasons, and three of the DCIAA championships he’d dreamed about while throwing the souvenir baseball against the porch steps.
Smith also realized another childhood goal: getting to college via Wilson baseball. He earned a scholarship and pitched four years for Western Maryland College in Westminster (now called McDaniel College), where he got his bachelor’s degree in 2003.
Smith returned to Wilson as an assistant under Saah, and took over as head coach when Saah left in 2008. Smith was fired in August 2011 during a phone call from Athletic Director Gore, yet says no reason was given. Gore now says simply that he wanted to take the program “in a different direction.” Smith’s record within DCIAA when he was let go was 37-0, with league titles each season. He called the firing “the worst day of my life.”
As it had after Saah left, Wilson’s train kept a-rollin’ after Smith departed: Jimmy Silk, who was Wilson’s junior varsity coach under Smith, now has a 24-0 record against DCIAA opponents.
Will Wilson lose to another DCIAA school anytime soon?
“I don’t see it on the horizon,” Gore says. “That’s not being arrogant. It’s the way it is.”
In the short term, the competitive imbalance between Wilson and its DCIAA rivals will only get worse. Gore says Wilson will “have 70 kids go out for baseball” this season, or at least twice as many as any other DCIAA school. And while no DCPS school even has a junior varsity baseball squad, Wilson just inaugurated the city’s only freshmen-only team. To give his kids competitive games, Gore has advised Coach Silk to schedule as many teams from D.C. private and suburban public schools as possible.
Smith, however, isn’t so sure Wilson can’t be beat. He volunteered as an assistant at Cardozo for the 2013 season, and came away both enlightened and depressed. The athletes are out there. The baseball players aren’t.
“I saw the other side from what I had at Wilson. And it was bad,” he says. “I could tell from the first day that these guys got no shot, no shot whatsoever, to be good. They showed no motivation to be good at baseball.
“Some guys would show up; some days they wouldn’t. You had six guys or five guys at practice. Guys would wait until their senior year to come out to play baseball. I couldn’t believe it.”
Smith says that in his season on “the other side,” he came up with another baseball goal: He wants a job as head coach of another DCIAA school and, using what he learned playing for Saah and running the Wilson program, a chance to create the David that slays the Goliath of D.C. schoolboy baseball.
He has no delusions about building a dynasty. He dreams of winning just one game, actually.
“I want to be the guy that beats Wilson,” he says. “This streak started when I was on the team. You could say I was the one who started it. Let me be the one to finish it.”
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington.
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