They Bring the Big Leagues Back Home

Times Staff Writer

The winter sun gave off a diffused light midway between pastel and honey. A gentle Santa Ana had arrived with a promise of spring, scrubbing the air clean. Eventually, the shadows would lengthen, and the Harvard Park area of South-Central Los Angeles would again be caught up in gang warfare and drugs. But for the moment, the ragged ball field belonged to the boys of summer, professional baseball players out to have fun.

John Moseley moved from behind a backstop covered with graffiti and told a $1-million outfielder to shorten his stride. At 78, the retired Public Works Department truck driver had every right to be paternal. He had coached or befriended nearly every man on the field. He’d even coached some of their parents, he recalled. He taught Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry how to hit. Cincinnati center fielder Eric Davis was already being touted as the next Willie Mays. It didn’t surprise Moseley when the Giants drafted third baseman Chris Brown within weeks of his 1979 graduation from Crenshaw High School.

“That’s young Paul Blair Jr. out there now,” Moseley said, pointing to the gangly son of the former Baltimore Orioles outfielder. “I got his dad into a whole lot of whippings because I had him out playing instead of doing his chores.”


Friendship Makes Him Proudest

What makes Moseley proudest, however, is something he did not create: the friendship linking inner-city alumni Brown, Strawberry and Davis. “It’s a very special relationship,” Moseley said. “Those three boys are bound together by some magnetic force. I take great pleasure in coming here afternoons to watch those Three Musketeers.”

The friendship exists at many different levels and extends back to 1972, when Davis and Strawberry met at age 10 at a Little League All-Star game. When Davis, 25, was married in December, Strawberry, 25, and Brown, 26, were his groomsmen. Besides being Davis’ Woodland Hills neighbor, Brown is also godfather to his daughter.

“When you’ve watched each other grow up, it’s easier to relate,” Davis said. “Since he was drafted first, Chris was able to tell us what to expect from professional baseball. Later I was able to help Darryl when he had some emotional problems. I know he supported me back in 1980 when I found myself competing against more experienced players at Eugene” (Cincinnati’s Northwest League affiliate).

The friendship that provided the drive to excel at Crenshaw and Fremont high schools, and later supplied the stability to cope with the pressure of professional sports, evolved on a series of youth baseball teams similar to those that today occupy Los Angeles’ 268 park baseball diamonds. Each summer, more than 26,000 youngsters ages 5 to 14 try out for positions on the city’s 2,000 park and Little League teams. The vast number of teams and the organization of their leagues allow Los Angeles to produce a disproportionate number of major league ballplayers.

More often than not, inner-city athletes hone their ambition and discover heroes not at Dodger Stadium, but at places like Harvard Park.

‘Always Focused on the Field’

“That little Straw used to stand by this cage and watch his Daddy and me play softball on the post office team,” remembered P. K. Kennedy, a family friend who manages the Jordan Downs Recreation Center. “Most kids run around, but his attention always was focused on the field.”

Though he slept in a house at 60th Street and 7th Avenue, many of Strawberry’s waking hours were spent at Harvard Park.

“Strawberry was my first baseman when I had the L.A. Black Sox back in 1977,” Moseley said. “When he overslept, I’d go over to his house, douse him with a pitcher of water and haul him back here. All the boys grew up here. This is their home. That’s why Harvard Park remains a very special place.”

Not much about Harvard Park can be described as big league. The infield is a moonscape studded with fist-sized clods of dirt. Twinkling bits of broken glass mark the foul lines. Deep left field belongs to the locals with names like Skooby and Spuddog, who sip their beverages from small paper bags and flash blue steel at the first approach of a stranger.

Despite these distractions, Harvard Park is where a dozen or so baseball pros head every winter for a two-month period of conditioning known as The Program. For Strawberry, Brown, Davis and their friends, the training that begins each January is as much spiritual renewal as physical conditioning. Instead of duplicating major league conditions, a conscious effort is made to re-create the conditions under which they played as teen-agers.

A Glove, Some Trash Cans

A spare glove dropped in the dirt often serves as home plate. A pile of dented trash cans protects the batting practice pitcher from line drives. Dress uniforms are discouraged and many play without hats. Only the rack of personalized bats and the abundance of unscuffed balls serve as physical evidence that major leaguers are at work.

