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“Fuck you, 0-and-2 Latin-ass pussy bitch!”
Mere minutes before the Cardozo Senior High School baseball team’s biggest game of the season, junior Kenny Hawkins is throwing a tantrum. Most of the Clerks are warming up on Banneker Field in Northwest, but Kenny is still on the bleachers in his street clothes, cursing out junior Mannix Martinez, taking a swipe at Mannix’s pitching win–loss record for good measure. Kenny was supposed to have brought a teammate’s glove to the game; he didn’t, and he doesn’t appreciate Mannix criticizing him for the mistake.
“It was your responsibility,” says another teammate. “Now Jordan doesn’t have his glove.”
When Kenny insists it isn’t his fault, Mannix regards him with the weary look of a disappointed parent. “Just take the blame,” he says. “You were supposed to bring it, simple as that.”
Kenny responds with a stream of invective about Mannix’s mother and turns to the other teammate. “You can’t even play,” he snarls.
“Man, you can’t play anything else,” the teammate retorts. “I play basketball. I play football. All you can do is play baseball.”
“Put me on the bench today, then,” Kenny says. “Let’s see if y’all can win without me.”
“Shut the fuck up, Kenny,” says Mannix.
“You shut the fuck up.”
“Man, you acting like you the team or something,” says the other teammate. “Shit.”
Kenny’s meltdown is the last thing the Clerks need before facing perennial champion Woodrow Wilson Senior High in the second-to-last game of the regular season, with their playoff eligibility still in doubt. And it follows an episode from the morning, when Kenny was turned away from school because he left his identification card at home. Instead of going back to retrieve it, he tried to sneak in a side door, was caught on a school video camera, and sent the team into a panic when the principal threatened to suspend him. He managed to avoid suspension—and remain eligible to play in the game—by pulling cafeteria duty at lunch.
Cardozo English teacher and head baseball coach Frazier O’Leary doesn’t hear the exchange, but he can tell his team is unfocused. Once all of the Clerks are in uniform, he gathers them for a talk. “I’ve told you all before that I don’t like hassles before a game,” he says. “I’ve had to put up with too much shit today that has nothing to do with baseball. You all are poster children for how not to prepare for a game. We’re playing the best team in the league, and I want to beat these guys so bad I can taste it. I don’t want to lose. But if we do, it’ll be because you weren’t prepared to play. You all made me curse, and I don’t like that. I don’t normally curse. If you don’t want to be on this team, then quit and turn in your stuff and leave. I don’t need any of you.”
But O’Leary’s challenge fails to galvanize his team. The Clerks fall behind right away and have trouble even reaching base. Kenny and Mannix continue sniping at each other and the rest of the team disintegrates along with them. Cardozo loses 11-0, managing only two hits, one of them by Kenny in the last inning. Despite the lopsided score, he thumps his chest and boasts, “He can’t get me,” when the Wilson pitcher tries to pick him off of first base.
Just about everyone has tried talking to Kenny about his attitude, but every time, he responds by either getting defensive or tuning out. Even his teammates, most of whom consider him a friend, have begun to tire of his on-the-field bloviating. “I’d rather lose with anyone than win with Kenny,” says starting second baseman Yan Yan Chan.
“Kenny’s obnoxious,” sighs O’Leary. “He’s the kind of guy you want to hit in the head if you’re the opposing player. Kenny’s got Division I skills, but he’s just not a team guy. I try to tell my kids that you never know who’s watching, but Kenny doesn’t care. He’s got a lot of growing up do to. He can’t handle adversity—that’s his problem. And it’s never his fault.”
Though O’Leary is loath to dismiss anyone from the team, Kenny has become too poisonous. That night, O’Leary calls Kenny to have a talk.
It’s been said that a youth-sports coach is more like the besieged mayor of a small town. For O’Leary, 61, who first started coaching baseball at Cardozo in 1977, managing the Clerks is a never-ending litany of crises. O’Leary is not only the team’s head coach but also its chief fundraiser (the program, run completely on donations, doesn’t receive a cent from the school or the District), recruiter, guidance counselor, equipment manager, laundry service, groundskeeper, and occasional chauffeur. Oh yeah, and if he wants to win a championship, he needs to somehow beat Wilson, the winner of every District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) league title since 1993. The Tigers began this season having won 172 of their previous 173 DCIAA games.
