The pitch bores in low and skitters under Ian Anderson's mitt. As he chugs to retrieve the baseball, another enemy runner dashes across home plate, putting the Carver Bears more hopelessly behind.
Shoulders slump around this West Baltimore diamond, lumpy and pocked with dandelions after weeks of no mowing. Harvey White, pitching his first game ever for Carver, can't find his control. And Anderson, filling in for a suspended teammate, looks like the novice he is behind the plate.
But from the bench comes an animated voice, cutting through the dejection: "Good job, Ian! Good job back there No. 5!"
The voice emanates from a guy pacing vigorously in Carver blue spikes with red swooshes. His name is Michael Rosenband and no matter what happens on the field, his tone never falters. Even after the sloppiest play, he never barks at the players. After every half inning, he runs out to clap them on the back and tell them it'll get better.
"He's the best coach I ever had," says Anderson, a junior who has already been admitted to Towson and Johns Hopkins. Asked why, he pauses to ponder. "He keeps us together," he says.
The broad strokes of the tale sound almost too good to be true: Lifelong go-getter abandons lucrative Wall Street career at age 40 to coach rag-tag inner city baseball team, leads them from an 0-11 season to a win in the playoffs. Along the way, he teaches the players to think like entrepreneurs and develops a passionate interest in the Negro leagues history of his adopted home, Baltimore.
But the story of Michael Rosenband and Carver baseball is not one of a team dominating its foes or of a quest at its end. It's about a man from one place and a group of kids from another, all striving to live meaningful lives and bound together by baseball.
The truth is that this year's Bears — Rosenband's second team at Carver — have not won often. The players' inexperience shows in passed balls and misjudged pop-ups that add up to big innings for opponents.
As for the coach, he's running low on the money he earned from Wall Street and with his own 5-year-old son, Toby, starting school, he's not sure he can continue throwing so much of his soul into the Bears and his efforts to promote Negro leagues history.
"I have to figure out how to generate more income for myself," he says, sounding like any other 42-year-old guy facing a recent divorce and the prospect of tuition bills.
But you can see these practical realities tear at him; he believes the work he's doing in Baltimore, with baseball, is his calling.
"When I'm not sleeping, when I'm not playing with my son, this is what I'm doing," he says. "I don't want this dream to die."
The Carver players couldn't quite believe it when he described the career he'd given up to work with them.
"We said, 'You didn't quit your job! Not for no baseball team!' " recalls Sterling Hardy, the captain of Rosenband's first team.
"For him to have a certain lifestyle and give it away because he trusted us … he went all in so we went all in, too."
Rosenband's bond with Hardy — part father-son, part mentor-protege — speaks to the depth of his efforts. As the two of them sit in a Harbor East coffee shop, telling the Carver baseball story, Rosenband thinks nothing of handing his car keys and credit card to the teenager so Hardy can leave to pay a parking meter.
Rosenband retains the wiry build of a college athlete. Dark stubble frames his lean face and when he talks, he looks straight at you with intense green eyes. Ideas tumble out of him, the next often coming before he has fully explained the previous.
Along with coaching the Carver kids, he has helped them form the Backcatcher Co., its name based on an old colloquialism passed down from the Negro Leagues. The company's mission? To provide experiential learning for the graduates of Baltimore City public schools.
Rosenband and Hardy, a 2012 Carver graduate, have a dizzying array of plans for the company.
They want to use a laser engraving machine at Carver to print replicas of a ticket to the 1942 Negro leagues All-Star Game, which matched Satchel Paige and Baltimore's own Leon Day, who has become a historical symbol for the Bears. They would use recycled steel from the recently imploded Melvale gas tank along the Jones Falls Expressway as a mount for the engravings.
They want to gut and rehabilitate a vacant home near Carver that would serve as the Backcatcher headquarters.
They want to pitch Under Armour on establishing a manufacturing plant in west Baltimore that would produce a line of Negro-leagues-themed socks.
And that doesn't even touch on the work Rosenband has done with the Leon Day Foundation, where he helped set up a sandlot baseball program for the Franklintown community on Saturday afternoons. He knocked on doors to recruit kids and paid for the bats, balls and helmets out of pocket.
"I'm thankful that he's willing to go out there and try to make something useful in Leon's name," says Day's widow, Geraldine.
The Butchers Hill resident sees baseball as an agent that can both bind a community and connect it to its past.
"This guy has picked up the ball that has been dropped by so many people," says Baltimore radio host and artist Bob Hieronimus, who met Rosenband through their mutual interest in Leon Day's legacy. "What he understands is that this is a work of service and if that means putting your own money into it, that's what you do. When he called me, he wasn't calling to see what I thought. He was already doing something."
Midwestern success story
Rosenband grew up in Hammond, Ind., a small, rust-belt city just southeast of Chicago. His family lived well off its industrial shelving business. But Rosenband's parents did not see that as a reason to send him to private schools. He attended public school with the sons and daughters of laid-off factory workers, and he loved it. He never felt more at home than as the only white player on Hammond High's varsity basketball team.
The experience meant so much to him that his eyes well with tears and his voice becomes choked as he remembers the feeling of unity.
His football coach, Tom Zasada, remembers the way Rosenband opened his home to all teammates — black and white, well-to-do and poor. On two-practice days, they'd all go jump in his family's pool between workouts. And he'd tutor any teammate who needed to boost an SAT score.
Rosenband was relentless. At a scrawny 155 pounds, he desperately wanted to make the team's 200-pound weightlifting club, meaning he had to complete seven repetitions of a 200-pound bench press. Every day, he insisted that Zasada watch him try until finally, he hit the mark.
