The first step in an ambitious project to bring baseball back into inner cities took hold in West Baltimore on Saturday, with several generations of current and future ballplayers taking the field to celebrate a fall of good works.
Over 50 children from West Baltimore, some who just stopped by and others who had been a part of the eight-week set of clinics with Coppin State players as their instructors, participated in the Urban Sports League's "A Day at the Park" on Saturday at Frederick Douglass High.
Coppin State coach Sherman Reed, a Baltimore native, acknowledged the game hasn't had much of a foothold in his home city, but Saturday's capstone to the first set of USL clinics featured a lot to be encouraged about for his team and the city it calls home.
"The prominent sports in inner cities are usually football or basketball," said Barrett Arnold, a junior outfielder for Coppin State. "You see more basketball courts and football fields, so what more can you expect? … You need people to want to teach them to play baseball. They need that influence. I'm glad we're able to do that.
"A lot of kids don't have this opportunity."
The series of clinics for West Baltimore children represent the pilot of a large-scale plan by USL co-founder Delores McKinney to launch youth baseball leagues all across the country.
She was planning to build a replica of Cooperstown Dreams Park, a complex of youth baseball fields, in her hometown of Saginaw, Mich., but support for that became contingent on a much larger undertaking on her part.
"I met a guy named Lou Presutti, and he said, 'I'll help you bring your hometown up,'" McKinney said. "We're going to do a Cooperstown Dreams Park in my hometown, but he said, 'I need you to do something for me. I need you to help kids outside your town. I need you to start a league in 100 different metros.'"
They settled on 88 different cities, but the rollout began with just one small patch of Baltimore this year — the West Baltimore neighborhood most impacted by the city's 2015 unrest.
"I thought Baltimore was perfect," McKinney said. "I felt Baltimore was special, and I needed to do it here."
She found it hard to find support, but Reed, who grew up nearby and played his high school ball at Carver, offered up his entire roster to help lead the clinics. Because Coppin State doesn't have its own baseball facility, the team relies on the surrounding communities for games and practice space. As such, Reed was happy to let the USL rely on his team.
"We've got a 35-man roster, and these guys are anxious to do community work in their trade area: baseball," Reed said. "So when Delores McKinney approached us about it, it was made to order, given we were going to be focusing on the elementary schools around Coppin State."
Saturday's clinic, which began at noon, seemed to never stop growing. Around 30 children who had been participating all through the fall, plus many more who only came out to the final clinic, went through fielding and hitting drills with the Coppin State players.
It was equal parts technical instruction — keeping your elbow up before swinging or keeping your glove down and the ball in front of you in the infield — and friendship between the college students and the kids. The children learned and entertained in equal measure, and as a result, there wasn't a quiet moment.
Reed even audibled out of his original plan of having the clinic participants play each other, and involved their parents, letting everyone hit, field and run the bases by the end of the afternoon.
The children reveled in the attention from all sides. One in particular, Corey Barnett, seemed to have a herd of Coppin State players around him at all times. They cheered his every move, and his mother, Patrice, said he'd caught the baseball bug because of it.
They learned of the USL program from a flier that came home from Gwynns Falls Elementary, and Corey's informal ballplaying during the summers has him on the path toward playing in a real league, with the influence of the Coppin players evident.
"It's great," Patrice said. "It's like a group of role models. They interact with them very well. Corey loves them, and they show him love. For them to do that, I really appreciate it."
As the clinic progressed on a dirt softball field in one corner behind Douglass, the finishing touches were happening on one of the centerpieces of the USL leagues going forward.
The baseball field behind Douglass had long been overgrown, but McKinney and Reed worked with the city school system and Job Corps to refurbish it. When Reed walked up the hill from Coppin State's athletics building to Douglass, he said he got goosebumps to see that the same field where so many of his high school memories played out had been freshly cut and edged to resemble a baseball field again.
Saturday's event ended with a scrimmage by the Coppin State team on the fresh new diamond, but part of USL's mission is to build fields in every neighborhood they start leagues in, and Reed said that will be integral to growing the game again in Baltimore.
"It's one of those things we've always heard — if you build it, they will come," Reed said." We've already had kids take the shortcut on their way over to the mall and they walk through and say, 'Whoa, a baseball field here.' I can see pickup baseball returning. It just naturally is going to return. Kids from the area are going to see this field sitting here, they're going to grab a ball and a bat, and they're going to get out here and do what we did as kids — play baseball."