The 2006 campaign started in February, when O’Leary held workouts in the Cardozo gym, during which he went over the most fundamental parts of the game, beginning with, “This is a baseball, and this is how you hold it.” Some of the players couldn’t play catch standing 10 feet away from each other.
This is normal for high-school baseball in the DCIAA, where the game is such an afterthought that schools sometimes don’t even field a team. Of all the athletes attending the District’s public high schools, precious few play baseball. Even fewer are actually baseball players, such as Kenny, who eat, sleep, and dream the game. Of the five returning Cardozo players, just two—Kenny and Mannix—were starters. Two-thirds of the Clerks have never played baseball before; only three played Little League.
Despite his team’s inexperience, O’Leary had a good feeling when he started the season. He had no trouble getting numbers for the team, with 17 on the roster. Kenny and Mannix, who handle the pitching and catching duties, are two of the best all-around players in the DCIAA, and O’Leary got a pleasant surprise in January when freshman Jordan Senteno arrived from Los Angeles. Jordan started playing baseball so early that even at 14, he can’t remember not playing. “If we make the plays, we can beat anybody,” says O’Leary. “But we can also lose to anybody.”
On a high-school baseball team, a really good player can make a big difference—in either direction. “If he’s got his head screwed on right, a really good player can pull up other players and be a leader and help the coach in a lot of ways,” says O’Leary. “A really good player who’s only about himself can destroy the team.”
Built like former Minnesota Twin great Kirby Puckett and possessing an uncanny understanding of the game, Kenny is a prodigious talent. As a freshman catcher at Eastern Senior High, Kenny was the best player on a team that reached the DCIAA championship game (losing to Wilson) and a real rah-rah guy, according to O’Leary. He transferred to Cardozo last year, smashed a home run in one of his first games, and has been a me-first player ever since. “It’s a shame,” says O’Leary. “He can really play. But all he does is complain. God should make guys like that have no skill, so you don’t have to take them.”
After dropping their season opener to School Without Walls, the Clerks host the Fourth Annual Maury Wills Invitational, a wood-bat tournament that O’Leary started to help reverse Washington’s youth-baseball malaise. Cardozo and H.D. Woodson open the competition. As the teams wait for the umpires to show up, Kenny flits around the team, full of nervous energy. “Nobody’s going to be hitting the ball today,” he tells his teammates. “Infield, you guys gotta be ready. The ball’s going to be in the infield all day.”
“Why?” asks junior third baseman Sharrod Peppers.
“Wooden bats, man.”
Junior Walter Brown gets the start against Woodson and gives up two runs in the first. In the bottom half of the inning, Kenny leads the dugout chatter. “Up on the fence, guys,” he says. “No one sit down until we get those two runs back. Watch the pitcher.”
Cardozo wins 7-5, but Kenny’s enthusiasm disappears in the second game against Archbishop Carroll, a team from the bottom half of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. The Clerks fall behind early and Kenny grows frustrated, complaining whenever his teammates make a mistake, and Cardozo goes down, 7-4.
A few days after the Maury Wills tournament, the Clerks head down to Woodbridge, Va., to play a doubleheader against Forest Park High School, one of the best teams in the area. They lose 32-0 in five innings without recording a hit, and then 14-0 in another five-inning no-hitter. “Everything I threw, they hit,” Walter marvels. “And everything they threw, there was no way we could hit it. It was horrible.”
If the Clerks played as well as they talked, they’d be league champions. On the eve of the first of two regular-season meetings with Wilson, many of the Cardozo players offer fantastic predictions of a Wilson trouncing, even though the team has just one win against four losses on its record. Kenny is one of the few who recognizes just how good Wilson is, as well as the confluence of events that would have to occur for Cardozo to defeat the Tigers. He also understands the larger implications of a Cardozo victory. “The team that beats Wilson is going to be the team that every baseball player wants to go to,” says Kenny. “I want to do it for myself, my school, my community, my family, my friends, and every school in D.C. that has lost to Wilson.”
