The season hasn’t even started yet, and Little League coach Derrick McCrae is losing it.
“Still wrong,” he says as he stands, arms folded, watching Clint Broadus, a beefy 12-year-old and one of his best players, field one groundball after another without first getting in front of it.
“Still wrong,” McCrae says, a little louder.
McCrae, all 6-foot-2, 200 pounds of him, speed walks toward Clint, his arms outstretched in disbelief. Clint, who has known McCrae his entire life, throws the ball back to the kid across from him and awaits the onslaught.
McCrae stops in front of Clint and leans down until his eyeglasses are a few inches from the boy’s face.
“I’m about to put you off the team, dawg,” he says.
It is April. The first scrimmage for the AYT No. 14 Raiders, the No. 14 Boys & Girls Club team that McCrae has coached for the past eight years, is a few days away. He has gathered about a dozen boys of varying girths and heights in a field on Riggs Road NE for one of their first proper practices. The rest have been beside the Boys & Girls Club, on Benning Road NE, just across the Anacostia River, with whichever kids weren’t still playing basketball.
“We’re trying to win a championship,” McCrae says to Clint, who listens without making eye contact. “The other teams, they can do these drills. They gonna tear us up. You hear me?”
The boy sighs and walks back to his spot.
Imparting a sense of urgency is one of the many challenges McCrae, 49, faces as an inner-city Little League coach. There are plenty of others, including a few with which his counterparts in more affluent sections of town are less familiar. For starters, he has to keep his dinged-up black Chevy van working so he can pick up and drop off the boys for games and practices and take them to church. He checks their report cards to make sure they maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, partly for their benefit and partly for his own. (“Kids with low GPAs are hard to coach,” he says.) He speaks regularly with his players’ teachers — more often, in some cases, than with their parents. If he finds out one of the kids has been acting up, he benches him for a game. Funding is a chronic problem. Unlike most Little League teams in the city, the Raiders don’t require parents to pay fees, which can range from $100 to $500 a season. McCrae says he would have an even harder time getting kids to play for him if they couldn’t play for free. “My kids’ parents are not rich,” he says. “They’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
To raise money for gas, uniforms, sodas and snacks, he conscripts a couple of players at least once a week to hold up a sign and a bucket at busy intersections during morning or evening rush hour. (The money goes to his nonprofit group, Mission Excellence.) He gets his church to pick up the fees for the two leagues the Raiders play in, the Cal Ripken Division of the Babe Ruth League and Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) league. The two let the Raiders play what McCrae considers an ideal schedule of four games a week.
He has found carryouts and corner stores willing to cut him a break to keep the kids fed and hydrated. There is also what he calls “the father stuff”: finding a kid a pair of shoes, taking them go-karting. But getting his players to care as much as he does about baseball fundamentals is probably the hardest task of all.
* * *
McCrae’s dream team consists of: catcher and pitcher Clint Broadus; left-handed right fielder Kaleah Tamsi, an 11-year-old with a baby face; pitcher and catcher James Hampton, 12; starting pitcher Derquan Washington, 11, a sprite of a kid who goes by Quan and never stops talking; rookie center fielder K’won Holmes, 11, whose love of singing earned him the nickname “Justin Bieber”; shortstop and right fielder Antonio Marr, 10, known as “Little Tonio,” so as not to be confused with third baseman and shortstop Antonio Knox, 12; left fielder Dejaun Saunders, 11, also known as “Twin” because he is one of an identical set; second baseman Kenyi Barthlett, 11; outfielder Mark Kelly, 12; second baseman Marcus Forrest, 12; and first baseman Marquette Henderson, 12, a husky, powerful hitter whom everyone calls “Fat Sauce.”
On the day of the scrimmage, McCrae maneuvers his black van to Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School on G Street NE. Along the dashboard are sticky notes to remind him of mundane tasks such as calling his sister. In 2006, his godson shot him in the face at point-blank range. Ever since the incident, his short-term memory has been poor.
