Rocksann Smith considers herself ambitious rather than rebellious. The 14-year-old West Baltimore resident has been playing baseball for five years and is determined to become the first woman to play major league baseball.
“That’s why I have to work 10 times harder than them,” she said of her male counterparts. “But I’m willing to do that.”
As a soon-to-be freshman at City College, Smith is preparing for possibly joining the high school’s softball team. But she is staying involved in baseball thanks to her involvement with the Baltimore Urban Baseball Association, a not-for-profit organization that over the past four years has been seeking to get more inner-city youth participating in the sport to diversify rosters in Little Leagues and high schools.
Baltimore Urban Baseball Association (BUBA) founder Andrew Weltlinger has an indoor facility in Pigtown dedicated to instructing youth in Baltimore City.
BUBA is renting a 20,000-square-foot indoor training facility in Pigtown with the hopes of outright buying the building at 1205 South Carey St. The organization has already been awarded a pair of $83,333.33 grants from the Baltimore Children & Youth Fund. Driveline Baseball, a company in Kent, Washington, that specializes in data-driven performance, has agreed to sponsor a five-month offseason training regimen for 84 players at BUBA.
Deven Morgan, director of youth baseball for Driveline Baseball, said the company is eager to partner with a group such as BUBA.
“There’s this idea that really high high-level baseball training is the specific domain of a singular socioeconomic subgroup. That isn’t sustainable, and it’s broadly abhorrent to me,” he said. “So when people like Andy find us and have that type of intention to push that type of disruption that we want to do as well, it’s like, ‘OK, how can we help?’”
Andy is Andrew Weltlinger, a Baltimore native and Calvert Hall graduate who founded BUBA. Despite getting selected in the 45th round of the MLB draft by the Houston Astros, he decided to accept a scholarship to play baseball at Cal State Fullerton for two years before transferring and finishing his career at Towson. Since graduating in 1997, Weltlinger has been working at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch where he is now a first vice president.
When he began volunteering with the baseball team at Digital Harbor, Weltlinger witnessed the discrepancies in baseball fields, equipment and management between Baltimore City public high schools and their peers in and around the city.
On a grander scale, Weltlinger pointed out that a baseball player from a Baltimore City public high school has not been selected in an MLB draft since 2000 when Southwestern’s Travis Ezi was chosen by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 12th round. Meanwhile, 35 players from the metropolitan area have been drafted over the same span.
And he noted that in 2017, his alma mater boasted 13 players moving on to play college baseball, while Baltimore City public high schools have annually averaged sending one player.
“Athletic ability does not cease when you cross over into the city,” Weltlinger said. “There has to be some type of structural headwinds that are not advancing our kids at a skill level. Now we’re not here to get kids drafted. That would be a nice bonus. But we’re here to get kids more choices and more opportunities to maybe get them some looks to maybe get college paid for with their baseball skills. We will be able to do that.”
Starting with two student volunteers from Poly, Weltlinger has grown BUBA’s coaching staff to 63. He estimated that the organization has touched as many as 800 youth players with about 150 players ranging from ages 6 to 24 currently being trained by the staff.
Weltlinger said many of the volunteer coaches are former high school, college and pro players looking to scratch an itch. He said he found Casper Wells, who played for five MLB clubs in four seasons, working as a bartender in Federal Hill, and Wells showed up every Sunday to work with kids before moving to Arizona. (Wells is still a member of BUBA’s advisory board.)
Former University of South Carolina Aiken left fielder Andre Brown has been volunteering at BUBA three times per week for the past year. A graduate of Mount Saint Joseph, Brown said his high school teammates barely balked at asking their parents to pay $300 for new gloves or $200 for new bats.
“I’ve always lived a relatively privileged life, and I feel like I owe it to myself to give back to those that aren’t as fortunate and don’t have the same resources that I had when I was growing up,” he said. “So I feel like I owe it to them.”
BUBA’s work has begun to draw attention. In 2018 and 2019, coaches from the Minnesota Twins — in town before a series against the Orioles — ran a workshop for the youth players.
“It was like Christmas morning,” former La Salle University pitcher and volunteer Adam Cherry said of the players meeting, among others, pitching coach Wes Johnson, first base coach Tommy Watkins and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner at the Coppermine Du Burns Arena on April 19, 2019. “Everyone’s eyes lit up. Shoot, it brought me back to me being younger again. Everyone was so excited, the arena was overflowing with energy, and it was just a great moment.”
Weltlinger said BUBA raised $500,000 to rent 10,000 square feet of its current building for the indoor training facility, which houses two Hit Trax machines that can simulate baseball games and record swings, turf and netting. But the training facility remains closed because the organization is waiting for the city’s zoning commission to reopen to give the group its proper zoning and “use and occupancy” certificate.
Weltlinger said he is trying to find investors or foundations to fund an additional $2 million to buy the entire property and convert the other half into a youth community center with classroom and office space, a computer lab, study areas and a fitness gym.
Weltlinger said he wants the facility to be a permanent fixture in the city.
“We’re going to structure it with high-end, structured coaching and support services and enrichment activities, and everything will be free,” he said. “We’ve been up and running for four years with thousands of hours of programming, and we’ve never charged a penny for anything, and we never will for the kids of Baltimore City.”
Morgan, the Driveline Baseball executive, said the company is seeking organizations such as BUBA in other major U.S. cities. He mentioned Lost Boyz and founder LaVonte Stewart in Chicago.
“For Andy and BUBA baseball, I think it’s an incredibly positive signal to send to the Baltimore community that, ‘Look, this is something that is very good and will help your kid get better, and we’re making that accessible and equitable to everybody, and especially inner-city communities and communities of color,’” he said. “We want our game to resemble our country.”
Rockson Smith — whose three children Rahkeem, a 16-year-old rising junior at Calvert Hall, Rocksann and Rahniah, a 12-year-old rising seventh grader at Kipp Ujima Village Academy, work with BUBA — credited the organization with helping to enhance their focus and confidence.
“They’ve opened up doors for us as far as having these workouts,” he said. “It’s just magnificent. They’ve done a lot for us. We just owe them so much for what they’ve done.”
Rocksann echoed her father’s sentiment, pointing out that she is no longer the quiet girl who was too shy to speak up to her teammates and coaches. She said when she joins her brothers at training sessions, those who don’t know her assume that she is carrying her brothers’ equipment.