Under overcast skies flicking specks of drizzle, Mannix draws the start against Wilson’s No. 3 pitcher, a sophomore. Last season, Wilson won its three playoff games by a combined score of 51 to 0. Coach Eddie Saah typically doesn’t even pitch his No. 1 or 2 starters against league teams, saving them for their nonconference foes, such as Catholic League powerhouse St. John’s College High School.
The Wilson players, dressed in gray pants and black tops with maroon hats bearing the same stylized “W” as the Nationals, take the infield with almost lazy ease. It’s clear their muscles have been programmed by years of coaching and practice. Their gloves find ground balls as if magnetized, and they zip throws that hiss through the air and pop when they’re caught.
Kenny gathers the team at the entrance of the dugout. “This is the championship game right here, fellas,” he hollers. “Let’s go!” The Clerks run onto the field and fan out to their positions.
Mannix makes good pitches, but the Cardozo defense fails to make the plays behind him, bungling the third out twice. The Clerks are behind 4–0 before Mannix gets a strikeout to end the inning.
“It’s frustration every game,” says Mannix’s father, Ariel Colon, watching from the stands. “Every time I come out of here with an ulcer. Frazier’s got his hands full.”
But in the bottom of the first, speedy center fielder Joel (rhymes with “gazelle”) DePeña leads off with a single, Yan Yan walks, and Mannix drives in Joel with a single, which brings up the cleanup hitter, Kenny, with men on base. Kenny, for all his foibles, is nothing short of professional when he bats. The most disciplined batter on the team, he seldom overswings, doesn’t seem to care if he walks, and almost never chases a bad pitch. For the season, he will bat .533 and won’t strike out once against league pitchers. O’Leary actually implores Kenny to widen his strike zone sometimes, but he refuses to be tempted. He counts Jim Thome and Craig Biggio, two no-nonsense, team-first guys, as the major-league hitters he tries to emulate. “I feel like I can hit anyone in the majors right now,” he says, smiling as he tries on the thought for size. “Get Randy Johnson out here.”
Kenny digs in, taps each corner of the plate with his bat, and waits, his bat high and swaying like a cobra before a flute. When the Wilson pitcher gives him a ball up in the strike zone, Kenny attacks, tagging a single down the third base line. “It’s all hype,” Kenny shouts, standing on first base and clapping violently. “It’s all hype! Let’s go!”
Despite spectacular catches by Joel and Yan Yan, the Clerks fall behind 7-4 and begin to unravel. More Cardozo errors prompt Sharrod to castigate his teammates, and Kenny starts to whine about all of Wilson’s “cheap hits.” By the fifth inning, Kenny’s voice is hoarse from yelling, and he borders on hysterical. He makes a nice play at home, tagging a Wilson player out and taunting him. Then he turns to his teammates. “Where’s the chatter?” he demands. “We’re not out of this. Keep fighting.”
“Get in the game,” O’Leary orders him.
“I am in the game,” Kenny screams.
“Well, get out of it, then. Goodness gracious. Take a breath, will you?”
But there’s no comeback for the Clerks, who lose 10–4. Eleven of Cardozo’s 18 outs come on strikeouts, and they make 10 errors leading to seven runs. “Kenny is a piece of work,” says O’Leary. “He really wants to win, but he has no idea how to help his teammates win. I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily a cancer. But he’s close. He’s the most selfish athlete I’ve ever coached.”
Before practice a couple of days later, O’Leary hits grounders to Nelson Quintanilla, a 2005 Cardozo graduate trying to play college baseball. As Quintanilla expertly fields ball after ball, gunning the throw to an imaginary first baseman, it’s hard to believe that he never played baseball until joining the Clerks in 10th grade. Or that he was last year’s Kenny, briefly quitting the team after a falling out with O’Leary. “[O’Leary] is very—how do I put this—strict,” says Quintanilla. “He expects more, and he pushes you. He challenged me every day to get better, kept saying that I was a waste of talent. That got me angry, but then I’m like, I’m going to prove him wrong. I don’t know, that might have been his plan all along. He’s also helped me a lot personally, and I’m very thankful for that.”
