For the 11- and 12-year-olds competing in their first D.C. Little League Championship on Monday night, the game was about balls and strikes, jumping out to a big lead against a heavily favored opponent and watching the other team slowly climb back.
But for the dozens of parents, coaches and fans anxiously cheering the team known as JMS, reaching the climax of the divisional tournament inspired more iconic descriptors.
“Symbolic,” some said. “Seminal.”
Kimberley Edwards, whose son Donovan wore number 5 on the back of his purple jersey, said the game was “history-making.”
Some of the parents call the boys “the sandlot team,” because it includes top players from three separate leagues — Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Mamie Johnson and the Senators Satchel Paige. Hence, the JMS moniker.
They will go down in Little League history as the first all-black team to compete in the D.C. championship in its 30-year history. Their opponent was the tournament team from the mostly white Northwest Little League, which had appeared in the championship game seven of the past eight years.
Almost all of the JMS boys live east of the Anacostia River, with the majority playing for the Mamie Johnson Little League. Two boys live on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, a Navy-Air Force military installation in the city’s southern tip, which offers no opportunities to play competitive baseball after age 11.
Many of them could hardly swing a bat when they first formed a tournament team three years ago, parents said.
“Inner-city baseball is moving up, and that’s a good thing because competition should be throughout this city, not just in one section,” said Andre Lee, president of the Senators Satchel Paige Little League. “Baseball is baseball. It doesn’t have a color barrier to it.”
The team was coached by Keith Barnes, 45, who in 2014 founded the Mamie Johnson league in Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River, a historic dividing line between the city’s haves and have-nots.
It has struggled at times to raise money to cover equipment and fees that are little more than an afterthought to more affluent families.
“Football is king in D.C.,” said Barnes, who grew up in Richmond and played college baseball at Virginia State University. “We’ve been trying to grow baseball in the African American community. We just want to give kids other options.”
His league is named for one of only three women to have played baseball in the Negro leagues. On Monday night, Johnson herself was at the game to witness a different chapter of history. She wore a white Washington Nationals jersey and snacked on pizzelles, perched on a lawn chair with a prime view of home plate.
It was the first time the 81-year-old had seen the team play, but that didn’t keep her from feeling a sense of ownership. “They’re mine!” she said with pride.
Parents and others who have followed JMS credit Barnes and the other coaches with the team’s rapid ascendancy, recalling that the boys did not win a single game during their first season.
They said the predominantly white leagues have a longer history of coaches who played in college and then return to mentor young boys.
“We in the inner city, we don’t have the kids that go to college on baseball scholarships and come back,” Lee said.
Beneath the shade of a blue tent, JMS parents cheered from their lawn chairs and passed out clappers and cowbells. Most wore matching team T-shirts with their sons’ names and numbers on the back. Nicko Wescott, whose son Ayden threw 85 pitches during the game, offered up homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“Being unnoticed, and then all of a sudden people notice you, it’s all about that respect,” said Stephen Makle, whose son Amir has been on the team since its inception. “Being visible in the community — your actions have to speak up.”
At the end of four innings, JMS was ahead 6-0. The winner of the game would go on to the regional tournament, with a chance to eventually advance to the Little League World Series.
But in the final two innings, Northwest’s bats came to life. By the bottom of the sixth, Northwest was up 7-6.
JMS had one more chance. But it was not to be.
After the last out was made, players from Northwest hoisted the championship banner and their parents raced to the diamond to snap photos.
Within minutes, the JMS tent had been packed up. Parents hugged their boys, many of whom held back tears.
The score may not have reflected it, those on the sidelines said, but history had already been made.
“I told them everybody was out there cheering for them, rooting for them,” Barnes said after the game. “Just keep playing.”