The Nationals Built A Gleaming Baseball Field In A Struggling Community. Can It Really Help Black Kids?

“Coming here gives them a safe place where they can express themselves and be free.”

Anthony Rendon visits the Nats Youth Academy in March. CREDIT: WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Anthony Rendon visits the Nats Youth Academy in March. CREDIT: WASHINGTON NATIONALS

O n a picturesque early spring afternoon, one that seemed tailor-made for baseball, a group of 9- and 10-year-old boys are indoors and antsy to get out on the field. Not only is it nice enough to play outside, it’s also a Thursday — scrimmage day. Two of them wrestle; others chat and laugh and drift in and out of the loosely formed huddle while their coaches wait patiently on one knee.

“One, two, three, all eyes on me,” Coach Charlie repeats until he has everyone’s attention. He points to a whiteboard above his head on which their core values are written: Be outstanding. Be healthy. Be a leader. Continue to learn. The coaches share what they did today to live up to those values — Coach Willie lifted weights this morning and the boys nearby squeeze his biceps, as if to confirm the results.

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Only then do they line up and head out onto the beautiful new field. The sting of errors and strikeouts is drowned out by raw enthusiasm as the kids ease into the rhythm of their scrimmage — calling balls and strikes, chanting from the dugout, even showing a little flair in the batter’s box. “How many outs?” Coach Marc yells from the mound to the fielders behind him. “Two!” they call back.

While the game is a draw for the 144 children who attend the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy — a pristine facility smack in the middle of one of D.C.’s most underserved communities — the goal is much loftier than developing their skills on the field. “If they turn out to be great athletes and become baseball players and play in high school and so on, that’s great,” said Bryant Curry, head of family and community engagement. “But our main focus is to teach teamwork, have them running around and doing something positive.”

“At our core, we’re an academic program — we just use baseball as a hook to keep the kids here.”

Three days a week, 3rd through 6th graders from Wards 7 and 8 — sections of the nation’s capital home to predominantly low-income, African American residents — come to the academy after school. They have study hall, play baseball and softball, and spend time with mentors. During the summer, scholar-athletes attend an all-day program that runs for six weeks. It’s all free of charge.

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While baseball may be the highlight for the kids, staff are focused on more complicated goals that don’t always have easy answers. They want to give these students the tools they need to overcome the challenges of their surroundings. They’re trying to make inroads with a community that, until quite recently, had very little connection with baseball. And they want weary residents in this part of D.C. to feel like this gleaming complex is really meant for them — rather than yet another symbol of disparity in a rapidly gentrifying city.

CREDIT: Washington Nationals
CREDIT: Washington Nationals

The academy was born from the deal that moved the Montreal Expos to D.C. in 2005. A public-private partnership between the city, Major League Baseball, the team’s ownership, and the National Parks Service dictated the construction of the facility on federal land in Ward 7, and set its mandate: to establish a year-round program that used baseball and softball as a vehicle for holistic youth development.

The location immediately attracted Christopher Reed, a D.C. native who now serves as the academy’s program director. “I was surprised that a professional sports team would want to do something like this on this side of town,” he said.

Reed grew up playing basketball — partially because there was little exposure to baseball in the city — but he’s well aware of what the game can offer kids in the community. “Sports helped me a lot, it helped my development. It can help these kids,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter the sport but the fact that there’s an outlet, that is probably the most important thing.”

Wards 7 and 8 are overwhelmingly African American, with unemployment rates significantly higher and median household incomes significantly lower than the rest of the District. According to a recent analysis by local nonprofit DC Action for Children, the number of families headed by a single woman rose from 2009–2013, reaching 70 percent in Ward 7 and 73 percent in Ward 8. The number of children living in poverty is higher than the average rates in both the District and across the country — 40 percent in Ward 7 and over 50 percent in Ward 8. Health is also a serious concern: more than 40 percent of the area’s population is obese.

CREDIT: DC Action for Children
CREDIT: DC Action for Children

With these realities in mind, academy staff spent a significant amount of time determining how they might have the most impact on kids growing up in the area.

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“There’s a lot of evidence that those 3rd and 4th grade years are really an inflection point for many children,” said Tal Alter, executive director. “If you’re falling grade levels behind academically, chances are you aren’t going to make it up by the time you get to middle school; then you get to high school and you’re behind and that leads to what we have in Wards 7 and 8, which is a 60 percent dropout rate by 10th grade.”