The field is seven blocks from the former headquarters of Rayful Edmond, the legendary drug dealer who helped flood the city with crack cocaine in the 1980s. The neighborhood has since become a frontier of gentrification, as evidenced by the Homestead Grays. The Little League team, named after the storied Negro League franchise that once played at Griffith Stadium, is mostly white. The team’s sponsor, sewn on the players’ uniforms, is Riverby Books, a rare and used-book seller on Capitol Hill.
The Raiders, by contrast, are sponsored by AYT, an auto repair business with a shop on the eastern edge of Ivy City, a desolate triangle of land in Northeast dominated by warehouses and nightclubs. The owner, a Chinese immigrant named Gary Zhu, pays for new uniforms every two years. McCrae has no budget for assistant coaches. Or the patience. “No one wants to work with me because I micromanage,” he says.
The Raiders are the first to arrive, and the boys spill out of the van in their ill-fitting uniforms and mill about while McCrae distributes pregame fuel: Cheetos and potato chips. In the dugout, he sits on the bench with the score book in his lap and contemplates the lineup.
“Next week be a real game,” he says, referring to the upcoming season opener against the Grays. “I don’t want to show them too much.”
Then he grins. “We gonna kill ’em.”
Quan Washington takes the mound first. Despite his small size, he throws an excellent fastball and an even better change-up. He pitches the way he talks: fast. His windup is a blur of movement.
“Let’s go, shooter!” McCrae yells.
The stands are close to empty. On the parent front, the Grays have about 10 in attendance to the Raiders’ one: Quan’s mom, Veronica Washington, a former personal assistant to ex-mayor Adrian Fenty whom McCrae refers to as the “Team Mom,” because she is at almost every game. The Grays’ parents sit together in folding chairs on the sidewalk behind the dugout. Late in the game, Kaleah’s aunt and legal guardian, Rita Coachman, arrives. At one point, she loses track of whom to root for. When one of the Grays steps up to the plate, she complains, “I don’t understand why nobody hitting the ball.”
“That’s their team, not ours,” Quan points out.
“I don’t care. I just wanna see someone hit the ball,” she says. “Hit that ball, baby! Hit it!”
The next inning, the Raiders look as if they’ve scored a run when Quan steals home from third. But the umpire calls him out, saying he didn’t slide. McCrae walks out to argue.
“On our field,” the umpire says, “he has to slide.”
“This is my field,” McCrae says.
The umpire falls silent for a moment. “I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” he says.
McCrae drops the protest.
Final score: 6-3, Raiders.
“That was some good work, but we can do better,” McCrae tells the boys after the game. “Teams like this ain’t supposed to touch y’all.”
* * *
In the course of 17 years of coaching, Little League has become McCrae’s full-time vocation, making the onetime drug dealer and co-founder of the seminal D.C. go-go act, Junkyard Band, an unlikely bulwark against the decline of young African American participation in baseball. (He lives off money he made managing Junkyard and with support from family.)
In the District, Little League breaks down on racial and economic lines. For decades, it has flourished west of the Anacostia River, in the affluent neighborhoods of upper Northwest Washington, home to the Capitol City and Northwest Little Leagues. Upper Northwest is also home to some of the city’s best public and private schools, which have their pick of the District’s top players. By contrast, in the largely black sections of the city, east of the river, Little League has long taken a back seat to football and basketball.
McCrae dreams of one day coaching a team that can make a run at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. This year is shaping up to be his best shot in more than a decade. He hasn’t won a championship in either the RBI league or the Cal Ripken Division since the 1990s, but he is convinced that the Raiders can get through the 2011 regular season without a single loss.
“Everybody else is rebuilding,” he says. “This is my year.”
