It has been 14 years since the Washington Senators departed for Texas. And the lack of a major league team has coincided with a drop in the quality of amateur baseball in the District, according to area coaches and recreation department officials.
In an effort to upgrade the level of play, the D.C. Department of Recreation has formed a summer high school league with games played daily at Turkey Thicket Park.
"They started the summer league because the quality of ball is not up to par (with the suburban schools)," said Coach Clarence Washington, whose H.D. Woodson teams have won five of the last six Interhigh championships. "They should have started a long time ago."
Carroll, Anacostia, Ballou, McKinley, H.D. Woodson and Cardozo began play in mid-June, and the playoffs start Aug. 3. Although teams carry the names of high schools, they are open to any teen-ager.
Washington has coached baseball for 30 years, and said he has seen the game's popularity slip in recent years. His championship teams have played in front of almost-empty bleachers. More than once he has had to cut the grass on his own field, and he said that, overall, the facilities for baseball are "terrible."
It is not just the lack of a pro team that has led to the disinterest. Baseball, Washington said, has taken a back seat to basketball -- and even football -- as the city's game. Basketball requires a ball, a rim and athletic ability. It is learned by kids who spend hours every day on the asphalt. A city kid can play basketball by himself.
No one plays baseball alone. Baseball, involving more skills and hand-eye coordination, must be taught. Washington says nobody is teaching District youngsters how to play baseball.
"I had to work very hard with them ( H.D. Woodson players) individually," said Washington. "I had to teach them baseball. They didn't know baseball. I had to go through and teach them the skills. You'd think by now they'd already have the skills."
Washington is not the only Interhigh coach who thinks the District's young baseball players are not reaching their potential. Alphonso Pittman, Cardozo's coach the past two seasons, agrees. And he speaks from experience.
Pittman attended UDC for four years on a full baseball scholarship. The 24-year-old native of Red Springs, N.C., began playing when he was 5. Although Red Springs has a population of just 7,000, it was the home of a Minnesota Twins' minor league team. All the boys, it seemed, played baseball. By the time he went to college, Pittman had played in six leagues, from peewee to American Legion.
Now, Pittman finds himself spending as much time teaching the rudiments as he does coaching. He has had to coach 17-year-olds picking up a ball and glove for the first time. He does not consider Washington a baseball town. Because the children don't have a team to follow, he says, they simply are not inspired to play.
"Who are the heroes?" he asked. "The kids can't go to the park. They don't know what it's like to go to the stadium. These are the kids who don't know any of this."
The summer league is merely a steppingstone to improving the quality of play in the District, Pittman said. The longer the players are exposed to the game, the more chance there is for improvement. Pittman expects the summer league, which was "a little late being planned," to expand next season.
Steve McClam, a 1981 H.D. Woodson graduate and former player who has been Washington's assistant for two years, agrees the fundamentals are not being stressed. He works for the recreation department he grew up playing for, and is coaching Woodson's summer league team while Washington recovers from hip surgery.
Nowadays, McClam said, young players lack not only the fundamental skills he was taught but also lack what he calls "the heart of the game" -- knowledge, insight and an ability to react to different situations.
"A lot of them are afraid of the ball," McClam said. "I try to teach them not to get nervous, get them to keep their composure."
But there is more to the decline of baseball in the District than lack of interest. There is a lack of money as well, said League Affairs Director Frank Lee.
"They barely pay them (coaches) anything during the season and they are not getting a dime this summer," he said.
Although it is not likely that the coaches will be paid additional money in the immediate future, the possible return of major league baseball to Washington in 1987 may boost the interest of area youth.
"It would be the best thing that ever happened to Washington," said McClam. "I really do believe that. That's why we're trying to get the kids interested in baseball right now."