It was the second inning of the Park Heights Black Sox’s opening game against the Woodlawn Yankees, and with three swings, batter Betty Shell struck out.
Her coach, George E. Mitchell, pulled the 11-year-old aside.
“You know why you struck out?” he said. “’Cause you ain’t believing in yourself. You’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to believe you can hit that ball, and I know you can hit it.”
The lessons that youth players on the Black Sox team learn are intended to go beyond ball skills and baseball strategy. Mitchell and coaches Carole “Coach Bmore” Berry and Michael Schaffer say they strive to instill confidence and teamwork in their players, and keep them engaged in positive activity throughout the summer.
“You cannot understand the feeling of when you get to see these kids out here on a Saturday afternoon playing ball instead of out there watching somebody sell drugs,” said Mitchell, who is also running in the Democratic primary to represent Maryland’s 41st District in the House of Delegates. “It’s just what they need.”
With a roster of about 30 players between ages 5 and 15, the team started its second season Saturday. The game was prefaced by a one-block parade to the field at C.C. Jackson Recreation Center. The team marched with banners ahead of a five-piece drumline, as parents filmed their kids making their way to the baseball diamond.
After lining up for the national anthem, the kids ran onto the field to warm up before the first pitch.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Sharon Middleton threw out the ceremonial first pitch. She said during the Black Sox’s first season last summer, she watched players grow under Mitchell’s guidance.
“Organized sports does have sort of a special kind of discipline that you don’t get at home these days,” Middleton said. “He’s saving a lot of children, especially during the summer — spring and summer — that could go in the other direction and get in trouble.”
As older players on the team took to the field, younger players on the bench — waiting for their chance to play tee-ball after the first game — cheered their teammates with chants of, “Let’s go, Black Sox, let’s go!”
Parents and community members agreed the team provides a positive outlet for children during the summer. La’Keisha Golder’s 13-year-old son, Justin Golder, joined the team this season. He also plays for his school, Kipp Ujima Village Academy.
“It was his decision, and I go along with things that are positive,” Golder said. “It keeps them off of the streets, it keeps them from falling in with the bad crowds and it gives them something to look forward to.”
The team is a program of the Langston Hughes Community, Business & Resource Center.
“We do a great deal of outreach in the community to attract black boys because we know that they don’t always have a real good selection of choices, and so we want them to know that this is their team,” said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for the Langston Hughes center. “The older boys really have taken ownership of coaching the little boys.”
Black Sox practices are held at least twice a week and games against other teams in the area are held Saturdays. The home team lost 7-2 in the opener against Woodlawn.
While the majority of players on the team are boys, there are several girls. Madyson Peterson Thomas is one of the few female players who returned for a second season.
“I just think baseball is a fun sport,” the 10-year-old said during a break between innings. “I’m rough, so I think this would be a good sport.”
She joined the team last year during a visit with her grandmother, Valentina Thomas, who lives in Park Heights.
“I just like when she’s out here playing with all the kids,” Madyson’s mom, Shaniece Thomas, said. “She’s really happy. She doesn’t want to miss practice.”
Shell, the girl who struck out in the second inning, joined the team last year, too. Two years earlier, she was in a car accident and suffered a serious brain injury that impaired her ability to walk, talk and see. Her mother, Tiffany Burks, said playing baseball aided in her recovery.
“She grew,” Burks said. “She’s more interested now.”