Antonio Scott has been doing his part to help baseball make a comeback in D.C. for the last several seasons. This summer, it looks like the city will start helping him out.
Scott showed his dedication to the cause one more time last weekend. On Saturday morning at a Northern Virginia high school, the D.C. Grays, a team he founded three years ago as part of the Clark Griffith League, held its first practice. Scott missed it. Instead, he borrowed a ride up to Lafayette Elementary School in Chevy Chase and spent the rainy afternoon standing under a shed talking to kids about the game he loves, the game that put him through college.
He’d been invited by the Capitol City Little League to be the guest speaker for its Jackie Robinson Day festivities. Over the noisy storms that caused the cancellation of a scheduled game in Robinson’s honor, Scott gave a couple of dozen young ballplayers and their parents (including Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whose two sons play for Cap City teams) a primer on the Negro Leagues.
Among other tales, Scott related the story of Rube Foster, founder of the Negro National League, and how he lost his mind over his teams’ constant struggles to find decent home venues.
“Rube Foster wondered: Why can’t I get my own stadiums to play in?” Scott said.
Foster really did go insane and was institutionalized before his 1930 death, though his mental illness probably had nothing to do with baseball venues. Yet it’s not surprising that Scott would latch onto that part of Foster’s bio. From his time running the D.C. Grays, Scott sure can relate to his problems finding home fields.
Scott started the team in 2005 after attending a national seminar looking for solutions to the decline of black ballplayers. The Clark Griffith League was founded in 1945 as the National Capital City Junior League and was subsidized by the guy whose name it now bears. For decades, it has been among the nation’s best leagues for college-age players to prep for pro ball.
The Clark Griffith League claims that 400 of its alumni have made it at least as far as the minor leagues. Mark Teixeira, now of the Atlanta Braves, played in 1998. Jonathan Papelbon, the dancing closer of the Red Sox, was on the league’s Arlington Senators in 2000. Joe Saunders, now 8-2 with 2.76 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels, also played CGL ball that season.
In its early days, all CGL games were played on the Ellipse. But the league’s best squads have been concentrated in Northern Virginia for a long time, and there hadn’t been a single D.C.-based team for years before Scott and the Grays came along. D.C. ballplayers, particularly blacks, had become a rare breed in the league.
Scott figured placing a quality amateur team downtown, along with all the exposure that would give baseball to a new, young audience, could be one small part in bringing the game back to prominence here. Clark Griffith teams play six or seven days a week from the beginning of June until the end of July, with a lot of doubleheaders and a few tournaments thrown in.
But when he tried finding a field in the city to house the Grays during their inaugural season of 2006, he learned how far baseball had fallen. At the time, there wasn’t a public venue capable of housing the team.
So for that first year, the Grays played their entire home schedule on other teams’ fields, some of which made Scott and his ballplayers envious of other jurisdictions: The Vienna Senators, for example, play their games at Waters Field, a beautiful complex complete with lots of grandstands and an artificial turf field, all built with a lot of public money and scads of community support.
Last year, Scott thought he had lined up Brentwood-Hamilton Field, a city-owned venue near Gallaudet University.
“They said they’d have lights,” Scott says.
Alas, the field didn’t have lights. And since CGL games during the week are played at night, after opening the season with some weekend games at Brentwood-Hamilton, the Grays were again vagabonds.
But the Grays’ vagabonding days might be over: After a few years of discussions between Scott and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the Grays are scheduled to play their entire 2008 home schedule at Banneker Field on Georgia Avenue NW. The city put lights on the baseball field there as part of a major renovation of the entire Banneker Rec Center.
The lights enabled Cardozo and Roosevelt to play the city’s first-ever night game between public high schools—and will now permit the Grays to call Banneker home.
“[High school] baseball in this city has been bad,” says Dave Schauer, a vice president of Capitol City Little League, “and that is because [the Department of Parks and Recreation] has failed, and we all know they failed. But, this year, DPR has stepped up. There are people there now who care about baseball. If baseball is coming back, it’s going to take the community to get involved, and that means getting baseball back to these rec centers. DPR is trying to do that now.”
Banneker was the field of Scott’s dreams all along, for all sorts of historical and personal reasons.
On the historical side, Banneker is located within a couple of hundred yards of where Griffith Stadium once stood. Not only was the stadium named after the same guy as the league the Grays now play in, but Griffith Stadium was also the home of the Homestead Grays, the legendary Negro League squad Scott’s team is named after. (The original Grays’ other home was Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.)
Scott’s heart is also close to Banneker because he spent his college days just across Georgia Avenue at Howard University. Scott, who turns 30 this week, says his faith in the game was “revived” by his college coach, former Washington Senator Chuck Hinton. (Another sign of baseball’s demise in D.C. and in black America: In 2002, Howard eliminated its baseball program.)
Scott seconds Schauer’s assessment that the city’s support for baseball this year has been a revelation. And he’s cautiously optimistic that it’s not a one-year flirtation.
“Banneker still needs work to bring it up [to the standard of other Clark Griffith League fields], and we’re talking to the city about getting that done next year, and we’ll keep talking to the city,” he says. “But, this is a start, and I hope it works out.”
The Grays didn’t have any D.C. residents on their roster the first season. This year, there are two. Ben Sestanovich, a Sidwell Friends alum now pitching for Harvard, is one of them. While he feels lucky to have a home field so close to his Upper Northwest home, Sestanovich says that Banneker will be particularly challenging for pitchers, since it will likely have the shortest porches in the league—right field is only 290 feet down the line.
Sestanovich says he just hopes to keep the ball off Georgia Avenue this summer.
“There are definitely going to be a lot of home runs,” Sestanovich says of his team’s new home. “So, it’s going to be: Keep the ball down, keep the ball down, keep the ball down.”