- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.

There is a charge in Marquis Grissom’s voice, a cadence that falls on certain words and pops on others like a boxer throwing a jab and feinting away from the counterpunch.

His intonation swells when he talks about the sod he has laid for baseball fields in inner-city Atlanta, the kids he has let stay in his house for months, the $800,000 he has spent in the last three years, making it clear Grissom has bigger things on his mind than his new job as the Washington Nationals’ first-base coach.

He’s priming for a fight.

“I plan on doing this for the rest of my life,” Grissom said. “This is something I’m going to do. Whether I get funding, whether I get help, whether I get players to come out and support it, I’m going to do it.”

Since retiring from baseball in 2005, the two-time All-Star has immersed himself in a dream he has had since he started playing for the Montreal Expos in 1989 - to start a baseball league for kids in his hometown in hopes the game will keep them in school and off the streets.

The Marquis Grissom Baseball Association now has more than 400 players in the Atlanta area from elementary school to high school. The nonprofit has a partnership with Fulton County to repair and enhance local fields, and its 16-and-under team won a national title last year at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Detroit.

The league has helped several players earn college scholarships. Grissom hopes to replicate the model all across the country and lobby every major league city to have an inner-city baseball partnership. He has solicited financial support from ballplayers, including the Nationals’ Willie Harris.

It’s all a precursor to the baseball academy Grissom hopes to start one day, but for now the league is a mechanism to do two things: Stem the tide of black youths choosing other sports over baseball, a trend that has troubled Grissom for a long time, and promote education. If players stay with baseball all the way through high school, he reasons, they have a reason to keep going to class, working toward a degree and possibly earning a scholarship.

The task has consumed him to the point that he worried about personal exhaustion. He took a job with the Nationals last fall only because he was confident the association’s six staff members and more than 25 volunteers could keep things moving.

He views the chance just to coach, not deal with parents or worry about sponsors, as a “break,” which might be accurate considering all the work Grissom has done in the years since he retired. Even in the relative simplicity of a major league season, there’s a mission.

The 41-year-old wants to use his renewed visibility to alert more people to what he’s doing. He wants to mentor young outfielders like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes so they might take up similar projects when they retire.

“It’s not easy to find people like [Grissom],” manager Manny Acta said. “When guys just stop playing, guys who were good players in the major leagues and guys who have their futures secure when it comes down to finances, it’s very tough to get them back on the field right away.”

Grissom’s chief motivation seems to come from the things he was afforded as a young player growing up in Atlanta - coaches who looked out for him and taught him the right way to play, fields that made him feel proud to be on the diamond rather than causing him to recoil away from it.

Those are the things that, in Grissom’s and Harris’ eyes, seem to be missing from urban environments these days.

“There’s always some grass in somebody’s backyard to play football,” Harris said. “You’ve got to have the facilities for the kids to play on. If you have the facilities, they’ll go play. That’s one thing the Boys & Girls Club is doing a great job with. They set the facilities for the kids, and they’re able to go out there and play.”

The lack of ball fields is a festering problem all across the country. San Francisco Giants infielder Emmanuel Burriss, who last year became the first major leaguer from a D.C. public school since 1972, said in June that his high school games were often in the corners of football fields that had been torn up by a stampede of cleats.

The conditions aren’t much better in Atlanta or most other urban environments. Coupled with a lack of qualified coaches, Grissom said, it’s not hard to pinpoint the causes that reduced the percentage of blacks in the majors to .084 in 2006, according to a 2007 study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

And with public funding so hard to come by, Grissom has exhorted players to fill in the gap with their own time and money.

“I tell every guy that’s doing stuff in the inner city, that’s playing baseball at the major league level: They don’t know what it’s like,” Grissom said. “They can say they do. They might have their name on something. But you don’t know what it’s like to go in the inner city and do something and make a difference with a kid unless you’re doing it full time. Not two or three months a year, not one visit in there where, ‘OK, I’m going to pop in and show my face.’ No, I’m talking about doing some work.”

Harris said Grissom has talked to him about starting a baseball program in Harris’ hometown of Cairo, Ga., and Grissom said he would be interested in developing a presence in the District as well.

He has been somewhat taken aback by the number of people who don’t see baseball as a means of curbing dropout rates and encouraging better study habits - or, at least, don’t see baseball as a worthy recipient of their time and money.

But no matter how many people come along with him, he’s not planning to stop.

“A lot of people talk like they’re going to do something and don’t do anything,” Grissom said. “But what I’ve learned personally is as long as I feel good about what I’m doing and as long as I keep working toward that, I feel like I’m getting the job done. You can’t save the world, but you know what? I can put a dent in it.”

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