From the wrong side of Williamsburg to the top of New York City baseball

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Grand Street fans at MCU Park. (Tommy Torres, via Facebook)
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The list of distinguished alumni from George Washington High School in Washington Heights includes Henry Kissinger, Jacob Javits, and Alan Greenspan.

Also: Manny Ramirez, the now un-retired hitting savant.

The romanticization of baseball in New York goes back to an earlier time when New York was the capital of baseball, and baseball provided a pathway for New York’s immigrants and sons of immigrants to assimilate into the American cultural mainstream.

New York is less special these days when it comes to baseball. The Yankees are still the Yankees, but the country’s best amateur baseball talent can be found in the South and the West. And for many new immigrant groups in New York, baseball has stopped being the prime pathway to quintessential Americanness that it once was.

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Not so for the Dominicans who are still pouring into Washington Heights. Many of these immigrants have children who attend George Washington High School, and a select few have children who actually make the school's baseball team in the hopes of being the next Manny Ramirez.

Under coach Steve Mandl, who has been coaching G.W. for 28 years, the Trojans have won three PSAL titles and 26 division titles. That doesn’t count last year, when G.W. won the title but Mandl was suspended after the coach of a rival, Lehman in the Bronx, accused him of recruiting a player.

There’s a reason that Ken Burns, while filming his PBS documentary series, "Baseball", went to G.W. to interview the players. The players were interviewed for camera, and a couple expressed their hope of reaching the major leagues. Only one member of that team did so. But that player had blown off the film shoot, a sneak preview of what would become known 15 years later as “Manny being Manny.”

ON FRIDAY, THE G.W. PLAYERS WERE ON THE TOP STEP OF THE DUGOUT and leaning over a handrail at MCU Park on Coney Island, home field of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones. They were clapping and chanting, rhythmically, in Spanish.

Their attention was focused on the batters box and at Grand Street Campus High School pitcher Gerry Gonzalez, a stout, jaunty lefthander. Gonzalez wore a baggy jersey and baggier pants that spilled over the tops of his shoes, a look pioneered by Manny Ramirez and since adopted by scores of Latino ballplayers.

Gonzalez is of the “crafty lefty” family of pitchers: He works off the excellent control of his curveball and changeup, and mixes in fastballs in counterintuitive counts, thus augmenting its good-but-not great high-80s velocity with the element of surprise.

Gonzalez used a changeup away and in the dirt to strike out G.W.’s overeager leadoff hitter. He walked the next guy to bring up G.W.’s imposing catcher Nelson Rodriguez, a 15th-round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians, with a man on. He leaned on his offspeed stuff again to induce a harmless tapper for a fielder’s choice. Another groundout later, and G.W. vacated the top step for the field. It was Grand Street’s turn to hit.

RIGHT AROUND THE TIME KEN BURNS WAS ROMANTICIZING the innocent dreams of the G.W. players, Eastern District High School in Williamsburg was carving out a different kind of reputation.

The school was a perennial fixture on the state’s list of failing schools and a symbol of the overcrowding, violence, and dropout rates plaguing inner-city high schools. During the 1995-1996 school year, 30 percent of the school’s 2,500 students dropped out, and only 62 percent attended classes on a regular basis, according to the New York Times.

Three years prior to that, the school had gained citywide infamy when a melee that erupted in the lunchroom spilled into the streets, leaving one student in the hospital after being slashed in the head. Over the previous decade, Dominicans and other Latino ethnic groups had joined Williamsburg’s established Puerto Rican community. These factions, along with the school’s pre-existing black population, turned the school into a racial and ethnic powder keg.

In 1992, Jesus Rosario, a 17-year-old junior at Eastern District--named after the City of Williamsburgh and the Town of Bushwick that were annexed as Brooklyn’s Eastern District in 1855--described to the Times a group of students who would ask other students about their ethnic background:

“If you give the wrong answer, they beat you up,” he said.

