The mayor of Washington kicked his left leg in the air, swung his right arm down from behind his ear and released a baseball that wobbled into the catcher's mitt of a 15-year-old player for Eastern Senior High School.
Television cameras captured the picture-perfect scene: a cool, sunny day in late March at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, wearing a red-and-blue Washington Nationals sweat suit, played catch with sophomore Calvin Young, wearing a royal blue Eastern Ramblers jersey.
The photo op was intended to show that the return of professional baseball to the District, for which Williams (D) fought, would bring the Nationals and the city together on a granular level.
"Baseball will be great for the city," said Williams, surrounded by Calvin and his teammates. He promised new jobs, economic development and playing opportunities for the city's youths -- benefits to help justify the $18.5 million the city spent renovating RFK and the more than $500 million proposed for a new stadium.
In a flush of enthusiasm, Williams vowed to attend Eastern's first game.
When the Nationals made their home debut in April before more than 45,000 enthusiastic fans, the mayor received a long ovation. But when the Ramblers opened their season against Spingarn Senior High, Williams was absent, and he did not attend any of the games.
The Ramblers play about a block from RFK on a field where dandelions poked through shin-high grass and Slurpee cups littered the outfield. For his team, Coach Tillman Frizzell had eight bats, two dozen balls with frayed red stitching and one set of faded uniforms with mismatched warm-up jackets. His team had attracted only 11 players.
During their season, the Ramblers' challenges would reflect the neglect and decline of public schools in a city gripped by an economic boom and divided by tensions between rich and poor, black and white. In many ways, the team symbolizes the concerns of residents who opposed spending public money to woo a professional baseball team. They had argued that the city needed to address enormous needs in schools, in the lives of inner-city children.
Never Count Them Out
On a warm day in early May, Frizzell, a 69-year-old retired teacher, parked his car behind the school in Northeast and waited for his players to emerge.
The second baseman, center fielder and right fielder are football players who came out for baseball after hearing about practice on the morning announcements.
The left fielder had so few hits last season that he began watching professional games on television for pointers. Frizzell, who has coached at Eastern for 17 years, was so desperate to fill his roster that he accepted a reserve player he had kicked off the team last year for wearing fatigues during a game.
"This is the worst group I've had at Eastern," Frizzell said. "Only two know anything about the game."
When practice began, only four players showed up. They wore shorts and T-shirts, and first baseman Kenny Lewis had on a skullcap and faux diamond earring. Kenny, a junior in his first season of baseball, often missed practice because he worked four evenings a week at CVS and Up Against the Wall.
"Six of them are taking after-school exams," Frizzell said, shaking his head. Even Calvin, a co-captain, stayed away to participate in a Junior ROTC competition at the D.C. Armory across the street.
"No one tells me this stuff," Frizzell grumbled.
Without enough players for drills, Frizzell directed them to a narrow chain-link batting cage. His pitching machine disappeared from the storage room a few years ago, and he never had enough money to replace it. Alvin Mason, a muscular senior who is the other co-captain, lobbed pitches to the three other players. Mostly they missed, spending much of their time at bat picking up balls.
Practice ended after about a half-hour.
As Frizzell tried to shape his collection of first-year players into a respectable team, he knew that every missed opportunity to show them that repetition and consistency produce skillful hitters and pitchers could mean the difference between a playoff team and an also-ran.
His goal has always been the same: to make the playoffs. His long history of coaching in the District has taught him that he should never count his team out.
Frizzell's favorite drills involved lining up his players at shortstop and hitting them grounders. But the balls often went through their legs or bounced off their gloves and into left field. Practice slowed as they searched for balls in the overgrown grass.
"It's frustrating because regular, routine [hits] that should be outs -- you have to worry about those and hope they make the plays," Alvin said. "You hope the ball doesn't take a tricky bounce or anything."
In their first game against Spingarn, the Ramblers made two errors in the first inning. But they won for one reason: Spingarn played worse.
Spingarn's pitcher balked so often and the catcher dropped so many balls that the Ramblers scored 13 runs in the first inning, even though they got just one hit. When the game ended because of the league's two-hour time limit, the score was 18-2 and the teams had completed just two innings.
But the Ramblers had their share of bumbling moments, too. During an early-season game against H.D. Woodson, Calvin, who was pitching, fielded a ball and threw to second base. But his teammate -- a football lineman in his fourth baseball game -- missed the catch and the ball went into center field. The runner scored, and Woodson won, 7-4.
"It's an up-and-down feeling," Calvin said of playing at Eastern. "I like when we win, but I get mad when we make stupid mistakes."
No Wealthy Boosters
As the Ramblers struggled through the early part of their season, the Nationals were off to a surprisingly competitive start, cheered on by large crowds of fans wearing red and blue "W" caps.
The crowds, overwhelmingly white, came largely from the suburbs, where youth baseball is so popular that finding money and players is rarely a problem.
At James Madison High School in Vienna, for example, the Warhawks have a $40,000 annual baseball budget, funded by a booster club. The field has an irrigation system, sunken concrete dugouts, a press box, two batting cages with artificial turf and three pitching machines. Coach Mark Gjormand receives a stipend of nearly $7,000 from the school system.
But in the District, the school system's athletic budget for all schools is $3 million, about the same as it was 14 years ago, said Athletic Director Allen Chin. After paying for transportation, officials, insurance and coaches' stipends of about $2,000, Chin has about $700,000 left for equipment. He spent most of it on football equipment to ensure safety, he said.
"I live in Fairfax, so I know what the suburbs have," Chin said. "It's a damn shame we can't have that for our kids."
