Saturday, June 02, 2007

Field Is Paved, Gloves Are Borrowed, Spirit Is Real

Here is a tattered patch of asphalt in the heart of a West Harlem housing project. It is caged in and a world apart, in the shadows of the burnt-orange high-rises. The bases are whatever the players can find: worn-out gloves, T-shirts, their imaginations. The outfield is a basketball court; baseballs take funny bounces on this hard surface.

But each day after school, a social studies teacher leads a crew of middle school boys to this hardened field of play with baseballs, bats and borrowed gloves. They are a brand new team in a new middle school baseball league that is as much a social experiment as it is boys at play.

For many of the players on this team from Intermediate School 286, the Renaissance Military and Leadership Academy, baseball is a respite from the pressures, social and emotional, that they battle daily. The school does not have a band or a debate team or much beyond its studies. But here, they can be all-stars, they can be somebodies.

And this fenced-in patch of asphalt in the Manhattanville housing projects, caged in and a world apart, becomes a baseball diamond. It is transformed just as countless other cracked lots and hot forlorn expanses of concrete around New York City are transformed each summer — into fields for competition, for sports, for sweating and playing and sometimes even winning on the longest days of the year.

Off the field, some of the players from I.S. 286 struggle with behavioral issues, school attendance and unstable home lives. They do what they can to avoid the gangs, and shrug off being robbed and jumped. They want to be ballplayers.

“I always wanted to play, but my father said I wasn’t any good,” said Jefry Puntiel, 14, who is shorter than most of the other players, more bookish than brawny. “So this is my first year. And it’s been a lot of fun.”

The team does not cut players based on talent, only on the basis of behavior and grades. The team does not have heavy financing, and for some, cash at home is scarce, so not every player can afford the $30 uniform. Instead, slacks and T-shirts or sweat pants replace the white-bodied, blue-sleeved shirts and gray baseball pants worn by the rest of the team.

They also have other obstacles to overcome.

Click here to read the entire article from the NY Times.

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