Stepping up to the plate
Tim Lewis has a bedtime routine.
He flips on a small portable television, reclines the front passenger seat of his 1993 Toyota Camry and leans back till his trim, 6-foot-2 frame is nearly horizontal. Often he drifts off to sleep with the TV on.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” Lewis, 52, says of living out of his car. “Sometimes it’s tough, but I’m a tough guy.”
Home is a parking space around the corner from Compton’s Sibrie Park, where Lewis played baseball 40 years ago with future major leaguers such as Lonnie Smith, an outfielder on three World Series champions.
More recently, the park has been known more for drug deals and gang violence; organized baseball was last played there in 1979. But this year, Little League baseball is back in Compton -- and Lewis, a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser, has been a driving force in its revival.
The idea of a lost soul finding redemption on a Little League diamond is a familiar, even threadbare, story line, the stuff of movies such as “The Bad News Bears.”
In Lewis’ case, the reality is messy, the redemption incomplete, but parents, players and Little League officials say that his commitment to the game and the boys he coaches is genuine.
“He came to us and said we needed to do something for the kids in the neighborhood,” says Billy Williams, a Compton resident who played ball at Sibrie in the 1950s, when it was called El Segundo Park and had manicured grass, a flagpole and a scoreboard. “To see children playing in this park again, it’s a warm feeling.”
In its heyday, the Compton Little League produced a few big league stars, including former Dodgers slugger Reggie Smith and retired New York Yankees outfielder Roy White. But in recent years, urban leagues have disintegrated nationwide, and the number of black players competing at the game’s highest level has dwindled.
Thirty-five years ago, 27% of major league players were black; last year, 10.2% were. The players in Compton’s league are mostly black and Latino.
Lewis’ boyhood field no longer looks like much. Sibrie’s outfield is riddled with gopher holes. The scoreboard is gone and there are no bleachers, no lights, no snack bar.
Of all the fields used by the league’s 23 teams, “this is the raggediest,” says Williams, the league’s safety officer.
But even a rundown ball field is something in a neighborhood rough even by Compton standards. Lewis hopes it’s enough to steer 80 or so Little Leaguers away from trouble. That’s why he helped lobby city officials for support and recruited players from elementary and middle schools.
“When I have them out here, I talk to them and pray with them,” Lewis says of the players. “No one talked to me about not drinking or doing drugs. I talk to them individually and tell them it will mess up their lives.”
Lewis first pitched the idea of bringing Little League baseball back to his hometown last year during a chance meeting with Compton Mayor Eric. J. Perrodin at a bicycle fair. The league had been defunct in the city since 2001, and no baseball had been played at Sibrie in 30 years.
“He said he wanted to give back to the community,” Perrodin says.
Lewis met with James Moore, a paramedic for the Compton Fire Department who shared his vision. Moore reached out to Little League headquarters, obtained a charter and became the local league’s president. Lewis is a “player agent,” responsible for recruiting participants, keeping their paperwork in order and overseeing the field at Sibrie. He is also co-manager of one of the teams, the Sibrie Braves.
Torii Hunter, the Angels’ All-Star center fielder, donated $10,000, ensuring that players would have uniforms and that parents wouldn’t have to pay registration fees.
Hunter donates to Little League programs around the country, mindful that baseball helped keep him out of trouble while growing up in a Pine Bluff, Ark., neighborhood overrun by gangs.
“You can get in a lot of trouble in the summertime,” Hunter says. “You’re out with your friends in the neighborhood in a bad area and the next thing you know, you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing.
“With baseball, you practice every day and you’re playing every other day. You’re going to stay busy. You can’t be around the guys who are not doing anything.”
With Hunter’s gift and several hundred dollars from parents, the league spent $8,200 on uniforms and $1,700 for its charter. What was left went toward baseball equipment, T-shirts and advertising banners.
The beneficiaries are players such as Diego Galvez, a 12-year-old third baseman for the Braves, who says of baseball, “I like it. It keeps you occupied when you don’t have anything to do.”