The lunchroom melee was the last straw. Parents and students staged a two-day boycott demanding more security measures and the amelioration of dangerous overcrowding. The Board of Education made some concessions about security and overcrowding, and the students returned.

Because it had become emblematic of the myriad problems of inner city schools, Eastern District was singled out for an ultimately successful experimental strategy that has since become commonplace: Splitting huge, overcrowded neighborhood high schools into smaller, more manageable schools. (George Washington High School was divided into four smaller academies in 1999.)

By the fall of 1996, Eastern District High School was no longer. Its former students had to apply to the separate academies, thus allowing D.O.E. officials the opportunity to stem gang violence. The arts and athletic programs, theretofore answering to the nickname “Wolves,” were banded together and rebranded as The Grand Street Campus schools.

BETWEEN INNINGS, IT BEGAN RAINING, A LIGHT, early-evening version of a sun-shower. By the time Grand Street leadoff hitter Basael McDonald stepped to the plate, the rain was gone, replaced by a large rainbow arching over the new Luna Park and into the ocean.

G.W.’s starter, Edwin Corniel, is a big righthander with an over-the-top delivery. He’s only around 6-feet-tall, but he uses his big legs to propel the ball toward the plate at a speed that simply overpowers most high-school hitters.

McDonald, Grand Street’s speedy center fielder, was one of them, trying and failing to catch up to a high heater for the inning’s first out. But Grand Street second baseman Eli Rodriguez, the son of Eastern District alum and former major league pitcher Frank Rodriguez, worked a walk, and then moved up to third on a wild pitch.

Corniel’s fastball was humming early, but he was still feeling for his secondary offerings. And even after he forced a popout from the next hitter for the inning’s second out, the fact that Rodriguez had moved up to third was significant: Up 1-2 in the count to the next hitter, Corniel was afraid of throwing a nasty secondary pitch for fear of a run-scoring wild pitch.

Instead, he threw a chest-high fastball. And Kevin Martir, Grand Street’s third baseman and catcher who received a full scholarship to the University of Maryland for next year, was quick enough to catch up to it. He smashed it into the left center field gap, just out of the reach of G.W.’s center fielder, for a run-scoring triple.

He slid into third base, popped up, and clapped his hands over his head in the direction of the Grand Street faithful, who filled several sections along the first base side of the stadium. There were probably around 2,000 of them, compared to around 500 G.W. fans on the third base side. They wore shirts in Grand Street’s powder blue color that said, “GSC: Believe.” Having taken an early 1-0 lead on the city’s most storied program, they believed now.

GRAND STREET'S JOSE CUAS IS 6-FOOT-4, 190 pounds, and he is a living illustration of how absurd it was that shortstop, in the days before Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, had always been considered a short man’s position. Cuas uses his long strides to cover ground effortlessly, with his feet practically skating over the ground as he moves laterally. The length of his arm allows him to whip his throws to first base, producing a crack each time the ball hits the first baseman’s glove. He can hit, too--.422, with a .509 on-base percentage and a .644 slugging percentage--so he was consequently offered a scholarship to the University of Maryland along with his teammate, Martir.

During the tenth round of the Major League Baseball draft last week, the Toronto Blue Jays called Cuas on the phone. They knew about the Maryland offer. Everybody did, which is why Cuas was still available in the tenth round to begin with. Still, as part of their due diligence, they dangled before Cuas a number: $250,000. That’s much higher than the M.L.B. recommended “slot value” for a 10th round pick, the exceeding of which essentially counts against the draft salary cap imposed by baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement. But the Blue Jays wanted their man.

Make it $500,000, Cuas said. My scholarship alone is worth more than $250,000, all things considered. The Blue Jays declined, then proceeded to select Alex Azor of Navy, whose value was depressed because of his obligation to serve his military commitment in the coming years. Azor received a $1,000 signing bonus.