In order to reverse some of those trends, they knew they would have to maximize the relatively short amount of time they’re able to spend with the scholar-athletes each week, all while keeping them engaged enough to come back. The academy uses a Science of Sport curriculum to teach STEM concepts with baseball themes. Classrooms are stocked with tablets to play educational games when their homework is done. And there’s a full teaching kitchen and community garden for learning about healthy eating.

The best part of the day, though? “My favorite part is softball,” said 10-year-old Janiya Freeman. “I like throwing. I throw really far.” Jazzmyn Dickens and Jayla Hines, both 9 and sitting nearby, agreed. Dickens explained part of her motivation for learning the game: “I look up to my brother a lot,” she said. “One time he was here and he hit a home run.” Later that afternoon, she went down to the training room to diligently work on her swing and practice base running, even smacking a few base hits of her own.

On special occasions, those practice sessions are led by professional baseball players.

During his most recent visit, Anthony Rendon, Nationals infielder and brand new member of the academy’s board, sauntered onto the field, scooping up a glove on his way to join the kids in a scrimmage. As his teammate Bryce Harper offered instructions at first base, Rendon roamed around the infield, cracking jokes, dispensing high-fives and words of encouragement, and signing the T-shirts worn by young admirers.

“It was amazing,” he said afterward. “Anytime you have an opportunity to give back, especially for some underprivileged kids who need help more than most would, [it’s] a good cause for that.”

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As Rendon prepares to take over for former teammate Ian Desmond as the Nationals’ player representative, he’s been thinking about the important lessons baseball can teach the children who come through the academy, regardless of how far they progress in the sport. For one, it’s a sport characterized by failure.

“There’s so much adversity in baseball and to be able to be successful, you have to fail more times than not.”

“There’s so much adversity in baseball and to be able to be successful, you have to fail more times than not,” he said. “As a hitter, if you fail seven times out of 10, you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re batting .300. I think that’s just like life in general… You’re going to have so many speed bumps, but you learn from your mistakes and you’ve got to get back up.”

That’s particularly relevant to kids growing up in communities like D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, who may have to struggle to overcome the circumstances they were born into, says Rich Berlin, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Harlem RBI, which uses baseball and softball to engage at-risk children and teenagers in a wide range of programming.

“Particularly in our communities where simply because of what our kids look like or where they live, there can be an expectation of failure,” Berlin said. “Their ability to be resilient in the face of that is incredibly important and very much at the heart of what it means to be here and be part of a supportive team.”

Berlin’s nonprofit grew organically out of the Harlem community — starting with a makeshift baseball field on an abandoned lot and evolving into a comprehensive education and development organization that served as one of the key models for the youth academy in Washington.

But youth baseball and softball programs are typically elusive in these urban cores — a factor that contributes to a bigger racial gap in the sport.

CREDIT: Washington Nationals
CREDIT: Washington Nationals

Dave Ogden, a professor at the University of Nebraska, has studied more than 1,000 elite youth baseball teams from 31 states over a 15-year period. Just 3 percent of the players at that select level are African American, a number that has varied only slightly from year to year. He also found that only 2.6 percent of the players on Division I college teams are black — a pipeline that trickles directly into the major leagues, where the number of African American players has fallen from nearly 20 percent in 1986 to roughly 8 percent.

“There has been a generation of black youths lost to baseball because no one took the time to teach or even encourage black kids to play ball,” Ogden said via email.

The dearth of African Americans in elite youth baseball is a self-perpetuating cycle. Black kids in low-income communities don’t get exposed to the sport, and they also may not have the time and money required to play it. “Kids can only play sports that are accessible to them,” Ogden pointed out. As a result, African American children don’t often see their peers playing baseball, further diminishing their interest in trying it out.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have anything like this,” said Markita Bullock, a Ward 7 native who’s now on the academy’s coaching staff. “And if we did, I probably would be an elite athlete.”

Instead, black kids are increasingly turning to other sports.

“They don’t really care — they’re basketball and football,” 10-year-old Duane Dargin said in reference to his friends outside the academy. Dargin himself had never played baseball before his mom prodded him into coming to the Nationals Youth Academy two years ago. And he wasn’t that enthusiastic when he first started: “At first I thought it was okay.”

