WASHINGTON -- The best sports story of the summer might also be its unlikeliest. The Taney Dragons, predominantly black, representing the inner city of Philadelphia and featuring a female pitcher, have taken on all comers and dispatched them en route to the Little League World Series semifinals Wednesday night in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
While Mo'Ne Davis has stolen the spotlight with her confidence and success as the rare girl in what is too often regarded to be exclusively a boys' sport, the Taney team is nearly as much of an anomaly. Youth baseball has been taken over by travel leagues and special instructors available only to those who can afford such luxuries.
Most of the teams represented in Williamsport are predominantly white and suburban, hailing from places like Pearland, Texas, or Northwest Las Vegas or Cumberland, Rhode Island. Taney, and the Jackie Robinson West squad from Chicago, are the exceptions to the rule.
Here in Washington, baseball has receded to the rear of the sports scene at the youth level. The last D.C. public high school player to make the major leagues was Emmanuel Burriss, from Wilson High School, in 2008. He was signed by the Nationals in the most recent offseason, but has spent the whole year at Triple-A Syracuse. Before Burriss, you have to go all the way back to Willie Royster in 1981.
As of Opening Day, only 8.3 percent of major leaguers were African-American, down from nearly 20 percent in 1986.
On its surface, that might appear to be the driving force behind the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. Tucked along a shallow hillside on the north edge of Fort Dupont Park, the $17 million gem of a facility sparkles on an early summer morning. Programming began for the first class of scholar-athletes last October, and on March 29 of this year the Academy officially opened.
The main building includes three lighted baseball and softball fields that surround an 18,000-square-foot, two-story "educational clubhouse." That includes eight classrooms, a teaching kitchen and indoor training areas with batting cages.
The Academy provides breakfast and lunch, helping bridge both the nourishment and academic gap that many children face over the summer. Every summer, the Academy will add a new class of third-graders, until the facility has a full enrollment of third- through eighth-grade students. For now, there are 108 students -- 36 incoming third-, fourth- and fifth-graders each -- enrolled in the first year of programming.
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Tal Alter is the Academy's executive director. He is also a Bethesda native and played baseball at Haverford College after graduating from Landon.
On this morning, Antwuan Roach sits across the desk from Alter in Alter's second- floor office, which overlooks the two smaller fields on the complex's east side, focused intently on the puzzle in his hands. In the formal sense, the Academy has come too late for Antwuan: As a seventh-grader, there is no class for him to join and follow through the development process. But he has a younger brother in the program, and Alter and his staff are determined to find a place for Antwuan.
"If we were really rigid about this, it would be defeating the purpose," Alter says of the grade-level structure. "This is a specific case of someone who was picked out, who really loves baseball and needs mentoring."
In the halls, classrooms buzz with young, excited voices as students engage with the staff, mostly teachers from local schools.
Far more than just a baseball training center, academic programming is a central focus of the Academy. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
In one classroom, a question is written on the board that would challenge most adults. It has been presented to the class for them to discuss and write about.
How can young people affect their community? Give an example of how you can have a positive effect in your community.
Paul Frazier is a shy but smiley incoming fifth-grader in the class. Without older siblings, he hadn't had a lot of baseball instruction. But after the session lets out, he is happy to talk about the game and what he has learned in his short time.
"I haven't known all the positions, like shortstop, third base yet," he says.
Out on the full-size baseball field, a small group of kids work on a drill around the second-base bag, shortstops feeding the ball to the second basemen on the pivot.
The coaches running the drills are all D.C.-area born and raised, growing up with all of the same challenges, but without a program like the Academy. They are all in college now, most on at least a partial athletic scholarship. They are the exceptions to the norm, here to help others follow their path.
"We don't care about whether or not they can turn a double play," Alter says, looking on from the first-base dugout. "We care that they went somewhere and had fun today."
Even though baseball isn't really the focus, the game represents more than just a chance to stay active, to learn how to win and lose, to understand teamwork. It provides an outlet for kids to invest their time and energy, and for the adults in their lives to do the same, forging valuable connections that help shape the way the children develop into young adults.
