On a recent Thursday, after watching his D.C. Grays take one more beating in what’s been a season of beatings, manager Antonio Scott couldn’t help but admire the surroundings.
“This place is nice,” he says.
He’s right. The Grays’ latest loss—12-4, to the Vienna Senators, perennial champs of the enduring Clark Griffith League—took place at Waters Field, an amateur baseball Mecca in Northern Virginia. The complex, recently rehabbed with about $1 million, including a lot of public funds, is something to behold. Among its features: a field recently redone with state-of-the-art artificial turf, caged bullpens, grandstands, snack bars, bathrooms, electronic scoreboards, even a PA announcer perched above the playing field who on this night introduces a group of kids to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch. Not a bad setup for a “college-level” summer league.
The schedule lists D.C. as the home team, but that’s really not the case. Waters Field is the Senators’ house—hence “Vienna Senators.” The Grays, a team founded this year, not only don’t have a field in D.C., as their name would suggest, but they don’t have a field of their own anywhere. So even the home games of the inaugural season, a 6-34 campaign that ended over the next weekend, were spent at visitors’ fields.
The field isn’t the only thing the Grays envy. The team suffered the short end of talent and equipment disparities all season long, too.
The Clark Griffith League, founded in 1945, has long had a reputation as one of the best proving grounds for young baseball talent in the country. According to the league, more than 200 alums have gone on to play pro ball, and at least 45 of those made it to the majors. The most notable recent former players to go all the way to the show are Texas Rangers all-star first-baseman Mark Teixeira and Washington Nationals pitcher Mike O’Connor.
Both Teixeira and O’Connor have local ties. But because of its reputation, the Clark Griffith League attracts a lot of out-of-town ballplayers, who are placed with host families in the area for the summer. Much of the Senators roster is nonlocal.
Scott, however, didn’t need to find rooms for his boys: The Grays relied on locals all season long.
“I tried contacting all the coaches at the historically black colleges with baseball programs to get them to send me players,” he says. “None of those coaches even called me back.”
As for equipment, in this game against the Senators, some Grays batters came to the plate wearing helmets that still had high-school logos on them, and the catcher’s all-green protective ensemble clearly wasn’t designed by the same guy who put the Grays’ gray-and-blue uniforms together.
“Our players even had to bring our own bats,” huffs Polly Hanson, sitting in the grandstand watching her son play first base for the Grays. Hanson brought coolers of drinks for her son’s team and even a box of thunder sticks for fans to bang on during the game. “The other teams get everything. The stuff our kids put up with this year, well….”
Bats are a real big deal in the Clark Griffith League. Only wood bats are allowed, and most players have used only aluminum bats their entire lives. The biggest difference between wood and aluminum bats is that wood bats break. At $50–$80 per, every broken bat hurts. On this night, the Grays splinter three of their own sticks.
As Hanson gets even angrier about the lack of Grays goods, the Waters Field PA announcer tells the crowd that “new Senators polo shirts are now on sale for just $15” at the snack bar.
Scott, who also serves as the team’s executive director, doesn’t blame the league for whatever problems plagued his outmanned, underfunded, poorly equipped squad this year.
“It’s all about time,” he says. “We didn’t have the time to do what we wanted.”
He decided to found the team only last July, while attending an event in Atlanta called the Bobby Bonds Symposium on the Survival of Historical Black Colleges and Universities Baseball Programs. A primary purpose of the annual caucus is to get Major League Baseball’s help in reviving the sport in inner cities across the country, from the colleges on down.
“I thought putting a team in the city could really help with that effort,” says Scott, 27, who has over the years worked with several groups trying to improve amateur baseball’s standing in the District. “My goal has been to raise interest in baseball from youth aged 13 to 17. Youth baseball is disappearing here….D.C.’s got a baseball history that none of the kids know about. They don’t know that [former L.A. Dodgers all-star] Maury Wills went to Cardozo. What’s going on with baseball at the high schools in D.C. is criminal. Just criminal. I just want to do something.”
Scott himself is a product of historically-black-college baseball: He played at Howard University in the late ’90s. He filled out the Grays’ entire front office with fellow Howard baseball veterans. That’s a group that is painfully aware of how far the sport has fallen among American blacks: Grays President Brad Burris was just a sophomore when Howard permanently cancelled its baseball program in 2002.
“Brad likes to say he’s the answer to a trivia question: ‘Who was the last guy to ever play shortstop for Howard?’” says Scott.
Scott says, however, that he didn’t intend to start up a team for the 2006 season. But when he got home from Atlanta, he was contacted by Clark Griffith officials, who told him the league could really use a new team, preferably one located in D.C. After the 2004 season, two Maryland franchises, including the incredibly well-endowed Bethesda Big Train, had jumped from Clark Griffith to the new Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League. The Reston Hawks folded before this year.
“So everything got moved up,” he says.
Scott says that for 2007, he’ll have enough time during the off-season to recruit the sort of talent that will make the Grays more competitive. And he plans on procuring proper sponsorships to pay for all the necessary equipment.
But all that still leaves a big hole in the Grays’ future: “We need a field,” he says.
The Grays are dreaming about a particular parcel: Banneker Field, a city-owned ballpark located right across Georgia Avenue from the Howard campus.
Banneker seems like a nice fit. The guy who the Clark Griffith League is named for, after all, used to own the Washington Senators. That team played at Griffith Stadium, which used to be just about a block south of Banneker Field across Georgia Avenue. Beginning in the late 1930s, when the Senators were on the road, Griffith would lease his stadium to the Homestead Grays, the Negro League powerhouse that produced James “Cool Papa” Bell and Josh Gibson. So it’s not much of a stretch to think that when Griffith donated to the league that would eventually be named after him over the years, some portion of that came right from the Homestead Grays.
Banneker Field, which has long been in a state of disrepair, has been closed all year because of construction at the neighboring Banneker Recreation Center. But Regina Williams, spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, says it will again be available beginning next March. The current improvements project, however, won’t make the diamond any more playable. So even when it reopens, Banneker won’t be quite ready to house a Clark Griffith League team.
But a makeover, according to the Grays officials, is entirely doable if the District government gets behind the project. Scott and Burris have been talking to the city about taking over Banneker. They know this ain’t Vienna; they’re not asking for artificial turf or custom Grays polo shirts. Resodding and new lights would be a decent start. But, according to Burris, those discussions haven’t yet gone anywhere.
“You’d think somebody in D.C. would be interested in making this happen,” says Burris, holding the remains of a bat broken during the Senators game. “The way I see it, the only problem with making Banneker the Grays field is it makes too much sense.”—Dave McKenna