Youth baseball has rebirth in Washington D.C.'s Ward 7

By the time he had stopped shaking enough to re-holster his service weapon — the suspect’s gun on the ground, the threat now over — District police officer Jason Medina had already made a decision: It was time to do something for these kids. On that October afternoon in 2009, while patrolling a middle school dismissal in Ward 7, he had heard gunshots ring out near the Clay Terrace housing projects and ran toward them, moments later finding himself face to face with the young shooter. He didn’t even hear himself say, “Drop the gun!”

In the aftermath, the reality smacked Medina in the face: He had been one threatening move away from ending the life of a troubled 15-year-old boy. He thought about his own youth in the projects of Harlem and how he had been redeemed by the Harlem RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which had turned a wild, combative kid into both a ballplayer and a man.

He knew what he needed to do for the kids of his adopted home town: give them the opportunity that someone had once given him. And so was born, at least in concept, Ward 7 Baseball.

It was an oxymoron in those days: “Ward 7 Baseball.” There hadn’t been baseball played in this far eastern corner of the District in generations. But phone calls led to meetings, and meetings led to action, and action led to kids showing up, and kids showing up led to those first ballgames in the summer of 2010. And now here we are, three years into Ward 7 Baseball’s existence, and there might actually be a youth baseball renaissance taking place in a part of the city where the sport had long ago died.

Perhaps even more amazingly, that renaissance is being led by a 30-year-old New York transplant — a cop, no less, with all that inherent distrust to overcome — who is operating on a budget of zero dollars, unless you count the two or three grand that he and each of his coaches routinely shell out of their own pockets each year to feed, equip and transport the 72 kids, ages 7 to 16, in the program.

Ward 7 Baseball — less a league than a conglomeration of teams representing the housing projects of Kenilworth, Clay Terrace and Lincoln Heights — is centered at Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington. When Medina and Jose Agosto, a former Harlem teammate who helps run Ward 7 Baseball, first started cleaning up the neglected field, strewn with hypodermic needles and beer bottles, the only thing that gave it away as an old ballfield was a rusty, teetering backstop. Now, it has a cut-out dirt infield, dugouts and bleachers.

Medina, a community affairs officer in the Sixth District, knew better than to try to recruit kids on his own. Even when he was out of uniform, the kids by that time recognized him as “five-oh” and went the other way when he approached. So he recruited his coaches first, signing up trusted community-center mentors to persuade kids reared on football and basketball to try something new and exotic: baseball.

“Kids started seeing us together,” said William Commodore, better known as “Coach Chick,” a legendary figure at the Kenilworth Park Community Center who signed on as one of Medina’s first coaches, “and said, ‘Well, if you with Mr. Chick, I guess you all right.’ ”

Commodore, primarily a football coach, took the pulse of his kids. “We’re thinking of getting some baseball together here,” he told them. “What y’all think?”

Almost uniformly, the answer came back: “We don’t know how to play.”

‘Something kicked in’

Little Jason Medina first showed up on the doorstep of Harlem RBI — part of a Major League Baseball-operated network of urban youth baseball leagues — as an 8-year-old. He lived in the 16-story public housing building across the street and had watched out his window as the bulldozers carved a baseball field out of a vacant lot.

“Jason was a hotheaded, arrogant, talented but difficult-to-manage young man,” said Richard Berlin, the executive director of Harlem RBI since 1997. “He was just one of those kids who didn’t quite get the team concept. He was a pretty good ballplayer, but if things didn’t go well for him personally, he’d go south pretty quick.

“He wasn’t real big on being accountable or responsible for his shortcomings. [But] as he got older, something kicked in for him — an understanding about his responsibility as a leader.”

Medina eventually became one of the program’s first big success stories, earning a baseball scholarship to Lehman College in the Bronx and eventually starting a career in law enforcement. That career ultimately brought him to D.C., where he reconnected with Agosto, his fellow New York transplant and Harlem RBI alum.

When Medina and Agosto first hatched the idea for Ward 7 Baseball, the first person they called was Berlin.

“What I reminded them is that they’re crazy, that this is really hard,” Berlin said. “I told them, ‘Remember how hard it was with you guys?’ And the good thing about being young and naive is you don’t listen — in a good way — to all the people saying you can’t do something. Once I knew they were ignoring all my warnings, I knew they’d be successful.”

To make his idea work, Medina would need a friend in the city government, and he found one in Amin Muslim, director of constituent services for Ward 7 under D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander. Muslim couldn’t offer funds, but he gave Medina a constant green light. “I never once heard ‘no,’ ” Medina said.

“More than anything else, it was his personality — the fact people could sense he genuinely cared,” Muslim said of Medina. “This wasn’t his job. He was doing it in his spare time. . . . He has restored hope in a lot of kids. The guy is phenomenal. He’s giving people a reason to believe in themselves.”

