SEATTLE — The spring sports season gets underway this week in high schools across the state. At Rainier Beach High School, that means baseball tryouts.
Thanks to a change in the coaching staff this year, the school’s program is headed in a new direction, providing love and support and showing the reach of the game is bigger than the baseball field.
For countless hours this winter, the boys of the Rainier Beach baseball team could be found in the school’s weight room.
“We don’t have everything we need. We are still waiting for more equipment for our weight room as we speak. Most schools I know have a lot of things,” says Brandon Vaughan, a senior 3rd baseman.
Surrounded by broken windows, worn-down equipment and paint peeling off the walls, the teens try to make the most of the conditions representing the challenges they face in everyday life.
“If you’re in the southeast district, it’s almost like you really have to fend for yourself. There are not much funds going around and a lot of our parents can’t afford it. They work two jobs just to make ends meet so a lot of times we have to scrunch around to find ways to raise money for our kids so they can have the same benefits but a lot of times you raise the money or you don’t,” says Betty Patu, the District 7 representative for the Seattle Public Schools Board.
These players are used to the don’ts … they don’t have gloves, they don’t have matching uniforms and most of all they don’t win.
“They’d get laughed at by other teams. Other teams would post on Twitter how badly they beat them, you know, make it really embarrassing. They weren’t even unified. They’d come out with different sweaters, different shoes, different jerseys, different colored pants,” says Gerald Smiley, the new head baseball coach.
Smiley took over the program in November. He tells me the Vikings have only won five games since 2007, yet this group keeps coming back.
“Well, seeing the brotherhood. This team is known for losing a lot of games and just the way that they keep themselves together even after losing those games, it just meant something to me,” says Vaughan.
A feeling shared by coach Smiley. He grew up just a few blocks from here, picking up baseball when he was 7. He was later drafted out of Rainier Beach High School by the Texas Rangers in the ninth round of the 2001 Major League Baseball draft.
“When I played here, we didn’t have anything. We had a coach who cared, tried to do his best but really wasn’t into it himself. We didn’t have bats, we didn’t really have gloves. We had to figure out how to come up with these sort of things and it was heavy on my heart then to figure out how we could do something,” says Smiley.
After playing in the Texas organization for five years, Smiley had to hang up his cleats due to injuries. He went on to work as a scout before starting his own baseball academy.
“It was about four years after I got released where it really hit me to wake up, and God gave me a platform that I could use with some credibility behind it that I know what I am doing, I don’t know it all, but I have something that I can give back and that was my real calling.”
Due to WIAA rules, Smiley can’t hold any official team practices until the spring season begins but that hasn’t stopped him from implementing his values into the program.
“Accountability first and foremost. Checking on their grades all the time, checking in on them at school, letting them know I love them, I care about them and just changing the culture of the actual team environment, creating team activities,” says Smiley.
And these team activities are about more than just sports. He’s encouraging the kids to take pride in their community, hosting events to support the homeless, the hungry and anyone who needs a helping hand.
“He’s taught us a lot like to understand the people, some people on our team are on that side of the story so coming from them it always means, even more, to see them help people with the issues they have for themselves. It’s very inspiring,” says Vaughan.
It’s catching on, too, not only is coach Smiley inspiring kids to be part of this team, he’s inspiring a community to rally around them. He started a Go Fund Me page in January with the goal of raising $27,000 for equipment and uniforms. He’s raised over $42,000, showing these kids their commitment is worth something.
Damico Jones, a sophomore pitcher, and outfielder, says it’s “a new start for me, more opportunities, I’m trying to make it to college so, yeah, make my family proud.”
“Being out here in this area it can be hard to be to follow the right path,“ says Vaughan. "He means a lot to me and my family, to this team, the players, and their families. It’s like some of us don’t have dads, fathers and he's just that father figure that we need in our lives. That he actually cares that’s the big thing. He cares for us.”
“Letting them know that you care about them as a person is way more important than what they can do for us as a player. I don’t remember how many games we won when I played here. I don’t care about how many games we won and I tell these kids all the time I don’t care how many we win. I care about our experience, I care about you competing, I care about you changing your work ethic so that can carry over into your real life and people will want to employ you and what kind of father, husband or citizen of society will you be when you leave here.
"That’s our goal and if we can get every child graduated from here, that’s awesome, but if we fail them as a community and we didn’t prepare them for what’s really about to hit them, we wouldn’t do our job as coaches. What we are teaching them, we hope they pass the torch and go latch on to somebody out there and take them under their wing,” says Smiley.
The team has plans to continue giving back to the community by hosting baseball clinics and camps this summer in addition to volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House.