In the two leagues the Raiders play in, most of the head coaches have day jobs. McCrae’s “archenemy,” Ronald “Horse” Hines, who coaches the King Greenleaf White Sox in Southwest, drives a fire engine. Andrew Williamson, head coach of the local RBI travel team, the D.C.-RBI 12U Travel All-Stars, is a law clerk. Last year, the coach of the Grays was David McCallum, deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Some started coaching their own kids and never stopped. McCrae fell into the job because he took notice of an attractive young woman handing out fliers for the Fishing School, an organization that works with at-risk kids in the District; at the time, the school was down the street from his apartment off H Street NE. (McCrae is divorced and has two adult sons.) She turned out to be married, but he stuck around the school anyway and was asked to coach — first football, then baseball. His first year as a Little League coach, he lost every game.
“I knew baseball, but I didn’t know Little League,” he says, referring to mistakes he made because of his ignorance of league rules. The second year, he read the rule book cover to cover and started watching the other coaches. If he yelled too loudly from the sidelines, sometimes coaches had to pull him aside and tell him to calm down. McCrae quickly realized he preferred coaching Little League to football because, as he puts it, “in football you have to deal with 30 attitudes. In baseball, it’s 12.”
By then, he was used to playing “street daddy.” McCrae had learned to play drums while he was at Ballou Senior High School and later volunteered to teach drumming to younger kids in his Barry Farm neighborhood. Kids built drum sets out of plastic buckets, hubcaps and oilcans. Two rival bucket-drumming crews emerged. He formed Junkyard Band by taking the best of both. McCrae never performed; his job was to find talent, make sure they made it to practice and had gigs to play. He checked their report cards as well.
“Derrick keep us all in line,” says former Junkyard member Gene Pratt. “He kept us out of jail and the graveyard.”
By the mid-1980s, Junkyard was touring with Big Audio Dynamite and performing with LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, who were just then breaking out. The band played New York clubs such as CBGB, the Palladium and Danceteria. There was plenty of money and plenty of girls. “Oh, the girls!” McCrae says. But he and the band parted ways in 1989.
“I was doing things I had no right to be doing,” he says. He had started selling drugs in the early 1980s, initially to help the band make payroll, then kept going because the money was good.
Junkyard still exists, and McCrae is friendly with the current managers. But McCrae has stayed out of the music business. Lately, he has been thinking of getting back in, since a lot of the original members still live in the area and others are just getting out of prison. McCrae wants them to record a gospel album in a studio he’s building across the street from his church, Matthews Memorial Baptist. He hopes to persuade them when he sees a few of the members at a reunion show in a Crystal City hotel in April.
When he arrives, McCrae strides into the upstairs hallway outside the ballroom, where Junkyard will be performing, wearing a black Kangol hat. He stops in a few hotel rooms upstairs, where some of the original members are staying.
“Derrick look like Redd Foxx,” says Dave “32” Ellis, who started with Junkyard and later sang with the Northeast Groovers before going out on his own.
“You gotta burn some gospel,” McCrae says. “You got to come go-go it up. Bet you every church in D.C. get that.”
They get to reminiscing about Willie “Heavy One” Gaston Jr., a Junkyard member and one of the best go-go drummers in Washington; he was shot dead in 1992 on a street corner in Barry Farm.
“When Willie went, it tore me up,” McCrae says. “I was messed up for two months.”
Willie was not the first Junkyard member to go, though. The first was Derrick “Lil Derrick” Ingram, who was found dead near a recreation center in Southeast in 1987. He was 16. McCrae shares a story that no one in the room had heard before. McCrae says he put Lil Derrick on a corner to substitute for another drug dealer, a guy he called Pops. Only Lil Derrick turned out to be a better salesman. Years after Lil Derrick’s death, McCrae heard that Pops, now also deceased, claimed to have killed the boy.
“That messed up my head,” McCrae says. “It hurt bad.”
In 1988, McCrae was arrested and pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He served nine months in Lorton Correctional Facility, long enough to persuade him to quit drug dealing and clean up for good. He now avoids caffeine and alcohol.
“I don’t indulge in none of that,” he tells Pratt. “I just eat right, go to the weight room.”
