SEATTLE – On a rainy evening, Rainier Beach’s baseball team found sunshine in a cardboard box.
The orange rays reflected in the players’ eyes were actually beaming new orange socks with a white-striped trim. As the uniform accessory was pulled from its wrapping, the feeling of warmth washed over the team, again.
It’s been four months since first-year coach Gerald Smiley made a GoFundMe post asking for help from the community to help save Vikings baseball. For years there’s been talk of disbanding the team or combining it with Cleveland due to low turnouts and an even smaller budget.
The original request was $27,000, but, with the help of an anonymous $13,000 donation, the team garnered $42,646 from the community. And the outpour bought more than equipment – it gave the student-athletes pride difficult to feel inside a dilapidated school building with holes in ceiling tiles, broken lights and dirty hallways.
“It shows he really cares, people really care,” senior second baseman Jaedyn Colly said.
Smiley was a right-handed pitcher at Rainier Beach, drafted in 2001 by the Texas Rangers in the ninth round. After four years of playing in the organization, he retired because of injuries. In 2011, he opened his own baseball academy in Frisco, Texas, and designed an app, BLPAcademy, that provides free baseball training drills and coaching resources.
When Smiley sold the academy and relocated back to Seattle in 2015 for a job working as a union organizer, he felt a need to coach his alma mater. Under coach Landon Magss, the Vikings were getting beat by double digits. Last season’s finale was a 42-0 loss to Garfield.
Rainier Beach had a combined 2-88 record the past five years. Making the situation worse was the way the team looked. There were mismatched pants, shoes, shirts, tattered gloves, scarce equipment.
According to athletic director George Foster, Magss left his position to focus on becoming a school principal. Smiley was hired in November 2016. His first question to Magss was where to find the sweaters to hand to his team.
Laughter was the response.
“The kids would sit out there and freeze,” Smiley said. “So, when he (Magss) told me that, it was my turning point. I’m not going to let these kids experience what they experienced last year.”
Foster said his athletic department has a budget, but it’s minimal and transportation is the biggest expense. Due to changed start times for classes this year, all of his teams have to use private charter buses to games, which can cost $900 versus $150 when the normal school buses were used.
The baseball team had to fundraise in order to survive, and the players had to be as serious as Smiley. He expressed that in introducing himself to potential players.
“What? We’re having a meeting for baseball and it’s November?” senior utility player Justin Jones said. “Usually we get together a week before the season starts. I was like, `What’s happening?’ Right off the bat, he brought in a serious tone.”
Backing Smiley up was an assistant coaching staff with a vast knowledge willing to volunteer their time. Julien Pollard played for Washington. William Dorsey played in the minor leagues while Ben Tikunoff relocated from Florida where he was a college team manager.
“If you’re not ready for this change,” Jones recalled Smiley telling the room. “I love you. You might be a great person, but we can’t have you on the team. You’re not ready.”
Jones perked up.
“It’s happening! This is what I’ve been waiting for!” he said of the possibility of truly competing in the sport. “I started to lose the passion for it a bit because nobody else was passionate about it the way I was. Nobody cared about the kids and what we’re going to do about the lack of effort. And the losing sucked.”
Through the winter, players were fitted by tailors for baseball jerseys, pants, shoes and caps with designs created by Smiley. He also worked with Foster to purchase batting cages, balls, gloves, bats and bags.
“It’s like they’ve got a tuxedo on every day,” Dorsey said. “There’s a feeling like it’s our turn and someone cares about us to fight for us.”
Rainier Beach won its season opener 10-9 against Kent-Meridian. It was a night game at the school, the stands packed with community members, family and students. None involved, included Smiley, had experienced a high school game like it.
“We’re an actual team,” Colly said. “Like during the opener, we were actually communicating. We were actually doing our jobs, talking and doing what we needed to do to make sure that we got the win. That’s what surprised me.”
The Vikings are 5-7 overall. Smiley believes one more win would be the most in school history, but he’s still sifting through unorganized records.
The majority of the players are underclassmen, so the team is coordinating through the Mariners’ outreach program to help the Vikings play in summer leagues. RBI – Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities – is operated through the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club where Pollard is the athletic director. There’s a fee to be a member of the club, but some kids do volunteer work as mentors or coaches to cover costs.
“We want them to keep developing their skills because a lot of those guys do other sports and this is their first time getting into baseball,” said Pollard, who plans to take a team to Anaheim in July for a tournament. “By the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’ll know what’s going on (baseball-wise) and have a feel for it.”
New threads and equipment haven’t eliminated some of the disciplinary struggles. Pollard said he’s simply working on getting players to arrive on time for practice and games. Dorsey is teaching the difference between criticism and expectations. Smiley is developing their work ethic.
The GoFundMe account is a simple click to make donations. But players also went door-to-door to discuss the team with the community, volunteered at homeless shelters and worked fundraising events, such as one offering haircuts.
“We’re dealing with more issues than just the game of baseball,” Smiley said. “That’s why I chose this challenge. To make sure we grow young men in the community and can teach them how to be successful citizens in society and pick somebody else up who has been in their situation as well.”
The number of people willing to help Smiley achieve the goal remains shocking. There’s about $11,000 left in the budget, but fundraising will be annual issue with the addition of a junior-varsity team next year.
“Still to this day, I can’t believe it,” he said. “They want to see kids have some hope, have some confidence, have them feel like they are unified and they are a team. Part of that is looking the part.”
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