As soon as my husband walks through the front door, I usually can tell whether the high school baseball team he helps coach has won a game. A slow shuffle into the kitchen means a loss. A hearty hello means a win. But lately, wins by double digits have left him feeling defeated.
His team is participating in the second annual President's Cup, a tournament in which nine of Baltimore's public high school baseball teams compete against seven private city school teams, with the championship game to be held next Saturday at Camden Yards — pretty heady stuff for any kid.
The goals of the tournament, initiated by Baltimore City Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Young, are to reignite a passion for baseball among the city's youth, raise money to renovate city ball fields (as of March 24, it had raised $166,000), and draw together students from disparate backgrounds. As Mr. Young said on WBAL radio, participating students from private schools will "get to see some of the obstacles these kids face."
My husband coaches baseball at an elite private school in Baltimore. The time, effort and resources that have gone into the training of these young athletes by the time they make their high school team are immeasurable. Beyond little league, there are winter warm-up clinics, fall ball, club teams, sometimes personal coaches — all of which require significant time and financial commitments by the families.
Judging by the large-margin wins my husband's team has been racking up in the tournament, it's clear their opponents haven't had nearly the same type of playing experience or support. At one recent game, the public school team drew few fans and only nine players. Nor were they adequately equipped: The catcher's glove was broken — and one player didn't have a glove. Meanwhile, on the other bench, fancy baseball bags opened to reveal expensive bats and gloves.
The opponents' skill level also lagged far behind those of the athletes on my husband's team. They weren't necessarily smaller or slower. They just haven't had the luxury of countless hours of coaching. And statistics show that they're not watching as much baseball as their fathers and grandfathers did.
Sixty-five years ago today, Jackie Robinson made history when he became the first African-American to play in the major leagues. Yet, today, black players are only 8.5 percent of major-leaguers, down from 27 percent in 1975, according to Sports Illustrated. The Chicago White Sox recently reported that only 4.5 percent of their fans are African-American, even though the city's general population is 37 percent African-American. Not every major league team tracks attendance by race, but the trend is clear, as anyone who has been to an Orioles game in recent years can attest.
With fewer role models to emulate and lackluster resources — many city ball fields in Baltimore are in sore need of repair — it's no wonder Baltimore city's youth, the majority of them African-American, have become disenchanted with baseball. But this month, a handful of Baltimore city teenagers who do play baseball got at least an inkling of the training all budding players deserve.
After a few innings during a recent President's Cup game, it was clear that the teams were not evenly matched. Instead of engaging in a slaughter, they agreed to play an abbreviated game just for fun. Then, the private school team's coaches offered to host an impromptu clinic of sorts for the remainder of the afternoon. As my husband described that portion of the gathering, his voice started to rise.
"It was great. Really fun. Everyone got into it," he told me. The highlight of the afternoon, according to my husband? When the boys on his team huddled at the end of the day to give a rousing cheer for their opponents.
What happened on the ball field that afternoon doesn't begin to reverse the gaping disparities between the two sets of high school athletes. But perhaps it helped to inch toward the goal of the President's Cup, as envisioned by Councilman Young, who told Baltimoreans: "I want to see baseball being played like it was when I was growing up, where on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, family and friends came out to watch kids, and everybody played this game that we call America's game: baseball."
Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-area writer. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the President's Cup or to donate, go to baltimorepresidentscup.com.