News & Politics » Feature

Hard Ball

Tales From the Cabrini-Green Little League



Whenever the dream comes, Maurice falls out of bed. He doesn't fall very far, since his mattress rises only a few inches above the linoleum floor. Nor does he fall very loudly, because the bed is ringed by a thin but complete cushion of shirts, socks, underwear, and baseball cards that muffle the thump of a small body. The sound does not awaken Rufus, his younger half-brother who shares the mattress in the small apartment above the bar on Sedgwick Street. But his mother has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, and has ears primed for trouble.

"Maurice, that you?" she whispers.


She tries again. "Honey, you OK?"

Maurice does not answer, because if he does his mother will know that the dream has come again, and that he is scared. She'll know that he can't stop thinking about his cousin Lonzo and how he looked there in the yellow light of the entryway, all laid out and bloated up in his head from the bullets and the blood. How his mother shoved her way through the police lines and cradled Lonzo's big head in her arms and got her good jacket so soaked that they had to throw it away. How all the Cobras came to the funeral home in their Oakland A's colors, the white pinstripes that Lonzo used to wear. How they gathered around the coffin and kissed him on the cheek and curled his stiff finger in a Cobra C like they were his family, like they hadn't tried to keep him in the gang, like they weren't the ones who had gotten him killed . . .

"Mo-reece," his mother whispers. "You quit that movin' around and go to sleep right now, hear me?"

Maurice rolls back onto the mattress and says nothing. He nudges Rufus to give himself more room. Rufus, his lips wrapped tightly around his thumb, rolls over without making a sound. He's younger than Maurice by three years, and always sleeps peacefully. Maurice used to sleep like that, back when he was a shorty. Now he's grown up. Eleven years old--12 in a couple of months.

Moving slowly so the mattress won't squeak, Maurice clears away a space and presses his ear to the floor. Music and voices drift up from the bar, faint and tinny. He hears the sound of glass breaking, then shouting, then music again. Nothing unusual. He can hear his brother breathing, soft and low. A small cockroach struggles up the wall, its shiny back wobbling.

Time passes. Maurice rolls over. There's no chance of sleep, but that doesn't matter anymore. It's almost morning, and the red haze over Sedgwick throws a soft glow on his baseball cards, so familiar after a winter of study that each outline immediately summons a name--Shawon . . . Frank . . . Ozzie . . . Cal . . . Andre. Across the room, leaned carefully against a paint-bald wall, a blue aluminum bat shines hard and bright. Maurice has often heard people complain about life in the neighborhood, but right now he wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

"It ain't really so bad, living here," he once explained to a friend. "In summertime, we play baseball."

Carson Field is 333 feet long and 290 feet wide, roughly the same dimensions as a city block. It is bounded on the north by the Oscar Mayer processing plant, on the east by the Ravenswood el, on the south and west by Division and Sedgwick streets, respectively, and on all sides by an eight-foot-high chain link fence. There are two infields scratched out of its expanse, one in the northeast corner and the other in the southwest, each covered with blond dirt as fine as glacial silt and backed by a well-dimpled backstop. Each infield is appointed with a pitcher's rubber and a home plate cut from thick pine slabs and tamped deep into the earth. There are no outfield fences. Balls keep rolling until they ring against the chain link.

The remainder of the field is covered by a thin skin of crabgrass, bluegrass, chickweed, knotweed, pigweed, dandelions, and European clover that was originally imported to the midwest to feed livestock but now thrives in jungly lots and sidewalk cracks. In some parts of the field the many varieties of plants have grown together, blending into a sparse but adequate covering of dingy green. In others, however, the different colonies have remained stubbornly independent of one another, creating tufted kingdoms of leaves and stems bounded by narrow lines of barren earth. This pattern lends Carson Field a motley appearance, one vaguely resembling a color-coded world map.

"I got it, I got it."

First moments of spring practice, and Maurice is running across the grass, head canted back, hand extending a tattered slab of leather that is an original Ed Kranepool signature-model first baseman's glove. "The Finest in the Field," reads the faded inscription on the pocket.