To populate the four teams they started out with, Medina’s coaches scooped up kids wherever they could find them — on the basketball courts, in the churches, on the street corners. “There’d be kids saying, ‘I can’t be there at 5 [o’clock for practice], ’cuz I live way over there,’ ” Coach Chick said. “I’m like, ‘I’ll be there to get you at 4:30.’ ”

They were quite a sight in those early days, the boys and girls of Ward 7 Baseball. That first group of kids, mostly ages 9 and up, “were at more like T-ball level,” Medina said. They had to be taught how to hold a bat. One of the coaches would tell a kid to go play second base, and the kid would run out and stand on the bag. There was the pitcher who ran to the catcher to retrieve the ball after each pitch, rather than wait on the catcher to throw it back. Each team could only practice every other day, because there weren’t enough gloves to go around.

But before long, strange things started to happen. Folks from the neighborhood would line up along the fences to watch the games on Saturdays. All of a sudden, the same kids who had to be rounded up and wrangled into playing in the beginning were showing up at the fields an hour before practice started with a handful of friends who wanted to sign up. People from the community started showing up with barbecue grills and coolers of Gatorade on Saturdays to feed the kids after their games.

“We’ve had people just pull up on the roadside: ‘Hey!’ And they’ll just toss over a bag full of gloves,” said Mark Brown, 48, one of Ward 7 Baseball’s coaches. “Or, ‘I got some pants here! I got some old cleats!’ . . . It harkens back to the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ — even though this village right now is a dysfunctional village.”

One day an elderly lady stopped by to ask how she could help.

“What do you need for your program?” she asked Medina.

“Fruit,” he told her. “These kids don’t have any fruit in their diets.” The following Saturday, the lady stopped by the field with a car full of oranges.

“Our program is special because we don’t turn anyone away,” Medina said. “No one in our program has paid a penny to play. We had have one kid who has an ankle bracelet — we call it his extra piece of jewelry. We make sure he participates as much as possible, because we want his life to go the way we know it can go.”

Last year, Medina and his crew raised enough funds to travel to New York for a game against the kids from Harlem RBI. It wasn’t much of a contest, with the more polished kids from Harlem pounding the Ward 7 kids by a double-digit margin.

But at the end of the game, the Harlem kids gathered all their gloves, bats and catcher’s gear and handed it over to their opponents.

“Here,” they said. “This is all yours now.”

Looking for another level

Seems hard to believe now, but there was a time — back before the Senators bolted town for good and left the District without a major league team, and before all the familiar urban ills came along and pushed away opportunity — when kids in Ward 7 played baseball every day, all summer long. Coach Chick, 55, and Coach Brown, 48, remember those days well. “It was our pastime,” Chick said.

“I went to Hamilton Junior High, and I grew up playing baseball — outfield and third base,” said Brown. “And then one day it just disappeared. Without warning — it was gone. I just said, ‘Oh, well. I’ll pick up the next sport.’ ”

The decline of baseball in inner cities, and among African American youths in general, is a problem Major League Baseball has long been aware of — especially as it has manifested itself in dwindling numbers of African American players at the major league level in recent years — and one it has taken steps to remedy with initiatives such as the RBI program and its Urban Youth Baseball Academies.

Washington had been promised one of those academies back in 2005, when the Montreal Expos relocated here and became the Nationals. Finally, this September, the Nationals will open the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy at Fort Dupont Park in Southeast — more or less smack dab in the middle of Ward 7.

“That dirt’s been sitting there for seven years, and someone finally decided it was time to stick a shovel in it and put up a facility,” said Gerard Hall, director and manager of the D.C. Knights youth baseball teams and a longtime advocate for youth baseball in the District. “Once we see that facility, and all the programs they can offer, that could be the linchpin that really takes baseball in this city to another level.”

With three fields, batting cages, academic classrooms and a teaching kitchen, the roughly $15 million facility will be “the jewel of youth sports in the city,” said Tal Alter, a Bethesda native and former all-conference shortstop at Haverford College who was hired in April to build and run the Nationals’ academy.

Navigating the District’s fledgling youth baseball scene, with its territorialism and Darwinian fights for scarce funding, might have been a harrowing experience. But Alter immediately found he had an ally in Medina, who saw the Nationals’ academy not as a threat but an opportunity. Ward 7 Baseball became Alter’s conduit to the community, and in turn, the team has hosted Medina’s kids at Nationals Park several times for Nationals games. Once the facility is completed, Ward 7 Baseball — which still has only one true baseball field for its six teams — will be able to use it for practices.

“It’s serendipitous, all these great things coming together,” Alter said. “Jason being here is almost too good to be true. He’s a rare find.”

Like most dreamers, Medina dreams big. He envisions Ward 7 Baseball eventually becoming a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, expanding its reach and building something huge — perhaps something not unlike Harlem RBI. “But even if 10 years from now we’re still on a nothing budget, we’ll still be here, as long as we can keep paying it forward,” said Medina, who was awarded the police department’s officer of the year award in 2011 for his efforts with Ward 7 Baseball.

Medina’s daily patrols — sometimes on foot, sometimes on a mountain bike — still sometimes take him past the scene of the 2009 shootout that inspired him to action. But when he makes his way through the packs of schoolkids now, he isn’t just looking for troublemakers. He’s looking for ballplayers.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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