Strikes as Usual

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The result has always been the same — Mo’ne Davis throwing strikes. Aside from Queen Latifah butchering Mo’ne’s entire introduction this was awesome. What a great way to finish the summer and take all of us on another joy ride. I’m sure it won’t be the last but for now school awaits. I hope I didn’t for you Mo!

 

You Can Only Hope

LLWS Las Vegas Chicago Baseball

Watching the team from Chicago win the United States Little League World Series title last week, becoming the first all black team to do so, was one of the best things that could happen in baseball. It not only proved that they were the best Little League team in the U.S. but it pointed to a much greater success, proving that with the right coaching/personnel, baseball in the inner-city can thrive.

The players had a huge homecoming in Chicago’s Millennium Park. They proved to be conquering heroes, kids who made a profound impact on our history books whose names will be etched in stone forever.

But lets make sure we keep some things in perspective; its Little League and after the celebration subsides, when a team from Nevada is no longer their rival and the world isn’t solely their stage, the kids from Jackie Robinson West will have larger issues to deal with that won’t involve baseball.

The “come down” from the Little League World Series might have been just as bad as the loss for my Harlem team back in 2002.

After a few weeks of celebration from the city such as getting to take the field with the New York Yankees, cutting the ribbon and being the leaders of the Macy Day Parade, meeting Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash, having lunch with Bill Clinton and hearing him speak about Barry Bonds and steroids (the list goes on) —- no one knew who we were.

You will go from being the most celebrated players across the country for two weeks, to what feels like nothing again. No one will stop you to ask for your autograph or picture. You will get the occasional “hey didn’t you play in the…” question to sometimes boost your ego.

But other than that, there’s a new history that needs to be created. Some get the memo others don’t.

This is the unfortunate story of one of my teammates. He was one of our better players on our journey to Williamsport, but he never grew — literally and figuratively. He was 5’7 in Little League, and still to this day is 5’7. He played on many of our travel ball summer teams in high school but even 6 years removed, he would always somehow bring up the Little League World Series.

Part of you wanted to tell him to get over it, but another piece of you felt for him because as a player he really never got better. Those were his “glory days”, and maybe even in his mind —- his “only days.”

Baseball for majority of the players from Chicago, with the exception of a little more than a few, will end after this World Series. And what I mean by end is they won’t play the game on a level passed high school. It’s a tough pill to swallow for many kids because the Little League World Series tells you the exact opposite.

It makes you feel that someday you will be a star in the Major Leagues getting paid millions of dollars to be in the national spotlight. It’s a tease that feels like an appetizer to some gourmet entree extravaganza.

For some of the players this could be true, and the first players that come to mind from the Chicago team are Pierce Jones and Trey Hondras. But be careful when making these predictions because it very well may be the player that only subbed in for his one at-bat and three outs in the field.

Little League is just that, Little League. Each kid grows as a ballplayer differently, some more than others.

The Chicago team might have a tough time moving on from their magical summer. In a week or so, it is back to school and most of them will now be playing on your standard size baseball field.

Feeling like a big leaguer for a couple of weeks is a great experience, but what if thats the only experience? For some, especially the superstar, it isn’t suppose to end right there, and for the player that the world just saw as “okay”, he now is on a mission to prove the opposite.

But what if it was meant to end right there? What if the only mission was to prove to all of the “baseball pundits” that inner-city baseball is relevant and can prosper where player development is enforced.

How do you explain that to a 12 year-old kid from an inner-city? A team that played on Little Leagues biggest stage and won the U.S. title and was one win shy of a World Series title. Better yet, how can they figure it out on their own? That they may have just served as a catalyst for change in our urban youth programs across the country.

Is that good enough? It wasn’t for some of my teammates back in 2002. My advice for the team from Chicago is to reflect on what they have done, it is a feat that has never been achieved. They should be proud. Just make sure six years from now, on a hot summer day in between a double-header when no one is watching, don’t view that magical summer as your “only days.”

 

 

 

 

They Aren’t Just Happy to Be Here

Jackie Robinson little league

Never have I seen a team hit like this since my 2002 Little League World Series team. Chicago might even do it a little better. They square the ball up consistently and one through nine they are hacking and making solid hard contact the whole time.