“With some of these guys, it’s a game to them,” Quintanilla continues. “They don’t come to practice sometimes, or come late, and they think they’re above the team. I hope they learn from my mistakes. Last year, I thought I was better than the team, but you realize you’re nothing without the team.”
After the season-opening loss to School Without Walls, a team that Cardozo thumped the previous year, Kenny actually considered quitting the team. Gone were the seniors who provided the bats that protected him in the lineup, the gloves that supported him in the field, and the leadership on which the team depended. It took only one game for Kenny to realize that the new crop of Clerks couldn’t be counted on for anything. “It’s really upsetting when some of us are on base and they’re just staring at strikes or swinging at balls and we get stranded,” he says. “It’s frustrating. To be honest, I do complain, but I probably shouldn’t, because it’s not a good thing. I know I should try to cheer them up.”
Kenny stayed, and the league is so weak that the Clerks win just enough for his negativity to remain a subclinical affliction. The Clerks recover from the Wilson loss with a much-needed win over the overmatched Bell Multicultural and then split a doubleheader against Coolidge. While Kenny might understand intellectually that his attitude needs work, his id is usually in control in the heat of a game. When Jordan fails to catch a ball at first base, Kenny rips into him for screwing up an easy play.
“So what?” barks O’Leary. “He made a mistake. Think about your at-bats.”
“Hey, I got two RBIs.”
Later, a runner tries to steal on Kenny, and he sails the throw into center field. “Walter!” he screams. Walter is the pitcher.
The trainer sitting behind the backstop bursts out laughing. “He’s blaming everyone but himself,” he says.
Even worse, Kenny’s schoolwork is a disaster, and he’s flirting with becoming ineligible for baseball. “It bothers me with all athletes who are gifted and have a chance to use their gifts to get free college,” says O’Leary. “He’s a baseball player, an athlete-student, which I don’t espouse because I was there once.”
Like many boys growing up in the Tidewater region of Virginia, O’Leary dreamed of playing professional baseball, to the exclusion of just about everything else. He barely graduated high school and went on to Old Dominion University, which was Old Dominion College back then and had an open enrollment policy. “In high school, I wasn’t a student, if you go back to the root of the word,” says O’Leary. “I was a participant.”
As a freshman, O’Leary helped Old Dominion win an NCAA championship and attracted some notice from major-league scouts, but he flunked out after just three semesters. Too poor to make ends meet, he joined the Army, ended up in Vietnam, and never fulfilled his dream of playing big league baseball.
O’Leary began teaching in D.C. public schools immediately after graduating from American University with an English degree (“Reading was my second love,” he says) in 1970. He moved on to Cardozo in 1977 and has been there so long that he’s now teaching the children of former students. “[The students and alumni] all love and respect him,” says Cardozo principal Reginald Ballard. “They come back all the time and one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Is O’Leary still here?’ He’s an institution.”
During his tenure at Cardozo, O’Leary has dealt with his share of hard cases, and he’s earned a reputation for never giving up on a student. Nor does he stop being Mr. O’Leary outside of school. He has the phone numbers of hundreds of current and former students in his cell phone, and both his cell and home phone ring around the clock. The boys on the team, including Kenny on occasion, call him during school hours, at night, over the summer, on vacation. Over three hours on a Sunday in June, O’Leary received seven calls from players and students. “I ask him all the time how he manages to be everyone’s father,” says his wife, Myra, who’s learned to share her husband with the Cardozo community. “I can’t walk down the street with him without someone saying, ‘Hey, O!’ I’m like, ‘Do you know all these people?’”
“He never stops,” says Myra. “Baseball is Mr. O’Leary. He really enjoys the sport, he enjoys the kids, enjoys teaching it. I don’t know what he’d do without baseball.”
The day before a critical game against School Without Walls, the Clerks have perhaps their worst practice of the year. It’s the kind of afternoon where O’Leary knows that he can lecture until his voice gives out, and the boys won’t pay one bit of attention. They’ve heard it all before, and they don’t need to hear it again, especially from a shouting old white guy.
It would be an opportune moment for the team captain to hold a players-only conference. But O’Leary hasn’t found anyone deserving of a captainship, and Kenny sits out practice on the bleachers. He’s supposed to be finishing a biology handout. Instead, he spends most of practice horsing around with other Cardozo students.
