John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


The Legend of A Little League Victory

Posted on July 25, 2018
Print the legend.

That’s what the newspaperman did in one of my favorite movies, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

And that’s what the local CBS affiliate did when it reported on an event that happened in DC last night.

“All-black youth team wins DC Little League championship,” blared the headline.

Tell that to Steve S., who played on Mamie Johnson’s team all year and is many things, but black is not among them.

The truth of what happened last night is more complicated and is an infinitely better story than the tired trope of black and white in competition.

This is a story of communities coming together, of kids of all races playing together and having fun.   It’s a story of  baseball’s rebirth in a city that didn’t have any youth teams in any quadrant in the early 1980’s.

It’s a story of parents and baseball junkies and coaches and a Major League team that stepped up to create something special in Anacostia, long one of the toughest parts of the District of Columbia.

When baseball disappeared in the early 1980s, it took a group of energetic parents to get it started again in 1986.  These parents lived in the nicer areas of Northwest, far away from the crack wars that had engulfed much of the rest of nation’s Capitol.

Capitol City was formed and soon after Northwest Little League followed suit.  And for every league Championship since 1986, one of those two teams played in the final game.

Except this year, where Mamie Johnson played my son’s team, Capitol Hill Little League.

And as my friend John Edgell, a sharp observer of the DC’s baseball scene pointed out, this is a great example of how youth baseball in Washington is becoming more competitive and a better product.

And when it comes to youth baseball, it truly does take a village.

Baseball is a game that requires parental involvement.  Parents (or guardians) buy the gloves and bats and the balls.  Parents help to coach (or coach themselves).  Parents pay for the umpires (or umpire themselves).

Parents sometimes can be too involved in the game, of course.   They can make fools out of themselves by arguing with the umpire or bitching at the coach for playing time.  They can reveal themselves to be jerks if they yell at their own kids or badmouth other players.

But we spend too much time basking in negativity when it comes to parents and Little League.  Without them, there wouldn’t be a Little League.

There are a lot of theories as to why youth baseball left DC.  Perhaps it was because the largely black population of the city decided they would rather play basketball and football.  My theory is that the decline in baseball in the District had some connection to white flight out of the city starting in the middle of last century and culminating in the 1980’s and the concurrent crisis in the African-American community in family structure, especially the decline of strong father figures.

If that is the case, the rebirth of baseball in DC is a sign of the reversal of both trends.

White people are no longer fleeing the nation’s Capitol.  In fact, they are moving into areas that they haven’t dared to move over the last five decades, including Anacostia.

And second, from what I saw last night, there are plenty of concerned and involved fathers of African-American children who are playing an essential and extremely helpful role in their children’s development.

Baseball is a game that requires plenty of patience, plenty of practice, plenty of hand-eye coordination and plenty of finesse and baseball know-how.   The art of throwing and catching a ball and of hitting it out of the park does not necessarily come naturally.  It requires nurturing and repetition.

For boys, playing catch with their fathers (or their brothers or Uncles) is a very important developmental step.  It’s also a cultural touchstone for American society and way that fathers and son build a stronger and ever-changing relationship.

When I first played catch with my son, I needed be patient as he struggled to catch the ball.  Now that he is twelve, he needs to be patient with me as I struggle to catch his fastballs that whiz past me at 70 miles an hour.

There are many ways that fathers and sons connect.  Playing catch is one of the best.

And now that baseball is back in DC and competitive all over the city, I hope to see a lot more parents in every ward playing catch with their kids.

There were so many other story lines that could have been covered by an enterprising reporter, of the complicated relationships between the kids who played for Mamie Johnson and the kids who played for Capitol Hill Little League.

The game ended when one of our players lined out hard to their closer.  Both of those kids were in the same kindergarten class eight years ago.

Another story line:  the essential role that the Washington Nationals and their academy have played in not only getting black kids to play baseball, but also providing a place for Gonzaga High School, Georgetown women’s softball and several travel teams to play baseball in Anacostia.

One of Capitol Hill Little Leagues coaches lives in Anacostia and he has been a stalwart at bring baseball not only to the Hill but also east of the river.  His hard work as a baseball evangelist is a good story line.    Many of the kids who played on the Mamie Johnson team attend Capitol Hill schools.  Steve S. played on my son’s soccer team.   That’s another.

The bottom line is this:    We all know each other.   And so it wasn’t really a grudge match more than a community coming together to watch their kids playing baseball.

This is progress.   This is good.

I know that the story line coming out of the game last night will continue to be that an All-black team finally won the DC Little League championship.   And I know that the media will continue to print the legend.  But I also know that this wasn’t just about the black kids winning.  It was about everybody winning.

As we were walking out back to our car after the game, a distinguished looking gentleman came up to my family and talked about how much he enjoyed the game.  He was black but as he told me, he didn’t particularly care which team won the game.  He wanted to watch good baseball.

He was particularly complimentary of my son, who hit two home runs in the game (you didn’t think I would write an entire column about the game last night and not mention that fact, did you?).

And his point was simple.  If you just enjoy the game for the game’s sake, it’s really a lot more fun.

Baseball is a game that brings us together.   As long as we allow it to.