"I got it, I got--"

Exhaling mightily, Maurice levers up the glove and stretches his small body to its full length. The ball thunks into the dandelions six feet behind him. Maurice pulls up and jogs over to retrieve the ball, shaking his head in disbelief.

"That one tailed away from me at the last second," his voice pipes in, firm and authoritative. "Hit me another."

Maurice, the center fielder for the First Chicago Near North Kikuyus, always wants another ball. He seldom catches any, but something about him always makes the coaches believe he will. He stands small for his age, with an athletic build and a loose, rough Afro that would have been fashionable two decades earlier. Among all the buzzcut fades, boxes, and intricate swirls, Maurice's untamed fuzz stands apart, enabling kids to spot him a hundred yards away. His face, too, is distinctive. It is handsome and oval-shaped, set off by small crescent eyes the color of anthracite and a small mouth set in a natural upturn that seems unable to bend into less cheerful curves. As always, he wears a plain blue sweatshirt, its sleeves pressed up to his elbows with casual precision, and black XJ-9000 tennis shoes with black laces, untied, no socks. All the kids know that XJ-9000s only cost $12.99 at Payless, but their teasing never seems to get to Maurice.

"I don't care about shoes," he says. "I'd rather have the money for more important stuff."

Maurice is always saying things like that, things that make him sound old and wise. Last season the Kikuyus coaches sometimes wondered whether Maurice sounded a little too wise, whether he was mimicking an older sibling or trying to slide his way into the coaches' good graces. They eventually concluded, however, that the question was moot. Maurice, whatever his affectations, was a bright, insightful kid, a model ball player.

"You know," he said once last year, reaching up to place a fatherly hand on his coach's shoulder, "it really doesn't matter much if we win or lose the game. The important thing is that we play."

Now in April 1992 Little League baseball is beginning its second season at Carson Field. The league was founded by a 32-year-old businessman named Bob Muzikowski and a 48-year-old community worker named Al Carter, who met while jogging. Muzikowski, a hyperkinetic insurance salesman, provided the corporate sponsors and coaches, most of whom were young white businessmen. Carter, a Cabrini native who had worked with the neighborhood's youth for 18 years, provided the players, neighborhood expertise, and focus on reinforcing the children's African American heritage. Team names embodied the league's dual pedigree: the Kidder, Peabody Xhosa, the Merrill Lynch Watusi, and the Griffin, Kubik, Stephens & Thompson Ibos, for instance.

At early meetings, Carter informed the volunteer coaches that their job would require a commitment of one or two nights a week as well as a fair degree of patience, since many of the children had never played organized baseball. He said not to worry about safety. The field would be secure, provided you didn't do anything foolish. "Do not extend your index and pinkie fingers in the traditional two-out signal," he announced. "This is a Disciple sign, and could provoke a shooting. Use the peace sign."

Everyone muddled through the first year fairly well. The Near North Little League/African American Youth League, as it was called, ended up drawing 30 corporate sponsors and 250 kids, enough for two divisions, one for 9-to-12-year-olds, the other for 13-to-15-year-olds. Though things were disorganized at times, any confusion was overshadowed by the simple fact that the games were played; the league worked.

For the Kikuyus, who finished the first year in the middle of the 9-to-12-year-old pack, 1992 figures to be better. Bill Bowman, the 26-year-old real-estate manager who's the Kikuyus' head coach, has already compiled a list: 13 names, carefully arranged and tabulated, kept pressed in a manila folder. Maurice, Rufus, Freddie, Jalen, Louis, Alonzo, Demetrius, Nathaniel, Calbert, T.J., Rickey, Otis, and Samuel. Some like Maurice, Jalen, and Freddie, are veterans from last year's team. Others filled out an application at school and were assigned to the team by chance. Others just showed up at the field, and Bill jotted their names on the roster. Technically, this practice violates league policy, which states that new players are to be placed in a pool that league officials then distribute among teams. But to Bill and most other coaches, that doesn't make sense. If you're lucky enough to get a kid interested, you grab him, give him a glove and an application, and tell him three times when the next practice is going to be, because you might not get a second chance. This isn't like suburban Little Leagues. That's the point.