Kenny is back on the field the next day and in usual form. After Mannix triples off the right-field wall with two outs, the School Without Walls coaches decide to intentionally walk Kenny. “They don’t want none!” Kenny chortles as he takes his base. “They don’t want none!”
Though the Clerks threaten early, they fall behind 7-1 and never get back into the game. Between innings, O’Leary tries to exhort his team. “We’re in a hole, and the only way out is to start hitting the ball,” he tells the group.
“I’m hitting,” Kenny immediately replies.
But the Clerks get no more runs and drop to 2–4 in the league. “God, that was horrible,” says O’Leary as he drives home. “Kenny pictures himself a leader, but that’s obtuse. He has no more idea of a team than a man on the moon.”
Kenny’s antics don’t go unnoticed by the Walls coaches. “He’s a good kid with good talent, but sometimes the things he does leaves a lot to be desired,” says head coach Toby Madison. “You can’t talk trash, you can’t demean the game. Character takes you a longer way than attitude.”
O’Leary certainly doesn’t need Kenny to lose games, so why keep him around? Cutting out cancerous team members, however important they might be, not only improves morale in the short run but also often results in the team actually playing better. “That’s not our job as teachers,” says O’Leary. “Our job as teachers is to try and help kids grow up. For a lot of these guys, it’s hardly about baseball at all. It’d be nice to put together a great team and win a championship, but it’s teaching them to play and be a part of a team, because that’s what you’re going to remember, the guys you played with. Putting Kenny off the team is an alternative, but if I look at our job as educators, if it’s not us, then who?”
By the time O’Leary gets home, he’ll have put the loss behind him and tell Myra the play-by-play, focusing on individual achievements. “I don’t get depressed,” says O’Leary. “I just worry about the things I can control. I’ve got other things to worry about—children, a wife, a job. I’d like to win a championship, but you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit, as the saying goes.”
Kenny’s profanity-laced outburst before the 11-0 loss to Wilson is his ugliest episode of the season. With the playoffs on the horizon, O’Leary can’t keep giving him second chances, and that night, he has a long talk with Kenny on the phone, telling him that one more incident like that and he’s finished. The next morning, O’Leary stops him in the hallway between classes. He tells Kenny that he understands how badly he wants to play on a championship team but that the team just doesn’t have enough good players for someone—especially someone with Kenny’s baseball experience—to show up his teammates and not give 100 percent. Then he asks Kenny if he’d like to coach himself.
Kenny thinks for a long moment. “Talent-wise, yes,” he replies. “Attitude-wise, nope.”
“It was like talking to a real person,” says O’Leary. “He’s fully aware of his jerkdom. He knows. Does he have the motivation to change? We’ll see.”
Then, suddenly, something happens. Kenny stops complaining and starts looking O’Leary in the eye. The next two weeks of practice are fun, productive, and positive. The infielders hum their throws and turn snappy double plays. In their regular season finale, the Clerks come from behind to beat Bell 5–4. Kenny makes sure his team claps for nice plays and when Yan Yan can’t catch his throw, he purses his lips, pats his chest, and says, “my fault,” even though his teammate should have made the play.
“I don’t know, man,” says O’Leary after a particularly upbeat practice. “I’ve got this funny feeling that they’re getting better. I really like where we are. This team really sort of ebbs and flows with Kenny. I hope what I’m seeing isn’t a mirage.”
“After I while, I figured out that I couldn’t do everything, and whatever’s going to happen, will,” says Kenny. “I still feel a lot of pressure, but I’m trying to change my reputation. I know a lot of people don’t like me as a teammate. I’m trying to calm down, not scream so much when people make mistakes and keep it to myself, which, for the record, is really hard.”
Five days after nailing down a first-round playoff win over McKinley Tech, on the eve of the semifinal game versus Wilson, Kenny has a dream. It’s the same recurring dream he’s had since he first played against Wilson as a freshman at Eastern, a 19–0 no-hit loss in the league championship game. In the dream, he’s always pitching against the Tigers, and they tee off on every single pitch he throws. Even if he throws at their heads or behind them, they jack the ball over the fence. The dream ends when Kenny looks at the scoreboard, which reads “Infinity,” and then he wakes up.