They are truly an exciting team to watch. Not to mention they all can run too. They put the pressure on the defense to make the plays and are just truly dominant.

It’s a special thing to see, and in the midst of every person who never played baseball relying on percentages to tell the story of the black not playing, this right here proves the process and ultimately the result of player development.

I caught up with their head coach who players refer to as “DB” and I talked about his players approach at the plate, and how their team reminded me a lot of mine.

He stated that the main thing he tries to do is “tell my guys be aggressive. I don’t want them taking walks I want them banging and having fun. If you flip the bat when you hit a home run flip it, do you. You are a kid”

That’s my type of team. In a game where one is often forced to remain stoic, it’s good to see a team willing to go against the grain.

I know we did.

Be flashy, be humble, be arrogant and competitive. Parents and coaches say they showboat too much. I call it adding personality, a flare for the dramatic. As long as you are winning it doesn’t matter.

Little League get ready. It’s another team everyone is going to love to hate.

They Made Me Go Back

monarchs

I was never really “proud” of the way my college baseball career turned out. From having to transfer from my original school, Ohio University, to Temple University —- not “gelling” well with either coaches, to ultimately a career plagued by injury, baseball was something that I just wanted to be over.

And quite frankly, it was. I was a fifth-year senior, no longer playing and just focusing on finishing my degree. I had just come off huge rotator cuff surgery and never really recovered.  I didn’t even want to be around the game, not to coach, not to watch — I couldn’t even look at a bat. Bitterness consumed me and I didn’t care, nor would I deny that I felt angry toward the game.

It was obvious, and anyone close to me knew how I felt.

Until the winter of 2013. One of my friends recently did a piece for his magazine. The story was based on a group of kids playing for the Anderson Monarchs, a travel team in the heart of South Philadelphia. The majority of the players are African-Americans from urban areas.

The program was founded by Steve Bandura in 1993, whose goal was to give African-Americans a space to play baseball, and also prove that city kids could compete with suburban players. They just needed the resources.

I decided to meet Bandura. Accompanied by friend who introduce me to him, we met at the Marian Recreation Center, the facility where the Monarchs hold their practices and many of their games. The minute you walk in you immediately feel the inner-city vibe. A feeling that provided a sense of home for me, a man who grew up in an urban area as welll.

I explained to Bandura that I was looking to help minorities in baseball, but I still wasn’t really sure if I was ready to be around the game yet. There was still this level of disconnect that I felt toward baseball.

Nonetheless, Bandura gave me an opportunity to help train his players. He told me winter clinics were starting in two weeks, and he was looking forward to having me there.

Two weeks later I remember walking in a few minutes late after getting lost looking for the batting cages. The team was taking batting practice. As I watched, I was soon astonished at the level of talent, and IQ the players possessed at such a young age. It was something that I’ve never seen, their ability to be able to just think baseball.

Interestingly enough, after taking batting practice, they watched video of themselves at the plate, which was  something else I marveled at because each of them listened attentively to what Bandura had to say. I saw their fire, their willingness to learn, and as a result it made you want to be there.

After getting to know the players and training them, I soon found it eerie the similarities these player had with each other and with my 2002 Little League World Series team from Harlem.

We were both from inner cities: we both grew up playing with each other since we were 4 or 5-years-old, and all of us had exceptional coaching and support—Steve Bandura for the Monarchs, and my father Morris McWilliams for our Harlem team.

Those similarities and their competitive edge/joy for the game was what made me give baseball one last shot. They reminded me of why I started playing the game: I loved it.

I later decided to play professional baseball in New Mexico for a summer, not because I felt I could make it to the big leagues, but because I owed it to myself, my community, my coaches and teammates, and believe it or not to the Anderson Monarchs organization to go out on my terms.

Last Sunday night, four of those players that I was lucky enough to come in contact with in South Philadelphia earned the right to go to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and represent the Mid-Atlantic Region at the Little League World Series.

Zion Spearman, Mo’ne Davis, Scotty Bandura and Jahli Hendricks all came up together on the Anderson Monarchs travel ball team, and have formed what I have called the “Core 4” of the Taney Little League team.

