On Tuesday night, while the Washington Nationals were losing yet another game in an increasingly dreary summer, a much more important baseball development took place on a little diamond in an out-of-the-way corner of the District. A ball pinged off an aluminum bat, then thudded into a glove. And then delirium — hats in the air, gloves tossed to the side, hugs all around.
“It’s honestly overwhelming,” said Keith Barnes, the president of the Mamie Johnson Little League.
“My heart,” said Charlie Sperduto, who directs the baseball and softball programs at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, “it’s never been fuller than it was last night.”
The transactional information isn’t mind-blowing: Mamie Johnson beat Capitol Hill to win the District’s Little League championship. The tournament has been held annually for 31 years. Someone has to win it. Next stop for the 12 boys from Mamie Johnson: Bristol, Conn., for regionals, with the Little League World Series in sight beyond that.
That result, though, is enormously important not just for those kids and coaches but for baseball in Washington and beyond, too. This is the first all-African American team to win this tournament. Think about that and then listen to Barnes, who played high school and college ball — and wants other kids like him to one day say the same.
“I got tired of reading articles about the decline of African Americans in baseball,” he said Wednesday morning. “And no one had solutions.”
Guess what? He’s now part of the solution.
This shouldn’t be happening. Not yet anyway. Five years ago, there was no Little League program in the District’s Ward 7, which is almost entirely east of the Anacostia River. Five years ago, the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy hadn’t opened its gleaming facility in the heart of that ward. Five years ago, baseball not only had almost no participation here, it really had no presence.
“People were interested, but they didn’t really know how to cheer at a baseball game or how to act or where to stand,” said Raphael Lockett, who is in his third year coaching with Mamie Johnson and served as the head coach for the new champs, made up of 11- and 12-year-olds. “They called umpires ‘refs,’ stuff like that. Now they’re telling me, ‘Hey, Coach, why don’t you hit-and-run here?’ They’re going through situational baseball. They’re all into it, lights out.”
Major League Baseball, you need to pay attention to what happened here Tuesday night. The Major League Baseball Players Association? Yep, you too. This isn’t just about one group of kids who won one tournament over one week. This is about the future of the sport. And it’s not about rolling out some bats and balls and saying, “Look! We’re supporting baseball in inner cities!” This is about a community-wide commitment to use baseball not just for baseball’s sake but to develop youth that might not otherwise be developed. In the short-term, the kids benefit from baseball. Years from now, baseball could be the beneficiary.
“We have to fill the funnel,” said Tal Alter, the only executive director in Nationals Academy history and the character whose vision and commitment made a scene such as Tuesday night’s possible.
Alter and his staff are trying to fill that funnel with a fire hose. There are 700 kids in the academy’s “YBA Play” program, which provides fast-paced, nontraditional entry points in the sport that have helped kids get hooked. Eight of the 12 players on the Mamie Johnson team are academy kids, coming for holistic education programs after school during the academic year — STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and literacy education but baseball as well — and then spending their summer days at the facility.
“They’re in that baseball culture like every day,” Barnes said. “That made it easier from those kids to buy in to what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing — together — is saving a sport in the city. Barnes used the academy as ground zero to start his league from scratch, even though he has no kids of his own and wouldn’t be paid a dime. They started with 120 kids in 2015. This year, 310 registered. Barnes and his founding partners named the league in honor of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues who happened to reside in Washington. It was a nod to history. But they were thinking of the generation to come.
“When I watched baseball, I didn’t really understand it,” said 12-year-old Josh Young, the team cutup. “But I wanted to try it, to try and figure it out.”
That became part of the mission for Alter, Sperduto and the academy staff. Sperduto teaches fundamentals by modifying rules, trying to suck kids into the sport. To fill the funnel, they need kids such as Solomon McKinney. Two years ago, he was obsessed with basketball and had never put on a baseball glove. On Tuesday night in the championship game, he tripled off the outfield fence.
“He went from bouncing the ball,” Sperduto said, “to pounding the mitt.”
But it isn’t just the pulls of basketball and football — or even video games and iPhones — that they’re battling. It’s the circumstances of their section of the city.
“We’ve had setbacks after setbacks,” said Sperduto, a former college baseball player who has been with the academy since before the facility opened its doors. “Some kids have moved out, and we’ve lost some kids who had great potential because of family challenges. But our team here is relentlessly positive. We believe.”
Package all that up, and there’s a chance for something special to happen not only for these families and these kids when they take the field again Aug. 5. This can be a model for other major league teams to use their brand and their brawn to reignite the sport in areas where, we have been told over and over, it’s dying. In 2017, African Americans made up just 7.1 percent of MLB’s Opening Day roster spots — the lowest percentage since 1958. (The figure jumped to 7.8 percent this year.) This is a socioeconomic problem because baseball is expensive and has become a white, suburban sport. The Youth Development Foundation sponsored by MLB and the players’ union believes enough in what the Nationals Academy is doing that it gave it $1 million over three years.
But is that intractable? For the championship game, the academy’s rooftop was littered with tents that shielded an overflow crowd from the showers. The sidewalks were packed. Fans sat on the hills behind the outfield walls. They brought noise makers. Supporters from other leagues around the city came to see whether Mamie Johnson could pull it off.
“That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen,” said Langston Speed, also 12 and a middle infielder.
Just that scene matters. Since Mamie Johnson formed, since the academy opened, a critical mass of kids has shown that there’s an appetite for baseball in just the kind of neighborhood where it had seemed to dry up. But winning? Winning matters, too. Last year, some of the Mamie Johnson kids were part of a team that lost in the D.C. final, blowing a four-run lead in the final inning. Johnson herself was there to see it.
“Our guys came to the moment,” Lockett said, “and it was too much.”
Over the winter, Johnson died at 82. So on Tuesday night, the kids from her namesake Little League began the most important game of their young lives by cheering, “For Mamie!” They wear little peanut patches on their uniforms. And this year, they won. The foundation is there. If it’s to grow, the result mattered.
“We’ve had young kids already come up, parents already come up, from 5 to 7 years old saying, ‘I want to be that team. What can we do? Where’s the league sign-up? How can we play?’” Lockett said. “ ‘How can I play with my kids? What drills are you working on?’ It’s not, ‘Where’s the basketball goal?’ It’s, ‘Can I buy a bat for next year? What are the standards?’ It’s all changing.”
Forget, then, any frustration with the Nationals’ losing record at the moment. Baseball — baseball at its best — is alive in the District. Alive and growing.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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