June 17, 2011

“He ain’t got nothing tricky, just steam,” Shelby Sr. whispers to his son, namesake and teammate. Shelby Jr., next up for the Northeast Sportsmen, is swinging three bats behind his head. “You see that ball start low, good bet it’ll rise up, right to your power source.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Just get on base, and I’ll bring you home.”

“Yes, sir.”

And with that jolt of assurance, Junior steps confidently into the batter’s box.

On a balmy Friday evening last July, at Randall Park Field in Southwest, I went to check out the Sunday Men’s Fast Pitch League, the nation’s oldest continuously running fast-pitch softball league.

Long popular among African Americans in the District, fast-pitch is played on a diamond roughly two-thirds the size of a regulation baseball field. It appeals to former college and high school players who feel a competitive void that the beer-soaked, slow-pitch leagues can’t quench.

Before Richard Postell founded the league in 1956, a team from Barry Farm would simply show up in Kenilworth, flash-mob style, looking to play the area’s best. Blade-brandishing, post-game scraps would often break out. Postell sought to harness the game’s potential by providing structure and adding a sense of citywide camaraderie to the matches.

As the league developed and expanded into an intergenerational institution, this is exactly what happened. Teams acquired identities, with police officers playing for the Trojans while Omega Psi brothers play for the Colts, the league’s reigning champions. Fast-pitch has a hall of fame, its coaches trade players in the off-season, and players closely monitor stats.

But while fast-pitch is spreading in the Midwest and Canada, the sport is struggling to survive in the District. A decade ago 16 teams participated. Last season nine teams suited up. This summer, only seven. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation has made in-kind efforts to support the league, but without a budget for amenities the players must pay for uniforms, umpires and more.

Money is just one headache. The lack of players is the real threat to the league’s future.

“There are no more pitchers,” says Bobby, the Sportsmen’s player/coach who, even north of 60, dives down in the dust and stabs after grounders. “Players have gotten older but haven’t been replaced. It takes at least two years of two to three hours of practice a day to become a great pitcher.”

Forty-three feet away stands the Colts’ pitcher, Joe, known throughout the league as White Michael Jordan. Joe starts his pitching stride by making an ever so slight wind-up with his torso. Next his right hand tucks the ball inside his left glove. Then he swings both hands together in front of his body. Finally, with a power hop toward home plate, Joe windmills his fully extended right arm backward — his shoulder acting as a fulcrum, his arm as a lever. Suddenly his wrist snaps and the softball hurtles toward home plate. To spectators, and the batter, the grapefruit-size ball is reduced to the size of a pellet.

Strike one.

“Gas him! Gas him!” a teammate yells from the outfield.

“I see you, Number Nine! Bring the heat,” a fan bellows from the gallery of fold-out chairs.

Between pitches, hoots and hollers fill the air. Players from other teams mingle with the old-timers on the sidelines, drinking pops, telling stories. Nicknames abound — Putt, Tink, Bear, Lil Man, Smoke, Skeet, Plook.

Joe’s second pitch dances like a wayward bullet. Strike two.

Joe’s father, Larry, is on the coaching staff for the Coppin State women’s softball team and has much to say about his son’s gift.

“Remember [Stephen] Strasburg stands 60 feet from home plate. By the time Joe releases the ball he’s only 37 feet, giving the batter . . .less time to react. Joe throws about an 85-mile-per-hour ball. That’s like a hundred in baseball in terms of reaction time the hitter has.”

I ask why Larry doesn’t recruit area women who pitched in college.

“No way,” Larry says. “A woman pitcher will get killed out here. Their reaction time is too slow. Trust me, I know.”

The men enthralled by this sport supposedly made for women are passing down and reinforcing a system of values. The fathers and sons are sharing advice, support, discipline, integrity and character. All of the things that matter.

These are all things fathers inherently give without being asked — and for too many kids, particularly those growing up in Southeast, this is exactly what’s missing. The absent fathers are also the reason this league is dying.

Anthony Higginbotham, the Colts’ shortstop, manages a recreation center in Trinidad. “Last season I had over 40 kids on my football team,” he says. “I only saw two fathers coming out to practices or games all season long. Now some might be working jobs that don’t let them out, but when I asked my kids how many live at home with both parents, only three kids raised their hand, and none of ’em lived with their original mom and dad.”

Fast-pitch, like baseball, is not a game that can be figured out by watching and playing. It is full of nuance, from position to pitching technique to signals, and it requires someone to teach strategy. As more young men are raised by women, the history and ability to play this game, in this city, diminish.

This half-century-old league could provide a model for baseball in the District: The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy broke ground this month at Southeast’s Fort DuPont Park on a nine-acre, $15 million complex featuring three fields and an 18,000-square-foot training and educational facility.

But building a field of dreams is just the beginning. The city and the Nationals need to recruit, train and support coaches and require regular practices. The real work will be done in neighborhoods, by coaches who instill a sense of hope and persuade kids to move away from their televisions and off their corners. They have to build relationships that make kids want to show up and play ball. An army of dads, surrogate dads and coaches is needed to realize the potential of the next generation, and not just in sport.

The writer is co-founder of Peace Players International, a charity that seeks to unite youths in divided communities through basketball.

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