He likens his days in the drug trade to having survived a war. Then in 2006, he was shot at close range by godson Theodore Branford, a former charge from the Fishing School, whom McCrae had taken in. When the boy began taking drugs, McCrae told him he had to leave. They argued. The next day, McCrae, who was 44 at the time, was lying down in his bedroom watching NASCAR when his godson walked in with a gun and shot him between the eyebrows.
McCrae remembers stumbling outside and saying to one of his neighbors, “I think this is it for me.” He doesn’t remember being scared. “I was okay with dying since age 30,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I die, I don’t have to pay no more bills. I don’t have to buy gas. I don’t have to worry about paying rent, eating.’ ” The bullet rattled his brain and exited through his jaw. He was out of the hospital in less than two months, but he has had short-term memory problems and frequent nightmares ever since.
McCrae says he struggles with whether to forgive his godson, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence. People at McCrae’s church tell him it’s no different than forgiving his Little Leaguers when they talk back or make a mistake. “But it’s not the same thing,” McCrae says.
* * *
By Memorial Day, the Raiders have steamrolled over every team in both leagues at least once. Their combined league record stands at 12-0. Yet McCrae still isn’t sure how good they really are. The first chance he gets to see how they handle real competition is a two-day tournament at the Fort Lincoln Recreation Center. Any wins — or losses — won’t count toward their regular-season record, but it’ll be the first time they play the uptown teams, including D.C. Dynasty.
The Raiders arrive early at the field and watch two other teams play. As McCrae looks on, he talks to Clint and Quan. “We ain’t seen pitchin’ like that,” he says. “They’re throwing it across the plate. You see it, don’t you? Right over the plate. I want over the fences today.”
When Gil Green, an official with the Cal Ripken Division, arrives and takes a seat on the bleachers, McCrae tells him about an injury Mark Kelly has that is likely going to hurt the team.
“I lost one of my heavy hitters,” he says. “He broke his thumb. It’s swollen. It’s ugly.”
While McCrae rejiggers his roster without Mark, the other team, the D.C. RBI travel team, takes to the field. The players immediately start doing laps around the field. They go through a full warm-up, counting off during stretches. When they’re done, they huddle and shout, “One, two, three, RBI!”
The Raiders, by contrast, look unfocused during a brief practice in the outfield.
“You’re looking very unorganized out there,” McCrae says to the boys. “Makin’ me look bad.”
When the RBI team takes the field, Quan is first at bat. He grins, sways back and forth, then bangs the bat on the plate a few times. He makes contact on the second pitch and gets on base.
Clint hits a grounder close in and is tagged out, but Quan manages to get to third. K’won strikes out. Fat Sauce steps up.
“Mo’, mo’, mo’, what?” McCrae shouts.
“Sauce!” the boys shout back.
Fat Sauce, who at bat is an unsmiling professional, smacks it deep into the outfield and takes off running.
The Raiders go up 1-0, but soon they dissolve in the heat.
When Clint, the catcher, doesn’t throw to third and allows a runner to come home, McCrae starts yelling. “Whatchu doin’? Get your head in the game!”
During another play, Clint overthrows the ball to the pitcher, and McCrae turns to the kid keeping score, a friend of Clint’s named Jovan.
“What y’all do last night?” he demands.
“He went to bed right at 10:45,” Jovan says. “I made sure of that.”
In their dugout, the RBI kids are on their feet and start beating the fence.
“Jesus,” McCrae says. “Y’all ain’t come to play today.”
The final score is 10-1, RBI. It’s the Raiders’ first loss.
* * *
The next game is against Dynasty, which McCrae has never beaten. The team is led by the head coach at the Maret School who runs his own baseball camp. McCrae says a win against Dynasty would be “killing one of my demons.”
“We gotta win this one,” McCrae says.
Before the game begins, McCrae gathers his team.
“We gotta get into the game. We not losers. We are not losers,” he says.
“We didn’t do our prayer. Hands together. Can y’all be quiet? Man, take your hat off!”
Coach and team lower their heads.
“Father, please, watch out for these boys as they play the second game in this doubleheader. Give ’em the strength to be a conqueror and not a loser. In Jesus’s name. Amen.”