He estimates it only took about a month for him to come around completely. “I want to play in the major leagues now,” he said. Dargin has already had his first taste of a professional game. Last April, he stood in front of more than 42,000 fans and threw out the first pitch at the Nationals Opening Day — a perfect strike, right down the middle.

The lack of exposure to baseball and softball among children growing up in underserved, heavily minority communities hasn’t been lost on officials within Major League Baseball. Over the past 10 years, the league’s RBI initiative (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) has facilitated the construction of six youth academies across the country, with three more slated to come online in the next 12–18 months.

“The impact we’ve seen has been good, not great,” said Tony Reagins, MLB’s senior vice president of youth programs. “We reached a ton of kids over the 10 years but we want to do more, we want to grow it.”

Every year on Jackie Robinson Day, Rich Berlin says he’s asked about the declining numbers of African Americans playing baseball at all levels. “And every year the problem is worse than before,” he said. While he sees what’s happening in Washington and other cities as clear steps in the right direction, he believes “it will only turn around with significant, sustained investment from the league and the teams.”

CREDIT: Washington Nationals
CREDIT: Washington Nationals

I n D.C., the academy has the backing of both the city and its major league ball club and the gleaming new facility to show for it — but getting connected to students, and making lasting inroads with the surrounding community, are chief among its longer term, and less concrete, challenges.

“You know the Field of Dreams quote: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Charlie Sperduto, manager of baseball and softball programs, says from the bleachers as he watches the girls transition from study hall to softball. “If you build it, they will not come.”

It’s been a struggle to combat the academy’s perception within the community. A common misconception among neighborhood residents, according to several staff members, is that the campus is actually a practice facility for the Nationals players. Even when they do discover it’s for children, they often assume it isn’t for their children.

If families get over that initial barrier and enroll their kids in the academy, retaining them is an ongoing challenge. Although there are a few public schools close to the academy, many of the students attend charter schools all over the city — and all of them need a way home once the sessions are over. Reliable transportation is a top concern.

Making inroads with the families is particularly important to Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who represents Ward 7, in light of the growing number of single parents struggling to get by. “We have to reach out to the parents and meet them and see where their challenges are because a lot of times that would be the last thing on their minds, to get their child to a baseball academy when they’re worried about paying rent or where the next meal is coming from,” she said.

The academy is constantly looking for ways to bridge that gap. Starting this spring, it will launch its first cooking class for parents — the kids will work in the garden — and there’s been a lot of initial interest. The staff has also established partnerships with teams from around the city, like Gonzaga High School baseball and Howard University softball, who use the facility as their home field and volunteer with the kids. And they’re helping to facilitate the growth of Mamie Johnson Little League, named for the first female pitcher in Negro Leagues history, which started up last year in Ward 7 after a 20-year absence.

“Coming here gives them a safe place where they can express themselves and be free.”

Academy staff emphasize that these efforts are just the beginning; they’re looking for every opportunity to attract people to their facility and show them the work being done in the classroom and on the field.

For those who are already involved, the impact is tangible.

Shemeka Pugh’s son, Jermaine Johnson, now 12, has been attending the academy since the very beginning, before the new complex was even constructed. “I’ve seen a lot of difference,” she said. “They take their time with the kids, they follow the kids, they’re really interested to make sure they’re doing well.”

Pugh listed benefits that extend far beyond baseball itself: children like her son are being exposed to positive male reinforcements, for example, and parents who would otherwise struggle to afford after school care are given the peace of mind that their children are in a safe environment, free of charge.

“Especially in our neighborhoods — we can’t really go outside too much because there’s a lot going on outside of our homes,” Bullock said. “Coming here gives them a safe place where they can express themselves and be free.”

Though there’s more work to be done, there’s a clear sense of satisfaction when Curry and Sperduto, two of the first coaches hired, pause for a minute to watch the nine and 10 year old boys in their scrimmage. When they first started, most of the kids had never picked up a bat or used a glove. “Now when we do our little scrimmage games, the kids actually know what’s going on and they hold each other accountable. They know the rules, they’re picking up on the culture and the nuances,” Sperduto said, nodding to the wave of chants coming from the dugout. “It’s really neat to see.”