With one out in the second inning at MCU, after a Martir error put a G.W. runner on first with one out, G.W.’s Marvin Campos tapped a bouncer to Cuaz. If he had to move his feet for it, he did so undetectably. His sidearm flip to second baseman Eli Rodriguez was chest high and timed perfectly, and so was Rodriguez’s relay to first. A Division I prospect and the son of a Major Leaguer had made for the smoothest 6-4-3 double play you’re likely to see in a high school game, and Grand Street trotted back to the dugout for their half of the second.

A leadoff double down the line on an offspeed pitch put Grand Street in position to add to the lead. But Corniel, having just been burned by his offspeed stuff and facing the bottom of the order, reared back for fastballs to strand the runner.

THE YEAR BEFORE EASTERN DISTRICT WAS TRANSFORMED into Grand Street Campus, Melvin Martinez, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants and a native of the Latino Southside of Williamsburg, took over as the baseball coach.

With all the other problems the school faced at that point, its sports teams were an afterthought: The baseball team played in PSAL’s B division, an ignominy for a school of that size. But Martinez had a competitive itch inside of him he still needed to scratch: He had been a catching prospect as a high schooler who had always thought he would play baseball professionally. But he shredded his shoulder during his senior year and never regained the arm strength that made him legendary on the Southside for his ability to throw runners out from his knees.

Martinez, by day an assistant principal at a Williamsburg elementary school, spotted an opportunity at Eastern District. The school is located off the Grand Street top of the L train, well positioned to draw baseball talent from Latino neighborhoods in the five-mile radius. Southside Williamsburg, once the most densely populated Latino neighborhood in the country, is within a mile. Out on the L train is Bushwick, and a transfer from there is Ridgewood, City Line, and Cypress Hills. On the other direction on the L train is the Lower East Side, which is where Dellin Betances, the Grand Street alum who received a $1 million signing bonus from the Yankees in 2006, grew up.

Within three years, Grand Street was in the A division.  Martinez instilled a family atmosphere around a team, many of whose players are in search of male role models: Martinez’s brothers are both assistant coaches on the team, and his parents attend every practice and game, with his father charting pitches.

Within years, 200 kids were showing up for tryouts, hoping to fill the 50-odd spots on the varsity and JV. Martinez was diligently working a network of baseball men by establishing connections at colleges who might be interested in Brooklyn kids, some of whom barely speak English. Some schools were semi-local (Alfred State University, Monroe Community College) and some were far-flung (Clarendon College in Texas, Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis).

“Even though I’ve never won a championship, that’s my championship,” Martinez said this year of the scholarships he’s helped get his players.

The Wolves were always in the thick of the championship hunt, and always coming up short. Last year was particularly painful: Led by centerfielder Williams Jerez, a second-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox, experts labeled it the most talented Wolves team ever. But they were upset by Staten Island’s Tottenville in the PSAL semifinals, also at MCU Park.

Immediately after that game, a choked-up Martinez, convinced his team needed a new voice to get over the top, announced he would step down. But his players wouldn’t let him.

And so it was that Martinez found himself back at MCU Park, midway through four innings, watching his pitcher cruise through the G.W. lineup. He had retired seven straight hitters, and hadn’t allowed a hit all game.

The Wolves were in control. But this happens all the time in baseball: One team is in command and feeling good, but the comfort is illusory because it’s not reflected on the scoreboard.

Perhaps sensing this, Melvin’s older brother, Eddie Martinez, at the prompting of the between-innings loudspeaker’s playing of “Miserlou”--better known as the Pulp Fiction theme song--leapt out of the dugout and starting flailing his arms in an attempt to stir the Grand Street partisans to life.

This burst of urgent crowd energy transferred to catcher Ernesto Lopez, who led off Grand Street’s frame by turning on Corniel’s high, hanging curveball and sending it over the Midwood Ambulance Service sign down the left field line. 2-0, Grand Street.

