It's a sunny June Sunday at Harrison Field, nestled between rowhouses and new apartment construction in the transitioning and historically rich Shaw neighborhood. Aaron Washington, 8, of the Leopards baseball team stands at the plate with an aluminum bat on his shoulder.
As his father watches from the sidelines, Aaron waits for the pitch. He swings and hits a line drive into center field. A fielder throws the ball toward first base, but Aaron beats it and is declared safe. His teammates and their parents cheer.
It's the kind of scene repeated all over the metro area and the country each spring, but one that had diminished in many urban African American communities over the years, organizers of youth baseball say. And the District was no exception.
But the sport is making a comeback in many of the District's black communities, thanks largely to organizations such as the D.C. Babe Ruth League/Cal Ripken, Fields of Dreams, area little leagues and recreation centers like the Dwight Mosley Athletic Complex.
Seeing the sport reemerge in these communities is a promising development for families, organizers say. It's good for kids, who get to develop new athletic skills and learn teamwork. It's good for parents, who coach and cheer on the teams. And actually, organizers say, it's encouraging for anyone concerned about expanding the number of positive outlets for young people's energy.
Baseball in the District has seen worse days.
Mason Clark, athletic director of the Dwight Mosley Athletic Complex, marks the decline of youth baseball in the District from 1971, when the Washington Senators professional baseball team was sold.
"Before the Senators left, every school, every recreation center, every boys' club had a baseball team," says Clark. "And kids used to go to Senators games free."
Largely under his leadership, the Mosley Athletic Complex in the Northeast neighborhood of Woodridge has been one of the few community-based recreation centers to field youth baseball teams consistently since 1964.
"The rise in popularity of basketball and football drained the pool of talent away from baseball, and many adult coaches gave up on the game," Clark says.
Pat Bitondo, a co-founder of the D.C. Babe Ruth League/Cal Ripken, is among those helping to fill that void. The league, which started in 1996, has 44 teams.
Thirty-four of the teams are in the four divisions for youngsters ages 12 and under: T-ball (ages 5 to 7), Rookies (7 to 9), Minors (9 and 10) and Majors (11 and 12). The Senior Division (ages 13-15) has eight teams, while the Super Seniors (16 to 18) have two teams. Teams are fielded by schools, Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs and community-based recreation centers.
Bitondo, the league district commissioner, is a retired schoolteacher who is largely responsible for holding the league together. She attends many of the games and walks the sidelines as one of the kids' biggest cheerleaders. You can usually spot her by her white cap, which has Cal Ripken's name scribbled across it.
"We've come a long way, but there's still a lot to do," she says. "Right now, I'm trying to get more support for teams and to maintain the field at J.O. Wilson Elementary School in a challenging part of Northwest Washington."
According to Bitondo, about 85 percent of the kids in the league are African American, but some of the teams are quite diverse. The Oyster Bilingual School Leopards includes black, white and Latino 7- and 8-year-olds, including two girls. The team was named after Leopardos de Santa Clara, one of Cuba's greatest teams. Members of the Leopards played T-ball on the South Lawn of the White House two summers ago, back when the team was known as the Cardinals.
Of course there are also dozens of teams that play in the District's Little Leagues. Those leagues primarily field teams with kids under the age of 12 and play only in a particular area. For example, the Northwest Washington Little League plays in Wards 2 and 3. The Senators Little League teams play in Ward 5.
Bruce Adams is another baseball activist helping to fill the gap in pockets of the city. His group, Fields of Dreams, an after-school baseball and enrichment program, began in 2002. With financial backing of the Fannie Mae Foundation, The Washington Post and other major contributors, Adams hired coaches and teachers to start teams based in city public elementary schools. At each participating school, teams of 20 boys and girls learn the fundamentals of baseball.
But Adams insisted that the program also include an hour of tutoring in math, reading and character enrichment based on Jackie Robinson's nine values -- courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence.
The Fields of Dreams co-founder is Keith Stubbs, a high-energy, hands-on baseball guru who sometimes coaches three teams at a time, running from one field to another. While he hits fly balls and grounders to the young players, he instills in them a work ethic and hones their ability to concentrate.
"Coaching the tangibles, like throwing mechanics and power-hitting, are only part of what I do," says Stubbs. "I'm also working on the intangibles, like attendance, hustle and commitment."
Fields of Dreams is also rehabilitating ball fields that have been neglected, some overgrown with weeds. The organization spent about $20,000 to refurbish a deserted field at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington, just east of the Anacostia River. It helped rebuild another field at that school and contributed to the recovery of three other fields. In two years, Fields of Dreams has grown from three schools to a free-standing mini-league of six schools and now operates a summer camp.
"We have a product that works," Adams says. "The kids are having a great time, they're better-behaved at home and more focused at school."
Youth baseball is very much a family affair. Regardless of where the teams play or in what league, they usually have the strong support of parents.
Asar Mustafa, who coaches the Woodridge Warriors, a team in the Rookie Division, says, "We do a lot of drills on the fundamentals of hitting, throwing and catching." But Mustafa, the owner of a security consulting company, adds, "I want my son, O'Jorie, and the other kids on the team to learn more than how to play the game. I want to give them structure and discipline."
Rick Eisendorf, an international media consultant, stepped forward to "help out" and ended up coaching the Oyster Leopards, a team his 7-year-old son, Isaiah, has played on since kindergarten. Eisendorf also has help from other parents.
Marie-Elise Diamond has become the Leopards' warm-up coach.
"I didn't know much about baseball, but I know about managing kids," she says.
With so much involvement, the kids benefit from positive adult supervision and reinforcement that doesn't end with baseball.
It reminds Clark of earlier times. Says Clark, "Most of the kids who were serious about baseball also did well in school and have done well in life."