Jackie Robinson's high school team is struggling; will Dodgers help?

Pasadena Muir High, where Jackie Robinson played, has a barely functioning baseball program in need of help

On a chilly and cloudy Friday afternoon, the high school baseball home of Jackie Robinson is a cratered, weed-choked monument to a memory forgotten.

When Pasadena John Muir High steps carefully onto its field against rival Pasadena High, the main concern of its coach is simply that his small and overmatched squad doesn't get hurt.

"This is such a beautiful thing, being attached to all this history, the school of the greatest baseball player ever," Robert Galvan said. "But it's become a very humbling experience."

There are clumps of dying grass in the infield, chunks of dirt in a rutted right field, a sloping hill toward a muddy basin in left field, and an eroded bump for a pitchers mound that contains only a cracked piece of rubber.

Off the field, there are no workable locker rooms, no loudspeaker for lineup announcements, no sponsorship banners, no concession stand, and only a partially working scoreboard.

Then there's the Muir dugout, which contains a team of just 11 players and three worn bats. Everyone is afraid to wear their socks high like Robinson because the socks don't match. One player just called up from the junior varsity is wearing a different style cap.

None of which matches the indignity found in the final score. On this day, Muir's third baseman weeps after bouncing a throw to first base, the shortstop clutches his head after being nicked with a bad-hop grounder, an opponent steals home while the pitcher is holding the ball, and the Mustangs lose, 9-4.

It is their 16th loss in 16 games, a winless season during which they have been outscored by an average of a dozen runs per game, including beatings of 28-0, 17-0 and 22-1.

In the last three seasons combined, the baseball team whose uniform was once worn by the most important baseball player ever has gone 2-55 while being outscored, 635-96.

The facilities are unsightly. The players are inexperienced and outmatched. The sport's popularity in the neighborhood is nonexistent. The daily embarrassments can be brutal.

"It's kind of hard to walk through school and say, 'Hey, we got beat 28-0,'" said freshman shortstop and pitcher Valente Vera.

All of which leads to the most sobering of truths expressed by Galvan one afternoon as he looks back across the street toward the main Muir building where a photo of a smiling Jackie Robinson, class of '36, hangs proudly in the main hallway.

"The way things are, if he went to John Muir today, Jackie Robinson probably wouldn't be playing baseball," he said.

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On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, in conjunction with baseball's nationally celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, the Dodgers announced they would erect a statue of Robinson in Chavez Ravine.

"I've been waiting 20 years," said Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. "It's the fulfillment of a dream."

At about the same time, less than a dozen miles away, on the cluttered streets of Pasadena, the members of Robinson's former high school baseball team were dreaming of privacy. They were dressing for practice in their open dugout, their skinny legs and boxer shorts in full view of the neighborhood. The only other option would be to cram into a foul bathroom in a storage shed with lockers wedged around clogged toilets and rusted folding chairs.

Once outfitted, the Muir players sometimes must shoo away the soccer players and drag in the soccer goals from beyond right field, which blends into a giant soccer pitch used by area youth teams. To save time, they have recently locked the goals together behind the backstop so the soccer players can't drag them back.

The field and locker room aren't the only facilities issue. The players dug out two brick-strewn junkyards to create bullpen and batting cages that are still overgrown with weeds. Certain things, however, just can't be fixed. They have a pitching machine, but they can't use it because it throws bean balls.

"It's very hard," senior catcher Kenny Green said. "People forget it's Jackie Robinson's school. People forget we even have a baseball team."

Robinson, who became major league baseball's first African American player when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, grew up in this northwest Pasadena neighborhood and graduated in 1936 from what was then known as John Muir Technical High. He led his Muir teams to league titles in football, track and baseball, where he played shortstop and catcher.

