Baseball lessons: The Boys of Bryant Square Park

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2014 - 8:03 AM

Boys of all backgrounds learn America's pastime in south Minneapolis.

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.

Learning quickly

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.’ ”

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  • Khy Paradis, 9, center, offered support to Imraan Arale, 9, after his at bat against Kenwood-Bryn Mawr last month at Bryant Square Park. Ashraf Mohamed, 9, was on the bench at right.

  • Players piled their hands on top of one another when they gathered at the end of a practice last month.

  • Ya Ya Ahmed, 9; Jeremiah O’Connell, 8; Holden Magnuson, 9; Hollis Vanderah, 9, and Levi McCabe Johnston, 8, with coach Jasha Johnston.

  • Bryant Square Park’s Jeremiah O’Connell, 8, wound up for a pitch against Kenwood-Bryn Mawr during a June game at his home field in south Minneapolis.

  • No way: Bryant Square’s Levi McCabe Johnston, 8, left, couldn’t believe he was called for a third strike against Kenny Park. Carlos Ladron de Guevara, 9, yawned while his partner chased down a ball in practice.

  • Carlos Ladron de Guevara, 9, yawned while his partner chased down a ball during practice last month at Bryant Square Park. ] JEFF WHEELER ‚Ä¢ jeff.wheeler@startribune.com Bryant Square Park rec center little league team had a practice on their home field Tuesday night, June 17, 2014.

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