At some point or another, the other players on the team, who are also pre-dominately African-American, have come through Steve Bandura’s program either in a camp or from a clinic.

This is not merely to point to the teams success but more so a testament to the city and the program that birthed this “Core 4” and the Taney Little League team. It is to prove that Bandura’s claim back in 1993 that “all city kids need are the resources, and they can play with anyone” didn’t go in vain.

In fact, his words ring true outside of just Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs as Taney represents one of the best 16 Little League teams in the world. The majority of the players are homegrown and inner-city products that had the talent and backing.

Until organizations start viewing the inner-city kids baseball experience as a player development program and not a charity event where we give a child a goody bag and a couple of swings with his or her favorite player only to send him home to the same impoverished situation, then we will always be talking about the “dire need for more blacks in baseball”

My father and Steve Bandura understood the plight of the African-American experience, and they used baseball as a vehicle to guide a kid through discipline, love and player development. They both placed extreme emphasis on each.

I haven’t been back to the Little League World Series since our loss in the United States semifinal to Worcester, Massachusetts, 12 years ago. I never wanted to relive that walk-off home run we gave up to lose the game in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Sometimes, I think that if we had lost earlier and weren’t so close to winning it all, it would have been easier for me to deal with at that age.

Or perhaps it was because of some of the racial epithets my team faced at just 12 years-old. Or maybe the idea that the media thought it was okay to report that several of our teammates lived in homeless shelters. Williamsport was the greatest experience for all of us. But for some, it was also the most invasive.

For those reasons, I never went back. It was too bittersweet.

But this year it’s different. There is a group of four kids that I trained my senior year at Temple, that are in Williamsport. Somehow, they made me go back to playing baseball again, just for one season, so I could go out on my own terms

They’ve done it once, and they’ve proved to me that sometimes going back isn’t that bad.

I think they have done it again. See you in Williamsport.

In Baseball, a Little Narcissism Isn’t Too Bad

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fielder-celebration

While at a Yankee game the other day, I overheard a girlfriend who seemingly knew nothing about baseball ask her boyfriend “so what does Derek Jeter do, like what is he good at?” To the real Jeter fan you can allude to a lot of plays that make him a great ballplayer, but what stands out the most are all of his clutch moments during his tenure with the New York Yankees, sports most storied franchise.

Nonetheless, the boyfriend responded by saying  “He does everything well, but it’s mainly the way he respects the game.”

And there it was, the “respect for the game” phrase that has been the lead on each Jeter story this season. Baseball pundits have forced the pure image of Jeter on us, sort of saying “if you are arrogant or cocky, you can’t be the face of baseball.” Not true, not true at all. In fact, arrogant and cocky is what baseball needs.

The Jeter “respect for the game” slogan has turned into the most annoying part of his farewell tour–recycled like the rags to riches “I still shoot and kill/sell drugs out of my Greenwich, Connecticut mansion” hip-hop story that unfortunately fills our digital air-waves. “Respect for the game, true ambassador, face of baseball, will truly be missed by the way he just plays the game, hard worker.”

Don’t get me wrong it is all true. Jeter has displayed tremendous grace, and humility in the midst of his success. But, after a while, it starts to sound more like a presidential campaign candidate, than a baseball player who is 7th all-time in career hits — and has 5 World Series rings to add to his trophy room as well.

Take away the “ambassador for the game”, and just look at his career, it’s one for the ages. Respect is a huge part of baseball, but with the shift of popular culture and the emergence of the digital age, shouldn’t the way we look at “respect” in baseball change as well?

I always called Jeter the Jay-Z of baseball. He is relevant, and cool enough to appeal to the younger generations, garnering their attention and support—and old enough for our parents to tolerate, and admire without there being some argument about Ozzie Smith being the better ball player.

However, with a generation of players that rely heavily on “new-aged- culture” and music to define their character, a heterodox of personalities are created that often clash with the “baseball way.”

Baseball players are taught to remain placid, showing little to no emotion, even though their accomplishments are a harder feat to come by than that of a basketball player, or any other athlete.

It’s said that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in all of sports, hence, shouldn’t the player have the “right” to celebrate the way he wants after hitting a home run or an RBI triple? Isn’t that a phenomenon that is deserving of self-acknowledgment?