O’Leary is in Florida, scoring AP English exams, leaving the coaching duties to assistant coach Michael Moore, an algebra teacher at Cardozo. It hadn’t been a conflict when O’Leary made his plane reservation, but then the DCIAA rescheduled the playoff games twice.
“We are not taking pitches today,” Moore tells the Clerks just before they take the field against Wilson. “I will not be giving the take signal. The first pitch you like, we’re swinging.”
But the Clerks go down without even getting Kenny to bat in the first inning, and Wilson tattoos Kenny right from the start. Seven of the first eight Wilson batters reach base. Behind Kenny, the Clerks forget their positioning, allow singles to turn into doubles and triples, and basically look terrified. Sharrod begins to scream and point out the players making mistakes; Kenny tries to calm him down. The Tigers are halfway through their order for the second time when the first inning mercifully ends with Wilson ahead 8–0.
Between innings, Moore calls the team together. “You all need to stop crying every time someone makes a mistake,” he says. “You all act like you’ve never made a mistake. Stop worrying about the score. Play like it’s 0–0.”
“Man, how we gonna play like it’s 0–0?” Sharrod cries, pointing to his teammates. “They playing like they ain’t even trying, so why should I? This is bullshit.” Sharrod keeps bitching until Moore has no choice but to take him out of the game.
“Hey!” Kenny shouts, silencing the bickering. He addresses the team. “Anyone who doesn’t think we’re going to win, go home. We don’t need you. Stay positive. Let’s chip away; that’s all we can do. Don’t give up.”
But Wilson continues to hit just about everything Kenny throws. He gives up three straight singles, leading to two more runs. Mannix complains that his ears are hurting from all the pings coming off the Tiger bats. Kenny gives up another single and lets out a long, helpless sigh. “Jeee-sus Christ,” he mutters, shoulders sagging.
Kenny tells Moore that he’s had it. He and Mannix switch positions. “C’mon, y’all,” Kenny says as he puts on his gear. “Let’s get back in this thing.”
Mannix gets the Clerks out of the inning with a 13-0 deficit and Wilson coach Saah begins to make substitutions. But the Clerks don’t stop trying—nobody likes getting skunked—and play Wilson even over the last two innings. Sharrod eventually gets off the bench to coach first base. On Kenny’s final at-bat, he jumps on a hanging curveball and shoots it up the middle. The next batter bounces into a potential double play, but Kenny hustles to second, sliding in hard to prevent a throw to first, and keeps the inning going. Walter singles to right field, and two runs eventually score on consecutive Wilson errors. The Clerks get two more runs in their final at bat to make the score 17–4.
“I guess you could say my nightmare kind of came true,” says Kenny. “I felt real bad for the seniors, for them to go out like that. I must say, even though I was getting rocked, I was trying my best. I never thought that we were going to lose until it was literally over.
“Personally, it’s been a really weird year,” he continues. “It’s one of the wildest years I’ve ever played baseball. I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I felt really pressured because O’Leary asked so much from me and Mannix. But now it’s like expected of us, so I might as well just get ready to take the responsibility and get ready for what comes next year.”
Kenny credits O’Leary for his turnaround. “He’d just call me to see how I was doing, just making sure I have my head on straight, not only on the baseball field, but in school, too,” he says. “I really appreciate that.”
Though disappointed by the result, O’Leary is pleased to hear that after spending most of the season threatening to destroy the team, Kenny didn’t give up against Wilson. “That’s a long way from the Kenny of just a month-and-a-half ago,” he says. “He’s gotten rid of that guy. And he’s fun to play with when he’s getting into the game. It’s infectious. He needs to keep that up. Next year he’s going to be a senior. Hopefully he’ll be playing at Cardozo, leading us to the championship.”
“The thing about it is, we wound up as a team,” says O’Leary. “I was listening to [Hall of Famer] Joe Morgan last night on television, talking about how when they were little kids, they’d learn a little every day. Well, that’s what the big kids at Cardozo do, too.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.