This season, Chin gave Frizzell a dozen new baseballs from a passel donated last year to Chin's office by the Kelly and Cal Ripken Jr. Foundation. That was all the school system could afford. Eastern Athletic Director Bernard Nedab took money from the school's football gate receipts and bought Frizzell a new set of caps.
"When you talk about the suburbs, you're talking about two things I don't have: rich parents and booster clubs," Nedab said.
The same is true for most of the 13 D.C. public schools that field baseball teams. Only Wilson Senior High in Northwest has better resources, mainly because Coach Eddie Saah receives donations from the families of players who grow up in more affluent neighborhoods and play in the city's only well-funded Little League programs. Not surprisingly, Wilson had won 140 public league games and 12 city titles in a row entering this season.
The Ramblers' closest connection to professional baseball is Frizzell, who works at RFK during Nationals games at night and on weekends -- as an usher.
Most of Eastern's games, all against other District public school teams, routinely assumed a satirical quality.
Coaches instructed weak hitters not to swing because most pitchers could not throw strikes consistently. Once on base, players stole bases on virtually every pitch. Catchers had trouble throwing accurately from home plate to second base to get them out.
In one game, the Ramblers beat Anacostia High, 27-0, in two innings.
"I didn't even call that [score] in to the newspapers," Frizzell said. "I felt sorry for those guys. It was pretty bad, until I started coaching the other team."
For serious players, even victories with lopsided scores brought little satisfaction. "It's kind of boring," Alvin said. "It takes the fun out of the game."
The Ramblers' inexperience was so pronounced that twice players were hit in the face with the ball while playing catch before games. One was sent to the hospital for oral surgery.
The second incident, coming before a game against Ballou Senior High, involved Alvin, his right eye swelling up as teammates crowded around for a look.
"How do we keep getting injured during warm-ups?" asked third baseman Antwann Alexander. "This ain't even a contact sport."
In the first inning, Alvin went to bat with the bases loaded and struck out. He could barely see, but he remained in the game. Eastern won anyway and improved to 7-3.
Despite the team's winning record, Alvin and Calvin at times grew so frustrated that they threw their gloves or sat down on the field. During those moments, they received encouragement from the only parent at the games -- Calvin Young, Calvin's father.
"I told him, 'You're not on the best team, but it's important that you do your best at all times,' " Young said. "Sometimes he gets it, and sometimes he doesn't."
Young had enrolled his son in a T-ball league when he was 6, and Calvin stuck with it, the only Rambler to have participated in youth league baseball. On weekends, father and son often worked out together, and Calvin dreams of playing at a Division I college.
As the season progressed, he began following the play of Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla. But, with the exception of the first game, to which the Ramblers received free tickets, Calvin did not attend Nationals games.
A Chance to Test Himself
Midway through the season, Frizzell received a letter inviting him to send a player to a tryout for the Puma National Team, a collegiate development program run by a company called the Baseball Factory. He chose Calvin.
It was the young player's first chance to participate in a higher level of baseball.
On a Sunday in mid-May, Calvin and his father drove to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and saw coaches and scouts holding stopwatches and barking out orders. Players hustled even when they were merely getting water or carrying equipment. Parents sat in the bleachers, poring over brochures. About 60 players, most of them white, came primarily from the suburbs or private schools.
"Calvin's here to test himself," Young said, sitting down next to the dad of a former teammate of Calvin's. "When you play with first-year players, you don't really know where you stand."
As the players ran through drills, Calvin was speedy but not as strong as some of the bigger athletes. One beefy player crushed a home run over the outfield fence, bringing an ovation. Calvin managed three hits out of the infield during his turn in the batting cage, all bloop singles.
At the end of the workout, a handful of the top players were invited onto a summer traveling team. Calvin and the rest were handed brochures offering week-long training seminars, at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000. The seminars could help some players sharpen their skills to win spots on college teams, a Baseball Factory official told them.
Walking back to the car, Calvin described his performance as "okay." The other players, he added, were "pretty good but nothing special."
Looking through the brochure, Young, a social worker, balked at the prices: too steep. Just then, a player from a D.C. private school walked by.
"He'll probably go," Young said. "His mom's a doctor."
A Spot in the Playoffs
In the last days of May, the Nationals embarked on a two-week homestand at RFK that would vault them into first place.
Spirits were high across the street, too, where the Ramblers finished the regular season 8-3 and had a first-round playoff game against Cardozo Senior High from Northwest.
On May 31, they left class early and prepared the field.
"If we want to win, what do we do?" Frizzell asked in the pregame huddle.
"Go hard!" the players respond.
But Cardozo went harder, scoring four runs in the first inning, thanks in part to two errors by the Ramblers. Shaken, Calvin walked the first five batters of the second inning.
"Don't get frustrated!" his father shouted from the bench. But Cardozo pulled to an 8-0 lead. Eventually, Frizzell replaced Calvin with Alvin, who fared no better.
The game was called at the two-hour limit with Cardozo ahead 12-0 after four innings. Eastern had failed to get a single hit.
The ending revealed a cruel truth for the Ramblers: In many ways, their winning season was just a mirage, the product of where and who they played rather than how good they really were. The Ramblers had never really experienced competitive baseball.
Frizzell gathered his players for a final huddle. "You have nothing to hang your heads about," he told them. "Most of you had never played before, and you got a lot farther than I anticipated."
He paused, then added, "If I'm back next year, we're going to be a lot better."
Next year, Alvin plans to attend North Carolina A&T. Calvin said he will return but is not certain how many of the others will play again.
The players slowly dispersed. As Frizzell loaded his gear into his car, he paused. "I think I'll be back," he said with a smile.