A couple of weeks ago when David Ortiz “pimped” the two home runs off second year pitcher Chris Archer, I thought it was great. It showed personality, admiration for an accomplishment, and moreover, an act of adulation that runs parallel to a younger demographical culture. Archer later commented on Big Papi’s actions saying “he feels the show is all about him.”

All of that sounds great, but what Archer failed to mention in his press conference, is the fact that he got beat by Ortiz, twice — giving up two homers in one outing. That’s not Ortiz’s problem, it’s Archers.

This alludes to a larger issue in baseball, players become so fixated on “respecting the game” that they forget there’s an actual game that needs to be played in between the lines, and played well.

Archer has become the victim of that mentality, adopting those “unwritten rules to the game”, like all of us have at a point— sometimes leaving us confused as to what it really means to “play the game the right way.”

By baseball demanding players like Carlos Gomez, Yasiel Puig, or even Bryce Harper to change the way in which they carry themselves, we detract their culture, identity and ultimately their level of play.

Major League Baseball must become more tolerant and understanding of the new generational norm that is now a part of the sport and the player. It’s not that people don’t like baseball, they just believe it strips one of their individuality–which it does.

MLB is in dire need of a new face, and no, it can’t be Mike Trout as much as people want him to be. There needs to be a little bit more ego, more controversy, but nonetheless, a player who can still excel through it all.

Lets stop pointing to Jeter, there will never be another, baseball needs something new and fresh, unless we want the same watered downed hip-hop, and that my friend, sure won’t do us any good.

The Plight of the New York City Hoop Star; Lance Shows Us All

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Lance Stephenson has always been ready. Hence, he was crowned the nickname “Born Ready” by Bobbito Garcia at the famed Rucker Park in Harlem. As an 8th grader, he salivated for the spotlight, just ask O.J Mayo when both were at the ABCD camp in the summer of 2005. I was at that legendary showdown between the then, 14 year-old Lance, and the rising Junior and top player in the nation, O.J Mayo.

This is what really put Lance on the map. When you said “The 8th Grader” after that camp, everyone in the city knew who you were talking about. He was that guy- the next rising star. He had the Felipe Lopez type of hype, but everyone was cautious because New York couldn’t bear to see another bust of that magnitude.

So many NYC high school basketball stars are thrust on the nation by the NY hyper-media to witness the “next big thing”, only to end up being Sebastian Telfair caliber players in the NBA or Lenny Cooke, who never even played an official NBA game (or Omar Cook—remember that guy?).

New York went from being the Mecca of producing great basketball players to the graveyard.

But there was something promising, yet contradicting and questionable about this kid, “Born Ready.” Everyone knew he had the talent, that’s never been the problem, but would his New York so called “street-ball” mentality translate to the college and professional ranks? Or would he just disappear like the rest of them? Was he really ready for this?

The one memory that stands out most from the ABCD camp was the energy in the gym for that one game. It was like Lance brought all of Coney Island, Brooklyn to Teaneck, New Jersey.

It almost seemed planned, like Lance told them “yo I’m suiting up against the best player in the country and you need to be there to see this show.” It was a great vibe, and you could smell the city air- since Teaneck is just 15 minutes away from The Big Apple.

I remember Lance hitting a jumper in the face of Mayo on the left wing, and started jawing at the mouth- right after that- at Mayo. At first, Mayo was almost amused by Lance–only until Stephenson came down the very next possession and did the exact same thing, only this time it was from the right wing.

And true to Born Ready form, he started talking his trash, never shying away from the moment, fulfilling his self-proclaimed prophecy of being the greatest player and truly believing it, even though he wasn’t.This was, and has always been the gift, and the curse of Stephenson. However, it was a tool he needed in order to thrive, and survive.

In all, Stephenson didn’t win the battle against Mayo who finished with 21 points to Lance’s 16, but it set the stage for the 8th grader. He was the new ring leader of talent from New York that would be nurtured, followed, and talked about for years to come.

Being one of the top talents to come out of New York is probably one of the greatest experiences- and the lights can be blinding.  You have the advantage of being in one of the biggest, most competitive, and brightest cities in the world, yet still revered and protected as that small hometown hero.

