From a makeshift clubhouse just down the street from Kitty's Liquor store at 11th and P streets NW in Shaw, 74-year-old Richard Joseph listens with amusement as the last bets are laid down before the big game.
Confident and favored to win, his team piles into cars and vans and heads for the home field, a half-hour drive away in southern Maryland. It is a dusty, sunbaked baseball diamond anchored to Proctor's Inn with a home-styled grandstand made of cinder blocks and two-by-fours, chicken wire and a roof patched up with plywood left over from campaign posters.
With hot dogs and potato salad packed in the trunks, and a party of card sharks, crap shooters and die-hard sportsmen in tow, this is a journey back to the days of baseball before Jackie Robinson -- a contemporary black sandlot team dedicated to the proposition that after a week of hard work comes a weekend of hard ball.
"I don't do a whole lot of drinking -- I may have some whiskey with my water, but that's it as far as I'm concerned -- but you still don't have nowhere to go," said Joseph, a retired trucker who founded the team, the Indians Athletic Baseball Club, a decade ago. "So you go down to a baseball game and you enjoy yourself.
"Then you come back and sit around and talk about it. At least you done been somewhere. And then again, you're keeping a whole lot of young boys out of trouble."
Joseph operates without the sponsorship of area businessmen, which is traditionally the case with small league ball. He is one of a dozen or so men in Washington -- mostly blue collar workers and retirees -- who use their own money to start and maintain organized baseball teams in the inner city.
Located in an area recently identified by D.C. police as a major on-the-street heroin depot, Joseph's club is highly regarded by many neighbors not so much because they won last year's league championship but because it is one of the few alternative recreation centers for the youth of Shaw.
The Indians play in the Continental League, made up of 12 teams scattered about mostly low-income areas of the city.
"You always hope someone will see you and advance you financially," said team manager Melvin Carter, "but most of these guys just eat and sleep baseball.
"You have guys working two jobs, but still they come out and practice two times a week, then play sometimes three games in a row on the weekend. I go to practice straight from work [as a clerk in a drugstore warehouse] and usually don't even eat."
There were days when most of the Indians lived in the neighborhood and many of the games were played closer to home, at Banneker Junior High School playing field on Georgia Avenue.
But all of that has changed. The wave of housing renovations in Shaw has washed many of the team members -- shipping clerks, cabdrivers, security guards, a few college students -- and their families to the outer shores of Washington and to the suburbs.
"Whenever somebody moves to another area, we just arrange to have him picked up," said Joe Chisely, a team member. "Most of the team lives out in far Northeast -- in the projects.
Banneker Field -- one of a very few in the city -- has become run down and unkept. Worse yet is the construction of a McDonald's just off of center field. The golden glare of the arches has blinded many a batter, many of the Indians complain, causing some to lose sight of wild pitches until it was too late to get out of the way.
"I tried to get them to turn them arches off just until we finished playing," Joseph said, shaking his head in disappointment. "They wouldn't. They said it was advertisement and they had to sell them burgers."
Last year, shortly after the team won the championship of the Continental League, Joseph's brother Wendell died at the age of 70. "Deuce" (Wendell) and "Slim" (Richard), as they are known in the neighborhood, natives of Dothan, Ala., founded the club 10 years ago.
They had envisioned a football team, and were thinking about the Redskins when they picked a name. But that much physical contact after a day's work soon lost its appeal.
Still, the Indians are a home-grown institution that has survived Washington's neighborhood transformations, mirroring the Smithsonian Institute's recent "Life in the Negro Leagues" exhibit like a page of history that never turned.
Even the team's clubhouse looks like a throwback to days gone by -- a tiny, fading two-story brick storefront with a juke box, two pinball machines and a Coca-Cola dispenser inside.
Opened 30 years ago as a "workman's club," it retains its appeal as a place for socializing before and after ball games.
The Indians are just one of many black teams scattered about the city, with a style of play, attendant social agenda and a baseball banter all their own:
"Dada boy. Dada boy, baby," the catcher yelled out to the pitcher's mound during a recent game. "Make him think. Pick 'im up. Lay it on 'im, baby. . . . [Ball one, above the strike zone] Too high, but no damage done . . . [The next pitch, strike one] Dada boy, baby. That's the one. Do it for me two mo' times."
Slim Joseph is the heart and soul of the Indians. These days, he often poses proudly outside his clubhouse at 1425 11th St. NW, reflecting on his team's success. He is a leathery old man with a penchant for cigars, stingy-brimmed hats and hunting dogs that he usually walks at 6 each morning. Toughened by years as a tractor-trailer trucker and a roving umpire throughout the sandlot circuit, he runs a highly disciplined team based on mutual respect and love of baseball.
"I think I have the best club around -- and that makes me feel pretty good," Joseph said. "It's a young team -- and just like with any sport, the older you get, slower you get. So you need that young blood to keep coming in.
"I remember when I used to could hit that ball . . . whew," he said, shaking his head and smiling. "But guy, my age has seen his better days. I just want to help some of the young boys keep a good thing going."
Occasionally, a big league scout will sit in the stands and watch for new talent. But the Continental League is about half a step up from pick-up ball. The next step up from here is the Maryland Industrial League.
Joseph came to Washington more than 40 years ago, a day laborer out of Dothan, Ala., about 125 miles southeastof Montgomery. He remembers working first as labor foreman during the construction of the Pentagon. He found another job with A. W. Lee Plasterers and went to work plastering the Internal Revenue Service Building downtown, he said.
He noticed that he and fellow construction workers were always complaining that they had nothing to do after work. So, he opened his "workman's club" hoping it would provide the men with a safe place in which to drink.
Later, sandlot baseball became a growing sport in Washington, and many of its teams fed players to the better, more established black clubs here like the Homestead Grays.
The Joseph brothers had been affiliated with a Continential League team known as the D.C. Yankees. But a rift developed between them and the team owners, they said, so the Josephs set out to start their own club. They succeeded, and the Indians and Yankees remain arch rivals.
"It's like the Redskins and the Cowboys," said Melvin Carter, 38, the Indians' manager. When Carter took over five years ago, the Indians were losers. Since them, they have won the championship three years out of five.
"I tried out for them damn Yankees, and you know they didn't let me play a game," Carter said. "I'll never forget that."
"Looking for a good team? I'll show you a good team," one man yelled to a visitor, opening the trunk of a car parked in front of the clubhouse. Whiskey by the shot was being sold out of the trunk and being carried back inside the club for consumption. "The D.C. Yankees is the best team around here!"
"Man, them is fighting words," another man huffed as he moved within breathing space of the light-hearted provoker.
In the grandstand and on the field, the banter and fast talk continues. Emotions run high and the competition is keen. More often than not, the Indians have emerged as winners.Last Sunday, they defeated the Yankees 2 to 1 in extra innings.
"What keeps up going is that we are like family," said Curtis Herman, an unsung hero with the team. He drives the equipment van.
"Like anything else, you have to keep up the moral standards, you have to have moral support," he said. "Everybody just pitches in and does what they can. It's really pays off because when a young boy finds out that somebody cares, he becomes a changed man."