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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.”