No crying in baseball: Little League’s drive halted by virus

By DON WADE and The Daily Memphian – Associated Press – Sunday, May 3, 2020

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – The moment had passed, but that wasn’t going to stop him. was getting ahead of the rain and tending the grass at the Will Carruthers Ball Complex in Whitehaven.

He was alone, but he could hear the faint echoes of balls popping in gloves, smell the hot dogs cooking, see the kids kicking up dirt running around the bases.

“Our opening day would have been this past Saturday (April 25),” said.

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COVID-19 has tallied win after win on the big-time sports scoreboard: shutting down MLB and the NBA, erasing NCAA March Madness and the College World Series.

But it also has no problem stealing time, fun and hope from kids.

In this case, . , 46, a former University of Memphis football player, founded the more than a decade ago.

The city had shuttered its baseball program. knew what that meant. Baseball in African American communities was a vanishing sport. If something wasn’t done, it eventually might become extinct.

The potential of losing this season is especially painful because says they had “momentum,” with an increase in sign-ups for kids ages 5-13 (around 300) and “an uptick” in Hispanic and white kids coming into the .

“We haven’t officially called it yet,” he said of their season, which typically has games on Tuesday nights and Saturdays. “We’re hoping something happens that will let us get out there in July.

“But it’s out of our hands. It’s heartbreaking. But we understand this is what has to be done.”

Once, baseball was as important to the African American community in Memphis as basketball and football are now.

On April 5, Ollie Brantley, one of the last living Negro Leagues alumni, died at 87. In 1950, he had been something of a rookie “phenom” with the Memphis Red Sox at the tender age of 17.

Nick Diunte, in researching a story on Brantley for Forbes, uncovered some gems about the former Memphis Red Sox star, including that he was discovered playing Sunday sandlot baseball in Marianna, Arkansas by Goose Curry – a one-time manager of the team.

“Rival players are beginning to talk about his curve ball and his blinding fast ball,” Curry told the Memphis World later that summer. “They fear that particular pitcher.”

The Red Sox had a start-and-stop existence here beginning in 1923 that stretched well past Jackie Robinson breaking the major leagues’ color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While owned by the Martin brothers, who were dentists in Memphis, the Red Sox played many of their games at the aptly named Martin Stadium at the corner of Danny Thomas and Crump Blvd.

By the early 1960s, however, the Negro Leagues could no longer sustain as more and more African American players became big-league stars – everyone from rightful home run king Hank Aaron to Willie Mays to Memphis-born Vada Pinson, who finished with more career hits (2,757) than Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio.

The Memphis Red Sox’s last claim to fame?

Country Music Hall-of-Famer Charley Pride, who never realized his dream of reaching the majors, but sounded a few notes playing for the Memphis nine in the 1950s.

“It’s hard to get people into baseball,” said board member Charles Scott.

He means now. And truthfully, for a long time.

The story is familiar: A kid needs but a basketball and a hoop for a game – even if it is a game of solitaire with make-believe 3-pointers by Steph Curry to win the NBA title or spectacular drives against invisible foes as an unstoppable 10-year-old Ja Morant.

As puts it, basketball and football offer more “glitz and glamour,” not to mention more accessibility to growth in their games and to college scholarships.

The mission, then, is multi-faceted. Yes, and Scott would love to see alumni playing college baseball. A couple of years ago, a former player went to an NAIA baseball program in Missouri.

More immediately, in the progression from here to there, Scott says, “A lot of these boys and girls have gone on and played middle school softball or baseball,” adding, “You don’t have to be 6-6 or have the best speed.”

But baseball and softball also make demands that football and basketball do not.

To excel, it requires you “learn the terminology,” says, and it is essential that playing the game starts early.

“You can convert a baseball player,” said . “Converting a football or basketball player to baseball is just not that easy.”

So, worries that some of the progress made with kids will be lost if there is no this summer.

“It’s tough,” he said. “A lot of kids will fall back to what they know – basketball and football. Especially for those newcomers, it’s now going to be hard to get them back involved.”

Lawrence Clemons wanted to play baseball, wanted a team to call his own.

“His dad wanted him to play football,” said Lawrence’s mother, Angela Clemons.

Lawrence Jr. was just 8, so it wasn’t exactly like he had experience negotiating a contract. But that’s basically what he did: He told Dad, Lawrence Sr., sure, he’d play football – as long as he also got to play baseball.

Sounds easy enough, but Angela remembers, “It was hard to find a team at first. Then when I found (), it was like they were right under my nose all the time.”

And so, Lawrence played in the until he aged out. Now 14 and a freshman at Mitchell High School, which he says was not fielding a baseball team even before COVID shut things down, he tried out for and made a competitive AA team out of Collierville.

One of his strengths, after learning the game under : being able to play just about any position on the field; he likes shortstop and second base the most.

“It’s like you’re a leader on the team,” Lawrence said. “And that’s where there’s the most action.”

He says most of his friends at school are all about basketball, but he does have some advice for any urban kid who has given baseball at least a passing thought.

“Step out of your comfort zone,” Lawrence said. “It might open your eyes to new things.”

And so, as the shelter-in-place order extends into May, and perhaps beyond, and Scott hope against hope that at least will get in a few innings before baseball has to give way to football.

Scott, 64, would like nothing more than to fulfill his board member duties on game days.

“Being a board member,” Scott said with a laugh, “means picking up the trash, cutting the grass, cooking.”

Before the pandemic took root, says they had managed to schedule a clinic for coaches put on by the MLB Alumni Association. That would have been a first for and no doubt would have helped with training young players up as they should go.

Still, as much as wants to see tangible skills improvement and players graduate to higher levels of play, that’s never been the overriding focus.

“It’s about helping instill life skills,” he said. “We’re not just trying to win a game and send a kid home with a trophy. We’re more about serving the community and the kids.”

And that’s a big job.

is co-owner of CW Apparel. He’s got a full life even without .

He concedes he has thought of backing away, but every time he does it seems like he runs into a former player who thanks him for the chance to play baseball.

Someday, perhaps, maybe one of those former players will want to take over for him and ensure the mission continues. He hopes so.

Until then?

“I can’t stop,” said before heading to the field to cut the grass. “This means more to me than anything I’ve done in my life.”

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