Modern players, classic values revive DC Grays storied name
“Our goal is to be ambassadors for baseball,” said Terry. “We’re looking for good players, good stewards, and good citizens. We’re less concerned about what school a player’s from or division he plays in. If an available player on the board fits that model, then we try to go get him.”
DC and their opponent that night - the Bethesda Big Train — compete in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, one of the top amateur leagues in the country. “The Ripken League,” as it is best known, uses wooden bats to replicate the experience some of its players will have later in pro careers.
The club derives its name from the Negro League’s storied Homestead Grays, who spent much of their existence as the dominant team in the Negro National League of the 1930s and 1940s. The original Grays began play in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead in 1912. They sought a second home in the mid-1930s as the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords started to draw some of the Grays’ players and fans. They were well-received in the D.C. area and as the crowds grew they began to host an increasing number of home games in Washington.
[caption id="attachment_2075" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Washington Nationals opened their Youth Training Academy in D.C.’s Fort DuPont neighborhood in 2014. (Courtesy Tom Flynn)[/caption]
This incarnation of the Grays, in their fourth year in the league, is improving competitively and, just as importantly, establishing themselves as part of the Washington community. They play in what is arguably the league’s best venue, the Washington Nationals Youth Training Academy in D.C.’s Fort DuPont neighborhood.
The Nats opened the multi-field complex in April 2014, just as the Grays were considering a lighted venue that would allow them to play night games. DC had called Gallaudet University’s Hoy Field home through 2013, but the field lacked permanent lighting. It was the university that first approached the Ripken League with the idea of placing a team in Washington. At the time, the league fielded teams in areas surrounding the District, but nothing in the city.
“There was a big donut hole in the middle of the league, right in Washington,” said team president and chairman Mike Barbera.
From its outset the club has been striving to put a strong team on the field while reflecting the diversity of the city they call home. They pay tribute to their namesake club through their on-field play and by providing talented African-American players with an opportunity that might otherwise be economically or geographically out of reach.
Some of the Grays play their spring seasons outside of the college baseball limelight at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). This year’s team includes players from two HBCU’s, Louisiana’s Grambling State and Mississippi’s Jackson State.
With most of the Grays’ roster hailing from outside the D.C. area, the team has to provide housing for many of its players. In 2013, they added housing coordinator and current board member Scott Burr and currently are able to place all of their out-of-area players in the homes of 18 host families. In their inaugural season the Grays had 11 players living in dorms at Gallaudet.
“It’s great what Gallaudet provided, but it was a big expense for the team,” said Barbera. In the Grays’ first year in 2012, housing was the team’s single-biggest expense.
In the third base coach’s box on Wednesday night was a subtle sign of the program’s success. Coach Jimmy Williams is the former head coach of Howard’s now-scuttled baseball program (the DC-based university eliminated the sport in 2002) and currently leads Maryland’s Prince George’s Community College team in the spring. The Grays — and to their substantial credit, the Nationals — have helped return Williams to a college diamond in the District.
Between pitches he paternally looks in from the third base box to his batters, flashes his sequence of signs, and often claps his hands one time in the universal baseball signal for “I’m done, let’s go.”
[caption id="attachment_2074" align="alignright" width="300"] Keifer Rawlings, right, at third base and SS Drew Reid at shortstop for the DC Grays. (Courtesy Tom Flynn)[/caption]
Starting the game at third base for the Grays was Keifer Rawlings from Bucknell. To his left at shortstop stood Lafayette’s Jackson Kramer. Both play in the Patriot League, whose champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament but whose players seldom get the opportunity to face the ACC or SEC players they might see with the Grays. By the ninth, Drew Reid of Harvard had replaced Kramer at short. Like the Patriot, the Ivy League’s champion receives an automatic NCAA bid but during the season limited opportunity to face ACC, SEC, or PAC-12 talent.
DC came into the top of the ninth down by four and without a hit on the board. The Grays sent Grambling State lefty Marlon Pruitt to the mound. Pruitt has an unusual motion but as Terry aptly describes it, “He always throws from the same arm slot.”
He would be a dream Oakland A’s “Moneyball” prospect, a talented pitcher whose motion and lesser-known program might keep him off the prospect board of many teams, but not the Grays. In the ninth it’s that same motion that masks a third strike off-speed “out” pitch that leaves his hand looking like a fastball. Pruitt fanned two Big Train batters in a perfect inning of work.
In the bottom of the ninth, center fielder Bryan Baquer of Division III Washington College stroked a Big Train pitch to right to break up the no-hitter. Rawlings later drove him home with a double to erase the shutout.
A group of young fans had gathered near the dugout, perhaps a dozen feet removed from the on-deck circle and the Grays.
“Hi Des!” one fan shouted out to Desmond Stegall, a senior outfielder also from Grambling.
Although the boy stood perched in the stands just above the dugout, it’s clear he’s shouting admiringly upward, to a player he can now see himself as in 10 years.
Above: Pitcher Marlon Pruitt would be a dream Oakland A’s “Moneyball” prospect. (Courtesy Tom Flynn)