“No matter how far we go, me and Eric and Chris have to come back here to rededicate ourselves,” Strawberry said as he watched a towering drive arc toward a distant stand of eucalyptus.

“Here we can talk about things with people who’ll understand. We need to come back to the community where it all started, not only to develop good working habits, but also to show some of the younger kids that you can be up at the top and still come back to your old stomping grounds.”

And so they return every afternoon, baseball superstars and minor league hopefuls. Davis and Brown car pool in from Woodland Hills. Strawberry drives in from San Dimas. Infielders Rod Booker and Jessie Reid of the Cardinals and Giants, respectively, come from Upland and Lynwood. From Inglewood comes outfielder Reggie Montgomery, a Fremont High School teammate of Davis traded this summer from the Angels to Baltimore. Once outfielder Orsino Hill, a 1980 Pasadena High School graduate drafted by the Montreal Expos this summer, arrives from the San Gabriel Valley, practice can begin.

Incentive All Around

“The outfield’s full of divots, and shadows make it hard to see,” Hill said. “If you play well here, you can play well anywhere.”

Those needing incentive need only look about, he added.

“Look around at the drugs. This place is the eye of the tiger. I work harder than ever because I never want to fall back on hard times.”

Initially, The Program was based at Brookside Park in Pasadena. But the manicured outfield and upscale surroundings did not feel comfortable.

“Where you grow up is where you belong,” Brown said. “You can take the boy out of the ghetto, but not the ghetto out of the boy.”

There is no doubt that the 14-square-mile 77th Street Division surrounding Harvard Park is plagued by crime. Indeed, of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 18 administrative divisions, the 77th is one of the worst. Last year it led the city in homicides and rape. An average of 11 aggravated assaults were recorded every day. For Strawberry’s aunt, Brown’s mother and Davis’ father the statistics are more than academic, since each continues to live less than a mile from the park in the homes where the players grew up.

“We could stay in our shell, but we’d like to help younger kids, give them advice that some of us never got, like staying in school as long as possible,” Davis said.

Barred-Up and Bolted Bungalows

The baseball trio bring more than advice to their old neighborhood. Residents who venture out from the barred-up and bolted bungalows surrounding the park are welcomed to the practice. Kids out early from school get special attention, and an official National League ball if they’re lucky. In fact, anyone who shows up with a glove is welcome to play.

“Once you sign that professional contract, the fun stops for a lot of people,” Davis said. “Here we just come out to play, as if we were back in Little League.”

One of the program’s most loyal followers is Sal (Hollywood) Wilson.

A Good Example

“I’d rather be here with these youngsters than those who hang around bars and play with the girls,” he said. Until he was recently struck by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a crippling neuro-viral disease, Wilson was a “bird dog” scout who scoured the high schools for overlooked baseball prospects. Now he spends his afternoons painfully trying to walk from first base to the outfield.

“These boys are an example of what hard work can accomplish,” he said with a smile. “I’m out here to let them know that I’m not giving up either.”

Of the 15 players who show up for practice every day, most have been playing together for more than 15 years. Five were starters on a Connie Mack team at Gonzales Park in Compton 10 years ago.

“It was the summer before our senior year and the scouts already were drooling over Chris,” said Michael Garner, 25, a Los Angeles High School infielder under contract with the Dodgers’ San Antonio farm club.

First Out Would Help Others

“We decided that the person who got to the big leagues first would help the others to follow, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

In 1980, Garner went off to college accompanied by promises of assistance from Davis and Strawberry. Soon baseball shoes and other basic equipment began arriving. Davis was also there when Reggie Montgomery had to choose between a Chicago White Sox bonus of $35,000 and a baseball scholarship to USC.

“Eric was struggling in pro ball at the time and admitted that pro ball wasn’t as easy as we had thought,” Montgomery said. “In the end, he said to do what was in my heart. I went to USC.”

For Garner, Montgomery, Hill and the rest, the uncertainty of professional sports is tempered by the program.

“The deeper into the season, the more time we’ll spend on the phone,” Strawberry said with a laugh. “New York’s a tough place. I hit 39 homers last year, so this time they’ll want 50.

“When things start to close in, I’ll just call Eric or Chris,” he said. “Out here on this field we’re a family. And as long as we keep hustling, everything will turn out OK.”