The game was their first as a team — and for many, their first time playing baseball.
“I’ve got five Somalis, a Cuban, an African-American and some white boys,” said Jasha Johnston, the coach. Ya Ya would bat first, followed by Imraan and then Jeremiah, the hard-to-keep-on-task pitcher. Carlos, wearing a pair of bright yellow sunglasses, would bat ninth.
Carlos’ mother, Mayelyn Ladron de Guevara, leaned up against the fence on opening day, and haltingly confessed that, “I’m learning English now.” Moments before the game, Johnston gathered his team under a tree and warned them, “We’re not going to be a great baseball team our first day.” They would be good enough, however, hanging on to win 12-8.
And so it went starting in May, and through June, for Bryant Square Park, a south Minneapolis team of mostly 8- and 9-year-olds that symbolized all the promise — and pitfalls — of reviving baseball in a place that reflects the city’s growing minority population and features plenty of diversions. There were no baseball teams at the city park last year but two this spring, raising hopes slightly.
“They just kind of disappeared,” said Evon Dixon, a park employee who has worked at Bryant Square for 14 years.
As the Major League Baseball All-Star Game comes to Minnesota, there are 81 youth baseball teams in Minneapolis’ city parks this summer, an eight-year low. The Twins have been doing their part since 1993, and the team’s RBI Program provided $70,000 this year to help. In north Minneapolis, where getting African-Americans to play in particular has been daunting, boys this year wore replica uniforms of the Negro Leagues to try to stir interest.
On most evenings at Bryant Square, baseball’s challenge was to find room on a crowded stage.
The park’s two baseball diamonds are squeezed into a city block fronting W. 31st Street, sharing space with a playground, a wading pool, a basketball court and, starting on the first Tuesday in June, a summer concert series.
When the team practiced inside the park’s offices on a rainy Monday — the players used a dust broom handle to hit Ping-Pong balls — Johnston had to find another room because a Zumba class had priority. On another night a week later, an adult kickball team with twice as many players waited to use the field.
It was not always like that.
“Bryant Square, back in the ’60s and ’70s, had these monstrous kids,” said Phillip Qualy, who remembered when both the baby boom generation and baseball held sway. Now, attending a meeting at Bryant Square, Qualy was happy to see Johnston’s team practicing on Field Three. “We had a lot of teams, a lot of kids and a lot of fun” back then.
There is still fun, but nothing today is a given for baseball at Bryant Square.
Ismail Abdul Quadir batted last in the team’s first game; his mother, Fawsiya Maow, who came to Minnesota a decade ago from Somalia, watched near the dugout. “It’s not a sport I enjoy watching, or care for, honestly,” she said, bluntly. “To me, it’s too long.”
The transition likewise was bumpy for other Bryant Square players, who wore gray pants, black shirts and a “B” on their baseball caps. As Jeremiah practiced pitching to Hollis Vanderah, the team’s catcher, Vanderah complained, “Jeremiah pitches the best pitches when coach isn’t looking.”
Mohamed Ahmed was born in Kenya. He came to Bryant Square’s games, cheering for Antigua, Khy, Ashraf and all the others. Ahmed played at the park and now, at age 23, is looking to become a police officer. He came back to watch his younger brothers, Ali and Ya Ya, who played shortstop and quickly became one of the team’s best players. “I loved playing,” he said. “I was the only Somali.”
But Heather Kruse said that, for many minorities, baseball remains a foreign game. Kruse teaches at nearby Lyndale Elementary School, which many of Johnston’s players attend, and came to a game after promising the team she would.
“We play kickball at school. [I tell them], ‘It’s the same rules as baseball, except you’re kicking,’ “ she said. “They say, ‘I don’t know how to play baseball.’ ”
In the middle
Bryant Square Park is five blocks from the trendy shops of Uptown, two blocks from the start of the Whittier neighborhood and its pockets of poverty — and smack in the middle of where the two worlds collide.
“I could never afford to live on this side” of the park, said Julie Sandin, the park director, pointing toward upscale Uptown and Lake Calhoun. But “you go a few blocks this way,” she said, nodding toward Whittier and Interstate 35W, “it’s a whole other story.” In the summer, Bryant Square Park serves 50 snacks and 50 dinners on weekdays to children under 18 from poor families.
“It’s ‘urban’ is the easiest way to explain it,” said Brian Vanderah, Hollis’ father. Vanderah has lived a half block from the park for nearly two decades and had been a lukewarm baseball fan. As the season unfolded he learned how to keep the team’s score book, marking each time Holden walked, Khy stole a base and Jeremiah bounced one to the pitcher.
Three blocks from the park, Galactic Pizza tried to help Bryant Square’s baseball teams with a fundraiser. But the one-night event in late May produced just $94 for the teams. In the end, owner Pete Bonahoom wrote a check for $150 “just to help them.”
Despite the ups and downs, Kent Brevik remained optimistic. “Once you get them hooked, then they have a good time at it,” said Brevik, the city parks’ youth athletic director. But, “If I didn’t grow up watching it, I think I’d probably be a little bit bored,” too.
There are trophies at Bryant Square Park that Jasha Johnston won coaching teams in years past. This summer, after a hiatus, he was back and had Levi, his 8-year-old son, in tow.
Johnston is not one to wax poetic about baseball but is as close to a savior as baseball has at Bryant Square. Midway through the season in June, he was typically matter-of-fact, saying the team was “further than I expected.” The team, at that point, had won two of its four games.
Rounding them up
With his dented Ford Taurus, Johnston assembled the team daily for games and practices.
When he arrived home from work on one game day — he owns a restaurant a half-mile from the park — Levi waited for him on the back deck. Their home in Whittier, facing a sound barrier wall along I-35W, sits two blocks from a homeless shelter. Soon Yasir “Ya Ya” Ahmed and Ali Mahmed walked over from their home, two doors away, and sat on the trunk of Johnston’s car to wait for him.
Weaving through the neighborhood, Johnston floated down an alley at 34th Street and Portland Avenue S. to pick up Imraan Arale and finally waited at 32nd Street and 4th Avenue S. for Ashraf Mohamed to emerge from his house.
As the season wore on, Johnston was both coach and father figure. When teammates teased Holden Magnuson, taking his batting glove, Johnston made them do sprints in the park. When several players struck out looking during a game, Johnston told the team that “I don’t want to see third-strike looking” again. And when he did not like an umpire’s strike zone, he jawed with the man in blue. “You’re going to get what I call,” the umpire snapped back.
There is, however, more work to do. In a sign of what still grabs their attention, some players scooted into the park building’s computer room to play video games as soon as one practice ended.
Facing his own 3-and-2 count with the bases loaded on a Monday night, Holden swung and missed, ending a rally. But his mom, Melissa Holland, was nonetheless pleased with his progress — and with Johnston. “He’s awesome,” she said of the coach. So is her son hooked on baseball? “Yes,” she said. “It’s just a matter of him getting as interested as me.”