CINCINNATI (AP) — As he stands in the dugout watching his team take the field on a sunny April afternoon, Fred James thinks today might be the day.
Because he is a rational man, he can’t explain why he feels this way. The St. Bernard Titans have lost 55 straight games over the past three seasons and their best player is in street clothes, benched for mouthing off to an ump.
But James, the Titans’ first-year head coach, didn’t take this job because he’s a pessimist. He believes his boys can win.
“Let’s get the job done today!” he shouts as his pitcher warms up.
Then the home game against Lockland High School begins, and James is reminded again that in baseball, as in many things, hope alone is not enough. The first opposing batter draws a walk. Then comes a stolen base. Another walk. A wild throw. A bobbled grounder. A missed tag.
James keeps coaching through it all, giving pep talks, fixing batting stances. But as the Titans fall behind 14-0, his optimism turns to resignation.
“Lord help me, Jesus,” he says quietly.
James, the son of a preacher, prays a lot about his job. He’s a baseball guy, a former minor leaguer, so he knew what he was getting into when he took over a team that had been outscored 571-76 the previous two seasons.
What he didn’t expect was that teaching baseball would be the least of his problems. One in 5 students in the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place school district lives below the poverty line, and household income here is 20% lower than the national median.
For James, who worked three years as an assistant at Walnut Hills High School, Cincinnati’s elite college preparatory school, the new job in St. Bernard has been a culture shock. Everything is harder here.
On his first day, some players showed up for practice wearing football cleats. Many didn’t own gloves or bats or protective cups. The team’s uniforms were so old that one kid told James his dad had worn the same one two decades earlier.
James went to work right away. He convinced sponsors to donate equipment. He found used bats at a secondhand store. He organized a fundraiser to buy new uniforms, which he got at a discount.
The Titans kept losing, though. And as much as James hated the losses, he hated even more how much they weighed on his players. He thought often about a conversation he had with a friend after taking the job at St. Bernard.
“You don’t have any biological children,” she said, “but you’re going to raise sons and daughters in that school.”
James, 39, took her words to heart. He talks to his players not just about baseball, but about troubles at home and school. He buys them meals when they’re hungry. He lectures them about the proper way to dress and shake hands.
Sometimes, he does their laundry, bringing home uniforms to wash to make sure they’re clean for the next game.
The Lockland game is another test of that relationship. When his pitcher slumps his shoulders after walking a batter, James claps and shouts, “Pick yourself up!” When his first baseman melts down after a botched play, screaming at a teammate, James takes him out of the game.
“I’m sick of this!” the boy shouts, punching his glove and kicking up dirt.
James understands his frustration. He’s searched all year for a lineup, a strategy, anything to help the team finally get a win. Nothing has worked. Sometimes, alone in his office or driving home after work, he prays for an answer.
“God, what is it that I’m supposed to be doing?”
It’s a question he assumes coaches at elite baseball programs never ask. At schools like Summit Country Day and Cincinnati Country Day, which sit atop the standings of St. Bernard’s conference, tuition runs as high as $25,000 and kids play on select teams in the offseason.
Some families — about 20%, according to one national survey — spend more than $12,000 a year on youth sports for a single child.
At St. Bernard, the baseball program’s annual budget is $1,500. There is no junior varsity or freshman team. There is no middle school program. Some kids don’t play organized ball until they put on a Titans’ uniform.
James’ goal when he took the job was to change that, to build a real program. But on this day, on the verge of their 56th consecutive loss, the Titans look over-matched again. Beaten.
Still, James keeps coaching, keeps working. He focuses on little things that give him comfort. Even hope. His right fielder takes a good angle to the ball and makes a running catch. A young batter shows patience at the plate and hits a line drive.
His pitcher settles down and gets some strikeouts, stepping into his throws, keeping his eyes on the catcher’s glove as he releases the ball, just like James had taught him.
Later, in the dugout, James finds the pitcher on the bench. It would have been easy to give up, James tells him, but he kept fighting. Despite everything, he didn’t quit.
“You picked yourself up,” James says, leaning in close, hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You picked yourself up.”
Three weeks later, the Titans win their first game in three years, 5-4 in extra innings.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com