"Come on, hit me one more." Maurice stands alone in the outfield, the Ed Kranepool glove proffered to the sky, beseeching. Then, abruptly, he changes his tack.

"You know you can't get it past me he says, puffing up his chest and smoothing his unruly hair with his free hand. "You know I be robbin' you." Tilting his head in mock contempt, Maurice turns away.

"Is that so?" Bill rises good-naturedly to the bait. He shoulders the bat, tosses, and arcs a high fly ball toward right field. Grinning, Maurice gives chase. But before he can catch up the ball is already bouncing in the weeds.

From Carson Field, it doesn't look like a big place. It isn't, really. Seventy-one acres, 23 high rises, 58 two-story row houses. Seven thousand people, 18 streets, 17 liquor stores, 5 churches, 2 grocery stores, and no banks. The entire development takes up an L-shaped chunk of land seven blocks by five blocks, though it is tough to tell for sure because many streets dead-end when they reach the boundaries of the development, effectively eliminating the chance someone might wander in by accident.

In Cabrini, gunfire is discussed like weather. "They was shootin' early this morning, but then it let up and I got to go to my grandmama's." Outside the neighborhood, it is discussed in terms of war. One person shot a week; one person killed every month or two; double that in summer. In one particularly active two-month period in 1981, the toll read 37 wounded and 11 killed; the annual homicide count regularly exceeds that of most other Chicago housing developments as well as that of several states.

"Gangsters from the south side are scared of Cabrini," says Officer Eric Davis of Public Housing North, the special unit based in the development. "They're like, 'Fuck Cabrini, why should I go up there and get my ass shot?'"

Though the Kikuyus coaches hear the shooting only occasionally, and then from a distance, in one summer they gain a vague sense of the violence's impact on the children. Some, the coaches have observed, seem reserved and overly frightened of new places, almost like babies. Others are talkative, confident, and cynical far beyond their years, almost like old men. The coaches probably don't realize the extent of the violence (one study found that by the age of five, virtually every child in Cabrini has either seen a shooting or known someone who was involved in one), but they know enough to understand.

One afternoon last season, a Kikuyu player casually told a coach about something he'd seen that day. The player, Henry, was a first baseman of Ruthian physique, a sweet-faced kid with a quiet, amiable manner. That morning, Henry got ready for school, kissed his mother, walked downstairs, and in the breezeway of his building encountered a crew of maintenance men hosing brains and blood off the wall and floor. Henry inquired, and learned that the vitals had belonged to a 19-year-old man who was just released from three years in a juvenile detention center. On his first day out the man returned to what he believed to be his gang's building, not knowing that the building had switched to another gang until he walked inside, when it was too late. Some people were already laughing about it. Imagine the look on that boy's face, they said. He must have been mighty surprised. As Henry told it, he stepped over the pool of soap and brains, careful not to get his sneakers wet, and continued on his way to school.

Third practice. Coach Bill Bowman sets the equipment bag down and is engulfed by a flock of kids combing frantically through its dusty recesses for the few gloves big enough or new enough to be desirable.

"Get your mitts and spread out." Bill's hands semaphore over the ruckus. "Give me two lines and start throwing."

It doesn't work.

"Maaaan!" Jalen throws down his mitt and scowls at the ball rolling behind him. "I'm fixin' to quit. Calbert throw like a buster!"

"He fittina steal my glove! Tell Demetrius to stop!"

"Maaaan! Why can't we hit? We always be axing you to hit, but you never let us!"

"I can't throw 'cause I'm too thirsty."

"This glove phony! How come y'all so cheap you can't buy us some good gloves?"

"Coach Bill?" Calbert collapses at Bill's feet, fingers clutching his chest. "I can't play no more. I need some ice cream bad."

For the Kikuyus, as for most teams, practices are chaotic, extemporaneous affairs, half-controlled juggling acts. Merely explaining the game is complicated enough; trying to arrange an actual drill is out of the question. The kids are too smart, too autonomous, too sensible to be suckered into some game where all you do is stand around and wait for the ball. Already this year skinny, dark-eyed Jalen has walked off the field several times when things didn't go his way. Demetrius, a sharp-toothed infielder, quickly became a specialist in picking fights with anyone in earshot. Of course, disruption doesn't always take the shape of aggression. Third-baseman Alonzo will later reveal that he can produce tears on command. "I cry," he says, "and they got to give me what I want."

