Baseball didn’t really appeal to Julian McPherson.
Growing up in Southeast D.C, he played T-ball for a year, but like many other kids in his neighborhood, he preferred basketball and football. When his parents registered McPherson and his younger brother, Jonah, for programs at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy near their home in Fort Dupont, McPherson figured he’d try baseball out for a year before moving on.
Plus, he thought, playing baseball meant standing out uncomfortably as one of the few Black kids in a sport that is predominantly White.
“It’s weird when you’re the only Black guy,” McPherson says, “and that would be new for me, because I’ve been playing around all Black people most of my life with sports.”
His unease faded once he saw that other Black kids in the city joined the program, and the sport that McPherson was reluctant to try only a few years ago now consumes his life. The 15-year-old rising sophomore at McKinley Technology High School plays baseball about 11 months out of the year. He competes on several youth teams and played for Mamie Johnson Little League a year before its 12-and-under all-star squad made national headlines in 2018 for becoming the first majority Black team to win the D.C. Little League championships.
McPherson, who goes by the nickname “Juice,” has embraced a sport that still struggles with Black representation. Only 8.4 percent of active Major League Baseball players on the 2018 Opening Day rosters were Black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and it’s even lower in the NCAA, as only approximately 6 percent of the 10,816 baseball players last year were Black.
But locally, at least, the concerted efforts and success of youth programs have led to promising results. Two years after Mamie Johnson’s breakthrough, participation in both the Washington Nationals Baseball Academy’s YBA PLAY program and the Mamie Johnson Little League team that practices out of the academy’s facility in Ward 7 have grown exponentially. Local members of the baseball community are hopeful that while the novel coronavirus pandemic has halted competitive play for Little League, high school, and youth travel teams, progress will continue.
“I started getting emails from people going, ‘Hey, I heard your kid plays baseball with Mamie Johnson, can you tell me about it?’” McPherson’s mother, Ebon, says. “When I meet families and I happen to be wearing the [Mamie Johnson] jersey, they would ask, ‘Hey, is that the team that made it to the championship?’ Then they’d ask more.”
Raphael Lockett wears many hats in the local youth baseball scene. He’s the head coach for Mamie Johnson, serves as a pitching coach at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, and helps coach the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy’s YBA Hustle travel teams as a roving instructor.
Two summers ago, he launched Deuces Wild, a travel baseball team that brings in kids from Wards 7 and 8 and Prince George’s County, in part because of the growing demand for baseball in Southeast. Mamie Johnson’s president and founder, Keith Barnes, says that there were about 330 kids registered for his team last year, compared to 200 in 2018, and 135 in 2017.
“We definitely saw growth,” Lockett says. “I think we would’ve seen even more had coronavirus not taken out our season this year at the league and at the high school level.”
Rocco Gilbert, one of the players on the 2018 Mamie Johnson team and a rising freshman at Bishop McNamara who now competes for Deuces Wild and YBA Hustle, has had a front row view of the evolution. Like McPherson, Gilbert, 14, initially thought the sport was boring after playing T-ball.
The excitement of the past two years has helped change that perception.
“Some wards of D.C., most of the kids are African American, they don’t have a really big interest in baseball,” Gilbert says. “But I think after we had won, it was really huge. I think we inspired a lot of kids, they’re just like us. And a lot of them are starting to play baseball now.”
The players on Deuces Wild, who range in age from 13 to 15 years old, compete in tournaments locally and as far north as New York, giving players like McPherson an opportunity to refine their skills in a competitive setting after they age out of Little League.
Lockett estimates that 90 to 95 percent of players on the team are Black. Many of them, he says, have only played organized baseball for a few years. (Studies have shown that sports competition often begin as early as age 6.) McPherson, for one, only joined the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy’s after-school program five years ago.
The fact that McPherson is now a year-round baseball player comes as a surprise to Lockett. He knows that exposure to the sport has been limited in many Southeast neighborhoods, and that makes it difficult for him to convince kids used to the constant action of basketball and the physical nature of football to give baseball a try.
Players like McPherson, who is 5-foot-2, have learned to appreciate the finer aspects of the game that they couldn’t see at first.
“I enjoy the mental part of the game,” he says. “And the fact that it can be slow sometimes, but then sometimes it can be fast. You can change the pace of the game.”
Lockett, who joined Mamie Johnson in 2017, wants to maximize the kids’ potential and sees Deuces Wild as not only a pipeline to local high schools, which can lead to college coaches recruiting players, but as a resource for the kids outside of the sport, as well. In addition to Lockett, there are four other coaches and the team consists of about 35 players. They take players on college visits and give them an opportunity to explore areas outside of D.C.
“It doesn’t have an all-star player all the time,” Lockett says. “Obviously we’ll accept those, but you want guys, at the end of the day, who want to learn about life, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to teach them, teach them life through the game of baseball.”
The team would’ve started the season this spring, with practices at the academy or at Leckie Elementary School, but the pandemic has forced them—like most youth athletes—to practice at home.
It only took a week for McPherson, a versatile player who pitches and plays second base, shortstop, and in the outfield, to start getting restless. In a normal season, he would be seeing his friends and teammates at the academy four to five times a week for practice. In addition to Deuces Wild, McPherson plays for the academy’s YBA Hustle 16-and-under travel team. He graduated from the academy’s summer school and after-school program last year.
“I didn’t realize how much time [baseball] took up of my day. ‘Cause, like, for the first week, I could just [play video games] all day,” McPherson says. “I could game and watch anime all day. And then after that, I started getting bored. I was like, I really have nothing to do because I’m usually playing baseball at this time.”
To maintain fitness, he threw a baseball around with his younger brother, Jonah, in the neighborhood, and coaches from Deuces Wild and the academy kept in touch via Zoom. Lockett demonstrated how to practice throwing against a T-shirt placed on a fence with tape on it representing the different strike zones.
Last month, as the city went into Phase Two of the coronavirus reopenings, the academy started to allow small groups of players to practice on the fields with coaches. McPherson is now at the academy twice a week.
Nick Sussman, the director of baseball and softball operations at the academy, joined the organization four years ago, and has a picture of McPherson sitting at a computer. The then baseball rookie had been there all day as a scholar-athlete in the academy’s summer program, and during a break in the day to recharge, Sussman noticed that McPherson was watching YouTube while wearing his baseball glove.
“I realized that was me when I was his age, because I loved baseball too, and I just had my glove on all the time,” Sussman says. “And that was a moment where I went, I think we’re going to do something special here on the baseball field.”
A few years later, the Mamie Johnson Little League team would be celebrating its first D.C. Little League championship title. Sussman credits Mamie Johnson with increasing interest in the academy and also baseball in Southeast—even more so than the Nationals’ World Series title last fall.
“I love that World Series run,” he says. “I was hanging on every pitch of that run, but if I’m comparing it to what our what our boys did with the Mamie Johnson team, that was just massive, because we had kids who were able to look onto a baseball field to see other kids that look like them, who are having success, winning a championship, and getting to go up to Bristol and be on ESPN.”
In terms of measuring the sport’s growth in the past two years, Sussman points to the participation number in YBA Play, the academy’s largest program that provides structured baseball and softball development and free instructional league during the summer months for kids ages 5 to 12. In that time span, the participation has increased from 600 kids in 2018 to around 1,200 last year, Sussman says, adding that last winter was the “best winter in terms of player development that we’ve ever had,” during his time with the academy.
And just last year, McPherson got the chance to attend Game 4 of the World Series at Nationals Park for free with his father. He had just been named the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy’s youth of the year.