The Raiders win easily.
* * *
The Raiders cruise through the playoffs in both leagues, including McCrae’s first wins against the King Greenleaf White Sox, based out of the King Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest Washington. The Raiders come to the end of their regular season with a 20-0 combined record for both leagues, the best performance of McCrae’s coaching career.
A few days before the championship game, McCrae holds one last practice. Despite the easy win, he is feeling anxious. The school year has just ended, and kids are disappearing. Fat Sauce is in North Carolina. Kenyi is with his family on vacation. McCrae had to bench Twin because he was arguing with McCrae and his teammates.
Kaleah wanders by with his shirt hanging out the back.
“You don’t know how to get dressed,” McCrae says. “You’re like a 2-year-old sometimes, Kaleah!”
The practice is a somber affair. There are no displays of restless energy, no chitchat in the outfield. To fill in the gaps in the lineup, McCrae has had to pull in a couple of rookies, including Jaymar Richard, 10, a twig of a kid with shoulder-length dreadlocks and eyeglasses, and outfielder Jaquay Funnyre,11.
The next day, the Raiders head to Kimball Elementary School in Southeast. Not long after they arrive, a white van with the other championship contenders, the King Greenleaf White Sox, pulls up. McCrae dispatches James to see if the Sox have any new players. James comes back with no news.
Before the game, McCrae and the boys huddle for one last pep talk.
“You guys, it’s championship. It’s why we did all that work, why we did all that work all those years. Clint. James. Quan. Mark. I put in a lot of work for this. Let’s take our hats off and say a little prayer. Deacon Carter, can you do the prayer?”
Joseph Carter, a member of McCrae’s church, obliges. “May the best team win. Amen.”
* * *
For the Raiders, errors start to mount early on.
Clint is pitching and has loaded the bases, but then he strikes out a batter, to McCrae’s delight.
“Big-time players make big-time plays!” the coach shouts.
But later, a Sox runner steals home on a wild pitch. When Clint walks another batter, McCrae says, “I got to pull him,” and strides to the mound to deliver the news.
Clint walks off angry.
“You gonna sell us out with that attitude!” McCrae calls after him. “So get it together.”
As Clint gets closer to the dugout, the tears on his cheeks become visible. Greg Sumpter, coaching at first base for Greenleaf, pulls Clint aside and consoles him.
“All those times you be whoopin’ our butts, you never got mad,” Sumpter says. “Now life hand you another look, you gotta man up. If you face adversity, you still got to go to work every day and feed your family. So go to work.”
It’s the bottom of the fourth. Score: 5-1, Greenleaf.
* * *
Behind home plate, Gil Green, the league commissioner, starts to pull trophies from bubble wrap.
Quan drops a popup. K’won is too slow in getting a ball back to Clint, and Greenleaf scores again. It’s now 8-1.
“We done,” McCrae says.
When the Greenleaf pitcher gets the final out, the Greenleaf players rush the field and pile on the ground on top of one another. Final score: 9-1.
“Line up!” McCrae shouts.
* * *
The Raiders sit and watch as the Greenleaf kids pose for their team picture, holding up their trophies. McCrae motions to gather around.
“All right, y’all. They killed us,” McCrae says. “It’s hard to win without four starters. It’s real hard. But you put up a real fight. I’m hurtin’ real bad. We got here 20-0 and lose. It’s not your fault. We all know why we didn’t win. We own that team over there. He had all those guys he worked with all season. I didn’t. Now we got to try to get that RBI championship. Going to be hard.”
In the background, Horse, the head coach for Greenleaf, yelps as the kids pour ice water over his head.
* * *
Monday. Ridge Road SE. Redemption time.
The white van holding the Greenleaf Sox rolls into the gravel lot next to the baseball field.
Their coach, Horse, is the first to climb out.
“It’s so nice, we’re gonna do it twice!” he says, walking up to the field.
The parental turnout for the Raiders is strong this time. Rita, Kaleah’s aunt, has called every sibling and cousin she can think of to come out.