Once out of high school, Rosenband followed the overachiever's manual to the letter. He became president of his class at the University of Pennsylvania, earned an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and ultimately landed a job at Cerberus Capital Management, a New York private equity firm.
He wore pricey suits to his Park Avenue office, flew business class to California every week and lived in a $5,800-a-month Manhattan apartment. He summered in the Hamptons and skied in Vail, Colo.
"At that time in our lives, there was basically nothing we didn't have access to," he says.
When the recession hit in 2009, Cerberus disbanded Rosenband's group. Instead of looking for another finance job, he searched for something that felt more meaningful.
He talked it over with his parents. They were surprised he wanted to abandon a successful career. But his father, Phillip, told him that all the way back to Hammond High, he had made the most meaningful impact when he tried to help people in difficult settings.
"He was burned out because he was not really where he should be," says Rosenband's mother, Sandee. "Making people happy, that's where he should be."
Rosenband volunteered as a football coach at Alfred E. Smith, a vocational school in the Bronx. He enjoyed it enough that he thought teaching might be his next calling. So he called a friend from business school whose wife works at the non-profit Baltimore Curriculum Project. She secured a temporary position for him at City Springs Elementary.
He found the classroom too confining but felt comfortable enough in Baltimore to move his wife and son from New York. In fall 2011, he hooked on as a football assistant at Carver. The kids were impressed with his energy and urged him to take over the moribund baseball program, which lacked a coach.
Rosenband met with Carver athletic director Wayne Jackson, who drove him 1 1/2 miles from the school to Leon Day Park, where the baseball team plays its home games. Rosenband had never heard of Day, a Hall of Fame pitcher reputed to be one of the hardest throwers in the Negro leagues.
His education continued when he met with his players.
"One of the kids says to me, 'I play back catcher,'" he recalls. "And I say 'Can you repeat that?' "
It turned out the vernacular term had been passed down through the generations in cities with strong histories in the Negro leagues. "So you have pockets where it is still the only term that's known for the catching position," Rosenband says. "Which just blew me away."
The term came to encapsulate his entire mission at Carver. Rosenband wanted to coach winning baseball, but he also wanted to teach skills that would make his players viable workers in the modern business world.
"They do everything right," he says of the reality facing students at Carver, founded in 1925 as the state's first vocational school for African-Americans. "And then they get out, and there's nothing to do."
He urged his players to learn Excel. He took five seniors on an Amtrak train to New York, where they spoke with experts at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture about the origins of "back catcher." He worked with them to file a trademark application for the term.
Then there was the van.
For years, the team had been forced to practice on a cramped softball field at Carver, because the school couldn't afford to bus the players daily to Leon Day Park. The Bears believed this was part of the reason their skills had not sharpened.
Rosenband had built up the slogan "Practice Winning," meaning he wanted the players to treat baseball as a serious, daily vocation.
"How do you expect us to practice winning," they asked him, "if we can't really practice?"
So Rosenband helped them look for a transportation alternative. "I have them do it all," he remembers. "I have them find it on Craigslist. I have them negotiate."
He and several players drove 90 minutes to Waldorf in southern Maryland, where they had found a 15-passenger 1993 Dodge Ram for sale. "We handled all the negotiating," says Hardy, who had emerged as Rosenband's team captain. "And we knocked the price down to what? $2,650?"
Rosenband nods, acknowledging the amount he paid out of his pocket (he has plowed the $3,800-per-season stipends he receives from Carver back into the program).
"And then we start winning," he says.
The 2012 Bears started 0-6. Some of the players were so inexperienced that they used a cross-handed grip when they first hoisted bats.
But with the van and access to a real practice field, the team took off. The Bears had a first-round bye in playoffs and beat Frederick Douglass to make the state's sweet 16. They marched out for playoff games behind a banner bearing Day's likeness. Some of the players even used Day's name in their Twitter handles.
The Bears were perhaps the proudest 5-8 team in history.
Rolling with the punches
This season, the Bears — who play Loch Raven in the state playoffs Monday — have had to practice at Easterwood Park, just across Bentalou Street from Carver. Their rickety Dodge Ram is in the shop. The field has no baselines and the grass is patchy. Sometimes, they get booted by neighborhood little leaguers.
It's a resplendent late-April afternoon, and Rosenband is searching for ways to reboot the season, to pull greater commitment from these younger players, four of whom had barely tried baseball before this year. In a few days, he'll host a pizza dinner and promise them even more of his time if they also give more.
"It's a beautiful day," he says, staring up at a crystal blue sky. "We're going to have a great practice!"
He sees that one of his most gifted players is missing. "'Where's Jeff?" he says. "He got in trouble in class," the boys murmur. No one from Carver has informed Rosenband. Such impediments are hardly atypical.
"Alright, well, we need another pitcher," he says, barely pausing for the disappointment. He wants the players to see that bad breaks are no reason to stop.
Practice begins, and Rosenband hits flies to Khalif Hunter, a fleet centerfielder with a choirboy smile.
"Look at that energy," says Hunter, a soft-spoken masonry student, nodding in at Rosenband. "He never misses a practice. I don't think he ever misses anything. Tell you the truth, if he wasn't coaching, I probably wouldn't be playing."
Rosenband's green eyes gleam at every running catch, and he yelps with joy when someone smacks a homer into the parked cars beyond the outfield fence. His worries about money and sharing custody of his son with his ex-wife are pushed to the side.