By Peter Gammons
Having covered baseball for 50 years, I miss the game terribly. The box scores, the games and all that go with them, have been so ingrained in my daily life, from Opening Day to the World Series, that it’s hard doing without them. Sadly, though, that has become the new normal.
I miss the whole ladder of the game, too, from youth baseball to the minor leagues to the stars who play for the L.A. Dodgers or Boston Red Sox. In that vein, I recently contacted two friends of mine – Robert Lewis, Jr. and Theo Epstein.
Robert is the founder of The BASE, a Roxbury-based program serving inner-city youth. The BASE combines year-round baseball, softball, and basketball training, league play, and tournament travel — all cost-free — with academic prep work, college visits, and other key resources. Together these programs open pathways to college and meaningful employment for hundreds of urban youths annually.
Under Robert’s leadership, The BASE raises young people to see beyond the walls surrounding their own neighborhoods and equips them to deal with life outside these borders. In doing so, it helps develop the next generation of community leaders as it sets high standards, on and off the playing field, for young people looking for an opportunity to succeed in life. Take a step into BASE headquarters and you’re likely to spot signage reflecting core principles, such as “Success Lives Here”, “Excellence is the New Minimum,” and “Earn Your Spot.”
I have often called The BASE and its teams, the Astros, the country’s best urban baseball program, hands down. It is that – take a look at their trophy case– but it is so much more. And although it started right here in Boston, many people in our community don’t know much about it, or what a vital resource it has become for so many Black and Latino youths – and for our city’s future. Unfortunately, its student-athletes have been sidelined, unable to utilize The BASE resources because of the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus.
The other friend I spoke to was Theo, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. Theo and his brother Paul cofounded the Foundation To Be Named Later (FTBNL), which sponsors the Peter Gammons Scholars program. Founded in 2010, our program has provided college scholarship grants to more than a hundred under-resourced students, some of whom are also BASE alumni.
Theo has been a longtime BASE supporter, personally and through his foundation. He’ll tell you that whenever he feels the need to be more optimistic about things, he thinks about Robert and the extraordinary work he’s doing.
As Robert and I talked, he expressed concern about the effect COVID-19 would have on BASE student-athletes headed for college this fall and how devastating it would be if they didn’t get to finish high school, much less play a final season of baseball or softball.
But we also talked about the bigger picture. The BASE is where many of these kids go to get fed, not just work on their throwing, fielding, batting, and schoolwork. It’s where they find a second home, and a second family. It’s where they get the kind of athletic, academic, nutritional, and socialization programming that the public schools just cannot offer them, however hard they try.
It’s a place where a 9-year old can be inspired to write a poem about Jackie Robinson, then have it read by New York Yankees legend Bernie Williams at an MLB celebration of Robinson’s legacy. At UCLA, no less, where Jackie was a star college athlete. To me, that’s unbelievable.
So, what would happen, we wondered, if the Roxbury facility couldn’t re-open in the weeks and months ahead? This wasn’t idle speculation. The BASE and TFTBNL had each scheduled major June fundraisers, one at Fenway Park, the other in Chicago. For understandable reasons, both are now in jeopardy.
We all know about businesses and schools being closed during this scary health crisis. But let’s not let it choke off hope and opportunity for hundreds of urban youths – young people at risk of losing traction academically while also suffering career and personal growth setbacks that threaten their very futures.
As we all mourn the loss of baseball – temporarily, we hope – let’s make sure we step up to the plate and keep vital organizations like The BASE alive and healthy. Our recovery from this current crisis will not be measured by economics alone; it will also be psychological. We will need renewed optimism that our young people face much better times ahead.
As Theo would say, it will help to think about what Robert and The BASE do every day.
Peter Gammons is a Hall of Fame base ball writer, book author and current analyst for the MLB Network.