- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

As a retired teacher, Pat Bitondo understood the value of athletics. So when she saw the neglect of physical education as a substitute at the District’s Shepherd Elementary in 1996, she couldn’t idly stand by.

Bitondo took her students to the school’s decrepit field that spring and taught them baseball. Little did she know her frustration would result in a revitalization of the national pastime for elementary-age children in the city.

“Baseball is the only sport I knew,” she said. “The program was doing jumping jacks in the gym. I asked the kids to stay after school to play baseball.”

The team Bitondo molded that year out of 15 Shepherd students has multiplied to 34 teams and more than 500 players from all eight wards in the District’s Cal Ripken Baseball league, formerly the Bambino Division of Babe Ruth League. The league’s 10-and-under All-Stars played at the recent state tournament in Bowie — D.C. is considered part of Maryland for state purposes — while their 12-and-under counterparts competed in Mount Airy.

Before Bitondo, “if you were under 12 and you weren’t in [Northwest Little League in affluent Ward3], you basically couldn’t play baseball,” said Michael Williams of the District’s Parks and Recreation Sports Office. Now, Williams said, the city’s Ripken Baseball program is as good or better than its Little League.

Williams and his former boss, Neil Albritton, saw in Bitondo hope for baseball’s renewal. She didn’t try to compete with the well-established Little League in Ward3, where she lived, to avoid a battle over its well-groomed fields. Instead, she went after the rest of Washington, particularly its poorest areas, Wards7 and 8. Her prodding led the Recreation Department to improve and maintain the fields.

“I went around the city looking at school fields, and I asked for fields that nobody had asked for that were in deplorable condition,” said Bitondo, who admits only to being in her late 60s. “No one ever said, ‘What’s this retired white woman doing?’ I think they thought, ‘Just give her what she wants and we’ll get her out of our hair.’”

Even then, baseball didn’t catch on in the inner city right away.

“It was tough at first,” said Gerard Hall, the commissioner of D.C.’s 12-and-under Ripken program, who got his start coaching his 9-year-old son in 1997. “Kids didn’t know the opportunity they had with baseball. All they knew was basketball and football. In the summertime, they just kind of hung out.

“When I was growing up in Southeast in the 1960s, you would just get a bunch of kids together and play. Now you have to have an organization just to attract kids. Basketball is easier to play. You don’t need a glove, a bat and a bunch of kids. You can play by yourself all day long if need be.”

Malcolm Boardley, manager of the 10-and-under All-Stars, was one of just 12 players who tried out for the Theodore Roosevelt High School varsity back in the 1980s. By that time, basketball already had grabbed the focus of the city’s young athletes. Even a current Ripken All-Star like 11-year-old David Candelario maintains he prefers basketball, something the league’s namesake understood when he began his affiliation with youth programs.

“Football and basketball have surpassed baseball as America’s sports in many ways,” Ripken said before he concluded his record-setting career with the Baltimore Orioles in 2001. “We want to re-seed baseball everywhere in this country, including the inner cities. We’re already seeing the results of those seeds being sown through our partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs. They know how to reach kids, and we provide the structure and the league affiliation.”

Ripken Baseball teaches “The Ripken Way,” which Cal Jr. learned from his late father, the former Orioles manager and longtime coach.

“The Ripken Way” has four mainstays: keep things simple; celebrate individual differences rather than conformity of style; explain why things are done a certain way, such as hitting the cutoff man; and, above all, make the game fun.

Like Little League, Ripken Baseball has a World Series, but it doesn’t have quite the same competitive zeal. The D.C. League, for example, doesn’t have coaches drafting players. In essence, the kids select their teams.

The low-key approach seems to be working. Ron Tellefsen, national president of Babe Ruth (ages 13-15) and Cal Ripken Baseball, has helped shepherd a jump in participation from 360,000 in 1981 to a record 900,000 today. That compares to 1.8million Little Leaguers, down from more than 2.1million in 1997.

Still, there’s plenty keeping children from getting involved. Tellefsen said there’s no comparison to when he was young and boys played baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. Today’s top athletes often hone in on one sport at an early age. Soccer, and to a lesser extent, lacrosse, have emerged as rivals in the youth pantheon, while video games keep kids inside who would have been playing outside 30 years ago.

Rosalyn Gonzalez, whose association with Ripken Baseball began when she answered one of Bitondo’s ads to find a team for her sons in field-deprived Ward1, is now the local league’s president. She said District children often show up the first day of practice and never return because they don’t have the paperwork necessary to play. Suburbs may be plagued by out of control Little League dads, but Gonzalez said even a minimal amount of parental involvement can be tough to obtain in the inner city.

Plus, major league baseball isn’t exactly visible in D.C. The Washington Senators have been gone since 1971, and the Orioles never have belonged to the District.

“Growing up in Cincinnati, our rec team would go sit in the bleachers at Crosley Field and watch all the great players,” said Williams, who soon will take over as athletic director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. “Then we would go play until the sun went down, pretending to be the players we had just seen. Baseball was our game. We had [NBA immortal] Oscar Robertson, but no one cared about basketball during baseball season.

“Baseball isn’t part of the culture here the way it is in Cincinnati or St. Louis. These kids out here might go to Baltimore once a year or, if their parents are really aware, make it out to Bowie for a minor league game. The kids look at a Barry Bonds from afar. It’s not like having Michael Jordan or the Redskins playing in your city.”

Beyond second-generation stars Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., there are few black heroes from this country in the majors for inner city kids to emulate. High school baseball in the city is in sorry shape. And every playground wizard thinks he will be the next LeBron James, smoothly transitioning from high school to NBA millions. The prospect of riding buses in baseball’s minors for little pay just doesn’t compare.

“Basketball is the game in the inner city today,” Williams said. “My son came out of this program and became the only black player at DeMatha [Catholic High School in Hyattsville]. Now he’s the only black player at Wagner [College]. It’s discouraging. But what you see out here now is eons better than it was five or 10 years ago. There were teams in Ward3 and Ward5 and the Satchel Paige League in Ward4. Now there are options all over the city up to age 19.”

With trusted lieutenants like Hall and Gonzalez now in charge, Bitondo plans to retire after next summer, but she won’t be forgotten.

“I’m proud of giving children who are so often overlooked an opportunity to play ball and to participate,” she said. “It’s so rewarding taking these kids out of the city for the first time, and we’ve also introduced kids and parents to each other all over the city.”

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