Next year, Lopez, along with his batterymate, Gonzalez, will play at Louisiana State-Eunice, a junior college in the L.S.U. system, one of those random schools that Martinez somehow gets his players into. He’s a good prospect, but clearing the fence in high school is nonetheless a special feat: His teammates greeted him at home plate, momentarily mobbing him in the jump-moshing celebration of a walk-off home run. Then came the collective realization that it was still only a 2-0 game, and they reined it in.

"HEY THERE, YOUNG FELLA," A SCHOOL SAFETY officer said to a Dominican early-twenty-something on the G.W. side.

“They won’t sit down?” He pointed to the G.W. dugout, where the players were still standing, still clapping, still chanting. “Why not?”

The young man shrugged good-naturedly and said nothing. A moment later, Grand Street’s Gonzalez went back to work on the G.W. batters for the fourth inning, inducing a flyout for his eighth consecutive out. Gonzalez was eight outs away from a no-hitter, meaning that Grand Street was eight outs away from its first championship.

But G.W.’s next hitter, first baseman Bryan Mejia, waited for an off-speed pitch that stayed a little too high, and singled to center. Another single, then a G.W. bunt that was mishandled by Grand Street, and then another single loaded the bases.

G.W.’s right fielder Henry Rodriguez followed with yet another single to bring home his team’s first run. Like his teammates before him, he followed the formula of waiting an extra quarter-beat on an offspeed pitch before stroking it into the outfield. It was 2-1 Grand Street, but G.W. had the bases loaded and one out, and with that, the upper hand.

The next G.W. hitter, shortstop Henry Rodriguez, swung a moment too soon and popped up to the first baseman for the second out. The next hitter, Michael Richardson, fell behind 1-2 before ineffectually tapping a changeup between the mound and the first base line. Gonzalez scooped it up and tagged Richardson out in the baseline.

The gentlemanly restraint with which he did so, combined with his relief about escaping the jam with the lead still intact, left some pent up emotion: Two steps after tagging out Richardson, Gonzalez flailed his arms in the air and started socking his chest with his first. Cuas, running in from shortstop, slapped him on the shoulders, turned to him, and pumped two fingers down at the ground. Our house, our game, our championship season, the gesture said.

GRAND STREET LEFT THE BASES LOADED the following inning.

Then Gonzalez came back on the mound and got three straight outs.

Grand Street went quietly in its half of the sixth inning, sending the game into its final frame with the score still 2-1.

Eudalio Martinez, the 70-year-old father of the Martinez brothers, clutched his clipboard, the way he has for approximately 1,000 Grand Street Campus games since his sons took over the program. He wasn’t expected to be at the game, having undergone chemotherapy earlier for the leukemia that has taken a turn for the worse in the past year.

Martinez was one of two inspirational figures for Grand Street this year. The other was Quinton Ward, a seven-year-old who plays with Martinez’s twin boys in a little league at the Parade Grounds, and is battling lymphoma.

Both were on the Grand Street side, which at this point was receiving extra attention from School Security.

“Nobody in the aisles when the 7th inning starts,” one female security officer said to others. (All spectators at the game had to pass through metal detectors.) “Nobody upon nobody. Tell ‘em they gonna get locked up.”

A moment later, before the inning started, an announcement over the loudspeaker warned fans about storming the field after the final out.

“Please do not ruin this potential once-in-a-lifetime moment for the players,” the public address announcer said.

A Grand Street error put the first batter on, and a hit batsman by Gonzalez, on a 1-2 pitch on which he was trying to push the hitter off the plate, put the go-ahead runner on with one out. But then a lineout to left for the second out, and then a tapper back to the mound.

Gonzalez is short, especially for a pitcher, but the fiery, purposeful way he stalks about the mound indicates a command of his turf and of the moment. This was true on Friday: He saved his best for the biggest game of his life, and his best pitches for the biggest situations.

But his last throw of the night was his most unsure. Having fielded the ground ball, he gingerly stepped forward and aimed a short-armed a lob in the direction of first baseman Kelvin Flores. Flores sized up the parabola as if judging a fly ball. This one was catchable. He squeezed it with both hands, and Grand Street Campus became PSAL champions.

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