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

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.