10:16 PM PDT, May 14, 2013
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon on a cluttered street in Gardena, some very big and skilled athletes are hanging out on a concrete basketball court, bouncing around underneath rusted backboards and chain nets, acting out a typical inner-city scene, with one small exception.
They are playing baseball.
"It's Showtime!" shouts Coach Wil Aaron, only this is a very different kind of Showtime.
Aaron is using a tennis racket to whack tennis balls at close range to infielders on his Gardena Serra High baseball team, whose players are leaping and spinning out of stereotypes and perhaps into history. With the beginning of playoffs this week, in a knock-down pitch at popular culture, the second-ranked Cavaliers are attempting to become what is believed to be the first predominantly African American team to win a Southern Section baseball championship.
"Just trying to change the way people think,'' says first baseman-outfielder Dominic Smith with a grin.
This is not only about what people think, but what the baseball world sadly knows. Just as the Jackie Robinson biopic, "42," was being released this spring, so were figures noting that African American players made up only 8.5% of baseball's opening-day rosters, the lowest total since the majors became fully integrated in 1959.
The defending champion San Francisco Giants had no African Americans on their roster. The St. Louis Cardinals, a franchise that once threatened to strike if Robinson was allowed to break the color line for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, also had no African Americans.
A sport that helped change the country with integration had to embarrassingly admit that 66 years after Robinson's ground-breaking move, the big leagues fall far short of a proportional representation of his race, which makes up 13% of the population. As moviegoers were being awed by Robinson's aura, baseball had to sheepishly acknowledge today's inner-city athletes no longer find his sport fast enough, or cool enough, or welcome enough.
"In the inner city, all you hear is that baseball is racist," says Serra shortstop Khalil Denson. "Most kids are so turned off by it, they don't even try."
Those kids flock to Serra, where 13 members of the 19-player roster are black. Buoyed by the eligibility of four transfers and the effect of Aaron's unique coaching methods, the Cavs won 13 consecutive games at the end of the regular season and will enter the playoffs Thursday with a 23-5 record amid hope from many corners.
"Everyone is hoping that Serra's success stirs the area, stirs the neighborhood, and makes great young athletes say, 'Hey, maybe we want to play that sport,' " says longtime Arizona area scout Hal Kurtzman.
Officials from Major League Baseball are quick to point to progress, citing the seven African American players who were taken in the first round of the 2012 draft, the success of its Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program, and the foundation provided by its four urban youth academies, including the flagship operation in Compton.
"But the real change is going to happen through teams," says Denson, a senior finishing his fourth year. "For kids to want to play, they need to see that there are inner-city teams that aren't just made up of good athletes, but teams that play with skill and have fun and win."
Serra is that team, a group with a unique vibe that is part pickup basketball, part sandlot football, and all serious baseball.
"Everything we do is focused on training, fundamentals, showing people that these kids can play," says Aaron, 61, a former minor league shortstop who is in the sixth season of his Serra mission. "But we try to do it in a way that makes these kids want to keep playing."
The kids show up to practice dressed in school clothes, then casually change into their uniforms in their dugout, turning one of baseball's sacred spots into something that looks like a teenager's bedroom. On Tuesday, after the kids shook hands with each member of the coaching staff — the players are schooled on everything, including etiquette and interviews — the outfielders shag fly balls while the infielders put on their tennis shoes and move to the basketball court. It is there that Aaron hits them scalding tennis balls, sometimes at close range, to strengthen their footwork and quickness. The players will later move to the field, where Aaron will pepper them with grounders designed to make them dive or spin before throwing to a mat planted on a fence. In one drill, the players will even take off their cleats and practice catching balls on their knees and popping to their feet for the throw.
Says Aaron: "Who wants to come to practice to just practice?"
Says Denson: "This is a lot better than just standing there catching a million ground balls."
During their 21/2-hour practices, they do the million-ground-ball thing, all the usual stuff. But they do it with challenges and contests and sometimes, Aaron will offer a kid five bucks if he can hit the next pitch to the opposite field or deep.
"I know a lot of kids who find baseball boring — they would rather score a touchdown or cross somebody up on a layup than stand on a field for three hours," said Smith, who is expected to be a high pick in this year's draft. "What we do out here is definitely not boring."
It isn't all fun. There are constant stares from the all-white teams that fill up their schedule, but Aaron has made them so fundamentally sound, those looks soon disappear.
"All it takes is for us to execute one good bunt or rundown play, then they know they're in for a dogfight," says Aaron.
The Cavaliers hope to take that battle to the CIF Southern Section Division 3 final, on May 31, at the home of baseball's most prominent African American owner. Dodger Stadium would indeed seem to be an appropriate finish line for the longest of journeys.
"Even now, we sometimes get this feeling that people are like, 'You guys are good athletes, but you can't be good baseball players, you're black,' " says Denson. "This whole season is about proving them wrong."
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