As Le'jon Baker walked the halls of Los Angeles Crenshaw last fall, he kept mostly quiet about a startling secret: He was 13 years old.
"They never ask, so I don't say anything," he said. "It's kind of weird. I feel like I'm supposed to be in a grade lower, then you see all these seniors walking around. I can't be a little kid. Play time is over. You've stepped into the real world."
At 6 feet and 180 pounds, with thick arms and a sturdy, athletic body, Baker could line up in a crowd of fellow students and no one would dare pick him out as a freshman.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw him," baseball Coach Major Dennis said.
After starting at quarterback for the freshman-sophomore team, Baker turned 14 on Dec. 18 and moved on to varsity baseball, where whispers from Crenshaw alumni predicting Baker's future are growing louder.
"He's the next Darryl Strawberry," they say.
It's putting extra pressure on a teenager who has a fantastic arm, lots of speed and is still learning to hit, but he appreciates what it means to have people mention him with Strawberry, who was baseball's No. 1 draft choice out of Crenshaw in 1980.
"I think about it, but I'm not trying to compare myself to Darryl Strawberry," he said. "I'm trying to make a name for myself. I'm trying to stay humble the way I act on and off the field."
There's no hiding the excitement Baker produces because of his physical attributes.
"He's got all the tools," Dennis said. "It's all on him."
John Young, the founder of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, said Baker is the best freshman prospect he's seen in the 18 years of the program in Los Angeles.
Baker has been playing baseball since he was 4. He has started for Crenshaw at third base, shortstop, the outfield and pitcher.
His father, Leonard, is an engineer who runs trains from Los Angeles to Barstow. The one time he brought Le'jon along for a ride, when he was 5, became the last time because his son didn't like the horn noise.
"I got scared," Le'jon said. "I don't want to mess with trains."
He's a good student, stays out of trouble and hangs out with teenagers who want to excel in sports and school. A role model is junior center fielder Cameron Hart, a straight-A student he has known since he was 3.
"He's a very special person," Baker said. "He's like my bigger brother. Since he's got a 4.0, he can guide and help me."
Hart is the varsity team's starting quarterback, a position Baker learned for the first time last fall. Since he wears size 13 1/2 shoes and is still so young, Baker figures to end up 6-2 or taller. And with his athleticism, he might continue to play football. But there should be no doubt about where baseball fits in.
"My passion is more in baseball," he said.
At a time when there's concern about dwindling interest in baseball among African Americans, Baker offered his thoughts on the problem.
"We see Kobe Bryant playing basketball and LaDainian Tomlinson running the football," he said. "That makes young kids want to focus on basketball and football."
Baker said some of his friends wouldn't be able to identify Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, Hall of Fame baseball players he admires.
"They just know basketball and football players," he said. "They know nothing about baseball. I have to school them. They would probably go, 'Who are those people?' "
Baker entered this week with a .304 batting average, seven doubles and two home runs for a Crenshaw team that was 6-0 in the Coliseum League and 0-10 in nonleague games. Dennis is trying to keep the expectations for Baker under control.
"Oh, man, I don't want to put too much on him," he said.
But if you keep pushing and prodding, his true feelings come out.
"He's going to be great," Dennis said.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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