That was essentially the story of Lance Stephenson, and to his credit, he never crumbled or succumbed to the pressure. Now, its nine years later, since the 8th grader stepped onto the scene and what some saw and labeled as “antics” or “immaturity” involving Lance’s stint with the Indiana Pacers is really a “cultural divide” that many city kids experience when they venture out of the neighborhood.

Many—not all- but most of  New York’s top high school basketball players are from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx—and a great amount coming from single-parent backgrounds. Though this is the story of a lot of our urban youth—in the city, it’s a fact of life that ball players from New York- live with.

They are constantly fighting for their place, someone is always better, and when they finally get to the top, it’s hard for them to ever come down–even if its detrimental.

Imagine becoming a star at a young age in a city where the star is the city itself, yet that area still takes the time to recognize you and your talents. Being a kid who’s labeled “disadvantaged,” but able to rise on the world’s largest stage is self-fulfilling— it’s destiny- and it’s intoxicating.

Then you go off to a smaller market, criticized for your “city ways” and all that’s worked for you– and  told you aren’t good enough. It’s too much for a kid to handle—and especially a New York City kid. They become defensive, sometimes tuning out the coach and ultimately –tamping down their careers.  It can be devastating- if one doesn’t have the right program, coach, and of course friends.

In Stephenson’s case, he went from public school superstar, (ranked as the number one player in the nation coming out of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn) to average college player, to NBA benchwarmer, a year or so away from being somewhere overseas—-to suddenly a borderline All-Star (which was a snub, he should of made it) with the number one seeded Pacers in the Eastern Conference.

Larry Bird, the team president, was patient and took a chance on the former high school standout, and even went as far to say “when he was on, he was by far our best player.” Lance turned in his best year with the Pacers averaging a career high in all categories, leading the team in assists (4.2) and the league with five triple doubles on the season.

But, clashes with teammates and his infamous character issues, most notably his behavior in the Eastern Conference Finals, caused the Pacers to not give him the contract he sought once he hit the free-agent market (the Pacers offered 44 million over five years vs. Charlotte’s offer of 27 million over three).

The plight of the New York City star basketball player after leaving their city is a great ordeal. A lot of them feel a sense of entitlement, automatically assuming since New York loved them, the rest of the world should too.

Stephenson has been able to weather the storm, but perhaps it was because he was good enough to do it. When he got close to crossing the line it helped that Bird mentored, taught, and understood his potential—and his plight.

The 8th grader encompasses the paradoxical personality of the New York baller: He will give you the “oohs and ahhs” on the court, the flare for the spectacular under the brightest of lights. But, he will also make you cringe, sometimes not making the simple play, simple.

Seeing Lance have a breakout season this year didn’t come as a surprise. We all knew the city prodigy could erupt at any moment– that he could be a difference maker on a title contending team. He was the 14 year-old with guts, who took on the best player in the country, and fought him tooth and nail. He can defend and score against your best player, even if his name is LeBron James.

His nickname is “Born Ready” because he is ready.  However, at some point, when it’s all said and done, he must understand that New York will always be there–cheering him on, but in order for him to continue to move forward, he must leave the hype, the nickname, and ultimately the city that crowned him, behind.

He took one step in the right direction; it’s time to take another.

Lance

That Winter in Harlem

Back when we were both playing college ball, Jackie once told me he clocked 101 MPH from the outfield at a Perfect Game workout in high school. He got to talking to me about his summer playing in the Cape Cod League and bragged about how he threw out now star OF, George Springer from the warning track in RF on a line to second base, and George looked at him in disbelief kinda like “how the hell did he make that throw?”

Jackie just always raved about his arm, and I didn’t believe what he was telling me until I went to the Perfect Game website, and sure enough, he threw 101. I remember him looking over my shoulder at my house like “see I told you.” If you don’t believe it, look right here. It’s crazy people have taken this long to actually mention his arm as one of his best tools.

Jackie probably has the best arm in the Major Leagues. Yes, better than Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and anybody else you want to throw in there. He throws that hard, that accurate, with that much carry on his ball. And this video is another one of those Jackie Bradley moments at a friends house, where if you don’t believe me I’ll prove it to you, and watch your reaction afterwards, smile and say “see i told you so.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AnpKBxr9AM

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