Because of the specialization forced upon current high school athletes, Robinson probably would play only one sport at Muir today. And because baseball is perceived to be slow and lacking in glamour, indeed that sport probably would not be baseball, which school officials say is Muir's problem. With so little interest in baseball, the school's limited resources are allotted to more popular sports, like football — witness Muir's turf football field across the street from the baseball muck.

"We try to recognize all sports and support all sports, but clearly some sports have greater financial needs," said Brian James, Muir's assistant principal in charge of athletics. "As more kids slide to one sport, the money has to shift."

James said the administration attempts to nurture Jackie Robinson's baseball legacy, but many of the school's best young athletes would rather create a different sort of history.

"Football and basketball have more glamour, you are on TV quicker, you can get to the league quicker, that's how kids see it," James said.

Making matters more difficult, according to Galvan, is a lack of a feeder youth league in the neighborhood and economic difficulties that prevent Muir's students from joining feeder travel league teams.

When Galvan, 32, became coach four years ago, Muir didn't even have a junior varsity team, and many of his prospective players barely knew the game. Some kids showed up in sneakers. Others didn't have gloves.

"The thing about baseball is, you've got to learn how to get yourself off the ground and figure it out again, and that's what these kids do every day," Galvan said. "To see all they have to go through, then to watch them come onto the field with a smile, that's amazing."

Their efforts have been noticed by opposing coaches, with varying responses. One team in Muir's Pacific League, which Galvan would not identify, actually attempted to have the Mustangs thrown out of the league because they weren't fielding a competitive team.

"I'm looking at them like, I've seen you honor Jackie Robinson, and now you want to get rid of his school?" Galvan said.

Yet another Southland team, the 2012 Southern Section Division I champs from Newbury Park High, took the opposite approach. When the Mustangs traveled there for an exhibition game last winter, longtime Panthers Coach Matt Goldfield was moved by their situation.

"It was clear these kids didn't have anything," Goldfield said. "Yet they were so enthusiastic, we were all so impressed, we got together with our parents and decided to do something."

The Newbury Park baseball family put together a care package of equipment that was quietly delivered to the Muir players, an act so kind that Muir kids still talk about it. Meanwhile, Goldfield is now issuing a challenge for someone to take up their torch.

"If I was down at Muir, seriously, I'd be screaming," Goldfield said. "Where is Major League Baseball? Where are the Dodgers? They spent $2 billion to buy a team, they can't spare $20,000 to come down and take care of the high school of their greatest player? How can they miss something like this that's right under their nose?"

When contacted about the Muir situation, the Dodgers acknowledged that they had no idea of the Muir situation. Club President Stan Kasten, a Dodgers co-owner, said that while the club's foundation builds fields only for communities, not schools, he would be willing to make an exception for Robinson's old stamping grounds.

"We have not been approached by them, but because this is about Jackie Robinson, we would certainly look into it," said Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' marketing boss.

The Muir folks say they have been too proud to ask for help, but the Dodgers should expect a phone call soon. It's not like people here don't care about the team. During the recent game with rival Pasadena High, the stands were filled with several dozen students who cheered each out like it was the final out of the World Series. Leading those cheers, calling each player by name, was Principal Timothy Sippel.

"Our facilities are less than ideal, obviously, and the resources to do something about it are lacking at the district level, yet in spite of that these kids show up and play with heart and believe they can do it," Sippel said. "Actually, it's the same kind of spirit found in Jackie Robinson's legacy."

That legacy was demonstrated Friday afternoon by the third baseman who wept after the bad throw, yet refused to abandon his position and finished the game like everyone else. The pitchers who get rocked and keep firing. The outfielders who misjudge balls and keep chasing.

"Every day, it is very hard, but every day we get stronger," third baseman Mike Morales said afterward, his eyes still red, his chin up, ready to take the next punch.

That's the thing about the 11 kids on Jackie Robinson's high school baseball team, the biggest reason for the hope that rises from its rubble, the one part unaffected by facilities or equipment or ability.

No, nobody wears number 42. But, yeah, everyone acts like they do.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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