When coach Bill Allen talks about his work these days, he keeps going back to the Hispanic youngsters who came for preseason baseball practice.
Junior varsity baseball was one of the sports programs cut this year in the Boston public schools (along with interscholastic gymnastics, swimming, crew, and badminton), and that left Allen with only 13 or 14 slots to fill on the varsity baseball team at Madison Park High School and too many kids trying out for them.
"I told them I'd carry them on the fringe and keep three or four slots open for them, and whoever worked hard and stayed for practice and had the best attitude would get on," Allen recalls. "But we could only take 13 or 14. After a while, they stopped coming down to the field. I lost those kids. You know there's a significant correlation between showing up at sports and showing up at school?"
Allen, who also teaches physical education and coaches varsity football, received his layoff notice from the Boston public schools recently. His name was selected by a computer. The form letter, signed by the acting superintendent, assured him the notice was sent "with a heavy heart."
Allen says he can handle it. As a product of the Boston schools, and as a former semi-pro baseball player, he's learned to be stoic, even though he has 10 years of his life invested in school coaching.
It's the youngsters that he's worried about.
As he sees it, sports is not a frill. It is part of a youngster's education, as it was his own when he was at school and changing subways three times to get to practice after school. It should be available to "the kid who can't chew gum and walk," as well as to the star, Allen says.
It hadn't been easy getting kids participating in sports at Madison Park, he concedes. The school, completed several years ago in the middle of a Roxbury public housing area occupied mainly by blacks, came with the best athletic facilities available: indoor pool, outdoor track, gym.
But the fact that many students were whites bused in from South Boston created some special problems for the athletic program. Allen said some white kids who stayed after school for practice were teased by their older brothers back home. And for the black youths living in Roxbury, sports has to compete with drugs and the street scene.
But Madison Park's headmaster was Tom Hennessey, a former back for the Boston Patriots football team, and sports got going.
Allen and his coaches spent time in summer raking the baseball infields and seeding grass on the bare spots on the football field. Sometimes the players would come over and help.
Allen remembers the Monday football practice after a black student had been shot in South Boston the previous week.
"Some of the coaches were afraid to go out," Allen recalls with a laugh. "There was no hiding place on those fields and public housing all around. But we had a white football captain and he led us out for the practice." This was one of the moments that Allen remembers with pride.
Now Allen worries about the kids. Sports is the link to school for many students, and most kids will confide in coaches more than they would a classroom teacher.
Allen knows which youth's mother has a new boyfriend. And when a player doesn't show up for a few days, he'll tell Allen a family secret on his return: his sister came home from the hospital with a baby, and the boyfriend needed help around the house.
Allen wonders if the next coach will have the same rapport, or even if there will be a next coach, what with the cuts in the already meager sports programs. Instead of cutting programs, Allen believes, Boston should be adding lacrosse and field hockey.
Allen believes that "kids today have the same dreams and aspirations we did . . . they still want to catch fly balls like Enos Slaughter."
For all those reasons, Allen feels, it is a disgrace what is happening to sports in the Boston public schools.