The other team is on the field, practicing and looking buoyant.
Rita takes a smoke break. “I been so depressed,” she says. She looks over at McCrae. “Derrick is so good. Kaleah father is nowhere.”
As the big game gets going, Quan throws a strike, and McCrae chuckles. “Get reh-deh!” he yells.
But then Quan lets two runners score.
When the Raiders go to bat, Quan hits a popup that’s easily caught. His head slumps down, and he kicks the bat.
Later, the Raiders get on their feet as James hits a home run. Fat Sauce steps up next.
“Let’s go, mambo!” McCrae yells. “Mo’, mo’, mo’, what?”
“Sauce!” comes the cry from the dugout.
Fat Sauce slams the ball up the middle for a double. He is stranded, though, after Clint strikes out for the third out. The score is 2-1.
“Let’s go!” McCrae yells. “Stop playing with them!”
“He throwin’ watermelons across the plate!” McCrae says of the Sox’s pitcher.
A foul ball slams into the bleachers narrowly missing a relative of Kaleah’s.
“It’s a hex!” she says and changes seats.
* * *
The score is 4-1.
McCrae calls a timeout and sits on the bench.
“Everyone, right here.” He scans the faces in front of him. “Do y’all want to win this?” he asks. “This is a big inning. Do y’all understand? We got this.”
He stands up and starts handing out candy from a paper bag. “Okay, get some fruities in y’all. Fruities right here. Get some sugar in you.”
The fruities don’t fortify the boys. When Marcus takes off from second base and is tagged out, McCrae asks him, “Who told you to run?”
“I don’t care,” Marcus says.
* * *
With two outs and a runner on third, Clint throws the ball to first base, and the runner on third goes home. McCrae explodes.
“You don’t do that with two outs, Clint!” he shouts. “You act like you playing for the other team! It’s ridiculous. Jesus. We’re trying to win a game! You givin’ it to ’em. Gaaawd!”
The Raiders stage a late and brief rally. James is on third when Fat Sauce steps up.
“Mo’, mo’, mo’, what?” McCrae yells. The kids respond in kind.
Sauce strikes out. He shrugs.
Then Clint strikes out, too. Game over: 9-3.
* * *
McCrae gathers his team in the gravel lot.
“Y’all don’t want it enough,” he says. “I’m serious. We had enough bats and enough talent. It was my job to put you in a position to win.”
The boys are quiet but don’t look nearly as dejected as they were after the last loss. A few even smile. McCrae is right. They didn’t care as much this time. The season is over, and now they will have more time for basketball and football.
McCrae knows he has had his last chance with most of these kids. He’ll start with a new group next year.
“Next time you in a championship game, you got to say to yourself, ‘I’m the best,’ ” he says. “You’re getting mad at each other instead of encouraging each other. There are no leaders on this team. If someone down, you got to pick them up. You don’t pay attention.”
He pauses and looks around.
“I hope you learn from these experiences,” he says.
* * *
As it gets dark, McCrae sits by his van, which is filled with prepubescent boy chatter, and stuffs bats into a bag. In a few weeks, he will be busy lobbying the grandmother of a couple of 9-year-old prospects to let them play for him. He will begin rebuilding his squad around Kaleah, K’won and Jaymar. But at the moment, he is making his peace with what could have been.
“They drive me crazy,” he says of his team, laughing. “But I love ’em.”
Just then, an empty soda can lands in the bush behind him. McCrae is on his feet.
“Get out of my truck!” he yells. “Go into the trees and pick that up! Who had this Hawaiian Punch?” he says, holding up a can.
“Cliiint!” he says.
“I had a Sunkist,” says Clint, from inside the van.
“Where the can?”
Clint steps out, saunters over a few feet, then leans down and fishes a can out of the grass.
“Here’s my Sunkist,” he says, and gets back in the van.
McCrae sighs. The thrower of the Hawaiian Punch goes unidentified.
Annys Shin is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.