Before the season started, John Castleberry, George Washington's energetic 5-foot-7 baseball coach, took his players to practice on the Ellipse behind the White House.
When he got there, he realized he couldn't practice on the diamond because the dirt had turned into grass. So he went nearby, walked off 90 feet and threw down the bases. He laughed at the predicament: "After we chewed the grass up, it was all right." But then the groundspeople were upset that the Colonials had trampled the turf.
They asked Castleberry: "What are you guys doing down here?"
Castleberry probably was wondering the same thing, but he had no other place to take his players. George Washington, which has one of the best teams in the area with a 27-11-1 record, doesn't have a home field. The Colonials play their home games on the road.
Despite having few supporters at their games, the Colonials have worked their way into second place in the Atlantic 10 (the conference tournament begins next Friday) and have a chance of making the NCAA playoffs. They have won 21 of their last 25 games, including a string of 12 straight.
The Colonials have won with 15 new faces -- including 10 freshmen -- from an 18-20-1 team under Castleberry last season. And Castleberry, 27 and in his second year of head coaching in college baseball, is turning out to be a precocious manager.
"I kind of pat myself on the back a little bit, for getting the kids in here that can handle not having a home field ," Castleberry said. "It's hard without a field. I mean, you have to be realistic."
Castleberry calls his players "blue-collar kids." He tries to recruit players who are "mentally tough -- winners," those who won't give up at the first sign of a bad inning.
"I want guys who are intelligent in the first place, to get in here academically," he said. "But they're baseball rats who love to go out there and play the game." Of outfielder and junior college transfer Jim Shultz (.333, 41 RBI), he said: "You look at him, and he doesn't even look like a baseball player. He's hitting the heck out of the ball. A very smart outfielder."
Castleberry had a core of solid players at the beginning of the season, but the development of the freshmen has made the team a winner. First baseman Mike Rolfes, outfielder Joe Ross and catcher John Flaherty -- all freshmen -- all are hitting over .300.
Castleberry's seniors also have been outstanding. Senior pitcher/center fielder Gregg Ritchie (.483 average, 27 stolen bases, 2.33 earned run average), second baseman Kevin Fitzgerald (.439, eight homers, 47 RBI) and third baseman Kirk Warner (.395) have excelled. Ritchie, the Colonials' top pitcher, has perhaps the best chance of being drafted by a major league club.
By next season, Castleberry is hoping the District of Columbia will lease Francis Field to George Washington. The field is located a few blocks from campus at 26th and M streets, and the Colonials have practiced there during the season.
Castleberry would dearly love to have larger crowds at his games, because he likes to perform himself. "You should have seen me on the Cape," said Castleberry, who has coached in the Cape Cod summer league the last four years, usually before 1,000-plus fans. "Man, I go crazy. I always try to be like Tommy Lasorda or Earl Weaver. In fact, my nickname up in the Cape is Earl Weaver. I get on the umpires a little bit, have some fun, joke around."
Castleberry remembered one game when his team was ahead by five runs in the last inning. He knew the umpire well, but he disagreed with the call and chased him, yelling, "Goshdangit, Jimmy! What the heck's going on?"
The umpire asked him why he bothered to come out. Castleberry answered: "Hey, these fans love this stuff, you know that." He intensified the act, and the umpire started laughing, although the fans couldn't see him because his back was turned toward the stands.
The umpire played along, yelling: "Let's go out and have a beer after the game!" Castleberry responded in a stern tone: "Okay, you're on, goshdangit!" Castleberry walked away and the fans cheered wildly.
It's that kind atmosphere Castleberry longs for. But he also wants a home field to play Arizona, Arizona State or Miami -- traditional powerhouses with which he has connections from the Cape. Castleberry thinks he can get them to come to Washington.
"With these guys I know, I think they'd do it because the city's such a draw," Castleberry said. "It would be a great educational thing to do. It sounds crazy, but it will sell to the athletic department, which is going to sell it to the president of the school. He'll say, 'Yeah, that's a great idea. I'll fork out $5,000 to send them up to Washington, D.C.' We could draw 1,000 a night, easy. I don't care where we play, we could draw that."