In 10 years, the first class of incoming third-graders would be finishing their senior year of high school. What would mark a sign of success for Alter when it comes to the Academy?
"I'm realistic about it, and I know that a lot of factors can play into this," he says. "But I'd like to shoot for 100 percent graduating from high school."
That's why the Academy's focus on building human relationships is so instrumental now. According to a brief by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy (CEEP), those relationships are a key part of the foundation for higher graduation rates, especially among low-income, at-risk youth.
Relationships, relevance, and rigor are known as the new three R's of education reform. These foundational premises assert the importance that students must feel a part of the school community and have a strong relationship with one or more adults in the school.
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"Tal and I discussed that there's no way to make these kids fall in love with baseball without bringing them to a baseball game."
Alter may be at the helm from day to day, but Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond is the face of the Academy. Involved since day one, he sits on the board and takes an active role, doing whatever he can to help. He takes a special interest in a kid like Antwuan, because of his unique situation, and and Desmond also uses his ability to bring families out to the ballpark who would never otherwise be able to go.
"That's what happens," Desmond says. "You come to a game, you catch a foul ball, a foul ball lands two seats next to you, and you talk about it for the rest of your life. That's something these kids have never had the opportunity to do."
Desmond holds a private press conference before each Ian's Academy All-Stars game. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Once a month during the season, a group of 30 kids and their parents, called Ian's Academy All-Stars, come across the river to Nationals Park for a game, courtesy of Desmond. They get to come down to the field for batting practice, followed by a press conference where Desmond answers questions candidly, without the more measured pretext required in a professional setting.
The questions come flying.
Is he a star? Yes. What was his favorite subject in school? History. How old was he when he met his wife? 10 years old, at Ashton Elementary.
"What the what?!" the kid who asked the last question shoots back as the room bursts into laughter.
Who was his favorite player growing up?
"Andruw Jones," says Desmond, citing the Curacaoan outfielder who made his name with the Atlanta Braves in the 1990s. "He was my mom's favorite player. You know why? Every time he would get out, he would smile. Every time he would get he hit, he would smile. No matter what happened."
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Boys and girls stretch together before practice. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
There has been chatter about the Taney Dragons and Mo'Ne Davis. Whether or not it has an immediate impact, Taney's success can be a teaching moment down the line, a reference point for Alter as the Academy progresses: This has happened before. This is possible.
"It's a teachable moment," he says. "We've discussed the possibility of taking the kids up to Williamsport."
The fact that a girl is succeeding in baseball is crucial as well. The Academy teaches hardball to all kids, rather than enforcing the artificial baseball/softball divide.
"We're not in the business of telling girls they should play softball," says Alter. "For me, that should be a choice that they make."
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"One thing that I'm proud of is that I've been (to the Academy) a handful of times, and I've never seen kids playing baseball," says Desmond.
Instead, the students are reading or learning how to cook.
The first set of programming has been successful, as the Academy has retained more than 80 percent of the original enrollees heading into the next school year.
Paul Frazier will be one of those returning. He's latched on to one other kid in the program in particular, one who's become a friend, but something greater than that. It's Antwuan.
"He be teaching me some stuff," says Paul. "Teaching me how to hit and stuff."
Then, he bursts into a smile.
"And I got the hang of it."
And that's where it all comes together.
"I want to see those kids with a safe place to go, where they're loved when they go there, that there's always someone there to put their arm around them, to make them feel comfortable." --Ian Desmond. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Desmond sets the course for Antwuan; Antwuan does the same for Paul. And when the next wave of kids walks through that door, one of them will look up to Paul, more confident and self-assured, and find his role model.
"The format of the Academy is just set up perfectly for me, for that reason," says Desmond. "The kids are going to grow up in it. They're going to be older, going to become the mentors."
The kids can't do it alone, though. The Academy will also lean on those in the community who want to get involved, to help set an example and be a mentor.
"If you have an extra hour a week, pop in there, meet these kids," says Desmond. "One visit might impact their lives. And it might impact yours as well.
"I want the community to get involved and fall in love with this program."
For more information about how you can get involved with the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, visit nationals.com/academy.
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