The league could be said to serve the same purpose for Lewis.
During a recent game, he seemed to be everywhere. He was chaplain, leading a pregame prayer in the infield; he was equipment manager, helping a catcher adjust his shin guards; he was first base coach; and he was team cheerleader, providing a steady stream of encouragement.
By the time the Braves came up for their final at-bat, trailing by 10 runs, the field was nearly shrouded in darkness. Lewis remained upbeat as he and co-manager Luther Keith Jr. gathered their players after the loss. “I’m very proud of you guys,” Lewis said. “You didn’t give up today. We’ll see them again.”
Stephanie Wilson, whose grandson plays center field for the Braves, says Lewis is “like a father figure to these children, and I think they do love him dearly.”
Neighborhood residents say many of the youngsters need positive direction -- and no one seems to mind that it comes from a homeless man with a complicated past.
Mike Glover, who lives down the street from Lewis’ favorite parking space, has seen the coach in action and says of some parents, “He’s doing more for their kids than they are.”
A baseball season provides plenty of teachable moments. When the Braves squandered a big lead in a game against the Kelly Park Dodgers this month, the left fielder walked off in protest in the middle of the game -- prompting his younger brother, the right fielder, to do the same.
The Braves lost when the other team hit a ball to the vacated spot in right field.
“Kids think they can just give up when they want to,” Lewis says. “I tried telling them, ‘We win together, we lose together. You don’t give up.’ ”
He considered kicking the deserters off the team but relented when he confronted them and they started crying. Who was he to deny someone a second chance?
Lewis knows from personal experience that life can be a series of stops and starts.
Raised in Compton, he attended Centennial High, where he was a drum major in the first all-black marching band to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
Lewis’ hopes of going to college on a band scholarship were dashed when he robbed someone of cash, sticking his hand under his jacket to suggest he had a gun. Then 17, he was arrested, brought to juvenile court and sentenced to probation.
“The way we grew up around here, I thought to prove that I was a man I had to fight and go out and rob somebody to live up to that image,” Lewis says.
After high school, he worked for beverage companies, driving a forklift and operating machines that filled soda cans. Later, he studied radiology at Los Angeles City College and became a surgical technician, working in maternity wards at several Southland hospitals.
His personal struggles eventually caught up with him. Lewis has four children by three women, and when those relationships soured, one after another, he would turn to drugs and alcohol, he says.
Lewis says that in 2004, after breaking up with his fiancee, he went on a cocaine and alcohol binge and quit his job in a hospital. He left another job about a year later after a relapse triggered by “getting back in with the wrong crowd.”
“I never was fired,” he says. “I just kind of walked away.”
He did the same to wives and girlfriends, finally landing on the street about two years ago.
Lewis said he completed several rehabilitation programs, only to relapse, but made a breakthrough a little more than a year ago, finding solace in the Bible.
He says he has not touched drugs or alcohol since. Instead, he finds comfort in church services and televised religious broadcasts that he watches in his car.
He drives sparingly, usually just to switch sides of the street for street cleaning, and it’s just as well. His car has a busted water pump, a missing gas cap cover and 306,000 miles on the odometer.
Most of Lewis’ days start about 4 a.m., when he rises to pray in Sibrie. He showers and shaves at a friend’s house and stays busy doing odd jobs such as tending flower beds for his neighbors.
Lewis feels badly about borrowing money to pay for the 2,000 minutes he’d run up on his cellphone handling Little League business, but friends do what they can to help.
Lawrence Bright delivers plates of food from his home down the street from Lewis’ parking space, and Bright’s sister, Valerie Davis, irons Lewis’ shirts before job interviews.
“I would feel glad if someone would take him in and help him,” says longtime resident Clotilde Sanchez, 84.
Lewis becomes emotional when he talks about his own children, ages 11 to 28. He knows he has not always been there for them.
Still, his resolve seems steady toward the young ballplayers of Sibrie.
“God delivered me and gave me something to do for these kids,” Lewis says. “Hopefully we can keep it going and keep these kids out of harm’s way.”