Two teams that serve as role models for urban ballplayers

Taney's Scott Bandura (left) celebrates with teammate Jack Rice after scoring in the fourth inning. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Taney's Scott Bandura (left) celebrates with teammate Jack Rice after scoring in the fourth inning. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 23, 2014

When Philadelphia's hometown heroes faced Chicago's pride and joy Thursday night, Bryan Morton saw players on both teams who looked a lot like the youths he coaches in his North Camden league.

"A few years ago, all you heard about was how there were no majority African American teams in major–league baseball," Morton said. "This, this is awesome, because it shows it doesn't matter your background. On that field, everything else disappears. That's why everyone is totally enthralled."

Having two urban teams rise to this level is extremely rare, Little League officials say, and a sign, they hope, that the sport is extending its reach in inner-city and African American communities, which have been underrepresented since the 1970s.

The Anderson Monarchs - a precursor to Taney's World Series squad - were formed in the 1990s because coach Scott Bandura wanted to give city children the same opportunities as ball players in the suburbs.

Chicago's Jackie Robinson West team began in 1971 as a way to use the baseball diamond as a classroom for teaching self-discipline, leadership, and teamwork. The squad, consistently competitive, is the city's first at Williamsport in 31 years and is composed entirely of African Americans.

"I think it's huge," said Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who traveled to Williamsport to meet the remaining teams Thursday. "We've always had the question of baseball in inner cities and the questions of how do you get more African American kids to play baseball. And I think the programs of Jackie Robinson and Taney from Philadelphia . . . show that it's working."

In major-league baseball, only 8 percent of players on 2013 rosters were African American, down from nearly 20 percent in the 1980s. Little League has historically drawn from suburban and rural communities.

This series could help change that.

"Kids are going to be watching and they're going to be, like, 'Wow, they're doing this and they look just like us, why can't we?' " said Demiko Ervin, director of Little League's Urban Initiative program. "It shows it doesn't have to be all about LeBron."

In the past, said Ervin, who has worked for Little League since 2009, it would have been difficult to find 10 African American players across all 16 World Series teams.

"It wasn't even close," he said. "The numbers just weren't there."

Little League doesn't keep statistics on inner-city teams or race, but Ervin said he has seen a slow increase in participation in urban communities. The initiative provides clinics and financial support to 200 member leagues, including Jackie Robinson West.

In addition to the LeBron James problem - or losing top African American athletes to basketball or football - those trying to establish baseball in inner cities find a lack of green spaces and organized volunteers. Equipment is expensive: An average Little League bat ranges from $200 to $400.

"It's a lot cheaper to buy a basketball," said Ervin, who grew up near Greensboro, N.C. He picked up his first bat at age 8 and said baseball practice was what motivated him to go to school each day.

David James is director of major-league baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which serves 200,000 young people annually in 200 leagues across the country. They partner with MLB teams, including the Phillies and both Chicago teams, to support RBI leagues in their areas.

"Little League is creating fans in a demographic that everyone said the game had lost, and to see these kids playing now, it's just really going to get more kids back into the game," James said.

Morton, who started the Camden league in 2001, has yet to purchase a charter with Little League International. While the charters are inexpensive - $16 per team - fees for insurance and tournaments have kept him independent.

But given Taney and Chicago's rise, he sees an opportunity to grow. After all, he started in a sandlot with a dozen players.

Today, he has 25 baseball teams serving 500 students and this summer he added four softball teams.

The girls have started bothering him about that setup, though.

"They see Mo'ne [Davis] out there, and now every time I see them they get on me," he said. "They say they want to play baseball."



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