The coaches, mostly unskilled in the ways of child management, much less the ways of Cabrini, are routinely overmatched. By their world's standards they are not yet old enough to have children--and they are trying to control a group of children who act too old to have parents.

"I ain't your slave," Jalen shouts when asked to put away the equipment. "Do it yourself."

"You ain't my daddy," Freddie says when Bill tells him to sit down during a team meeting.

Some teams, particularly those with black coaches (about a third of the league) maintain a semblance of control by combining tough love with traditional Little League tools of benchings and suspensions. The Kikuyus, with the even-tempered Bill setting the tone, take a slightly different approach. They counteract mutinous remarks with quiet good humor, broadsiding offenders with smiles as if to say, "Come on now, I'm in on your joke. We both know you don't really mean what you're saying." When that fails, Bill takes the player aside for a man-to-man conversation that combines a little ego stroking with an implicit challenge. "You're a leader on this team," he'll say in a voice at once matter-of-fact and confidential. "If you have a good attitude, other people will follow your lead. If you decide to be a crybaby about everything, then so will everybody else."

Sitting on the bench, leg against leg with their grave and impressive head coach, Jalen, Demetrius, Alonzo, and the rest invariably tilt their heads and scuff their feet and whisper yes, they want to have a good attitude, and no, they don't want to be crybabies. But once out of the coach's shadow, good intentions evaporate. The first booted grounder or ugly strikeout ignites the taunting, which demands a response, and the cycle begins again.

Parents, of course, represent a possible cure for disciplinary ills. It is no coincidence that the two best-behaved players on the team are Maurice and Rufus, whose mother accompanies them to almost every game and practice. Bill has made several efforts to draw parents to the games. He's told them about the league's nascent parent committee, and how they've organized several meetings and are planning a banquet.

He tells them that they'd like to hold a parents softball game, as some other teams have done.

But still, throughout the season Maurice and Rufus's mother stands alone. Some parents, Bill knows, have good reasons: Jalen's mother works odd hours, Harold's father has a job way up north; Calbert's mother is having a hard time getting around since her car was stolen, Demetrius's great-aunt is 77. Others, eager to turn the supervision of their children over to coaches they've never met, don't make the effort. "Well sure he can make it to the game, but I'm fittina have some things going on, so I can't make it. What time will you be bringing him home?"

In the end, however, the coaches are reassured by the fact that every team, no matter how disciplined, has seen its share of disasters. They've heard about the Hausa player who went to the bathroom on first base, the 13-to-15 Yoruba who threw their gloves over the el tracks, the highly disciplined Mau Mau squad that routinely sends hats and gloves flying around the field like popping corn. Some teams have even folded, most recently the 9-to-12 Yoruba, whose coach was overwhelmed by the task of simply fielding a team. ("I mean, these guys don't even have phones," he said. "Maybe the league will work in four or five years when the kinks get ironed out, but right now it's a zoo.") Each incident highlights the basic tension of the enterprise: you can't just pull a dozen kids from one of the worst housing projects in America, put them on a field with a bunch of suburban-bred businessmen, have them play a difficult and frustrating sport, and expect it to come off with complete decorum. Of course things are disorderly. Perhaps they're supposed to be that way.

Now Bill and Brad Wetzler, one of the Kikuyus' three assistant coaches, wade into the storm.

"Step right to me now, Rufus, Jalen, put down that bat and get over here now. All right now, step to me, real easy."

"Move those feet, Nathaniel, you can't catch it if you--Demetrius! Leave Calbert alone--you can't catch if you don't move those feet now."

"Nice work, Maurice." Bill gives a meaningful nod to his center fielder, who's been helping another boy field grounders. "Way to go."

The coaches are counting on Maurice this year. The team, if it's going to win, needs leaders, and at this point the small boy with the big hair seems the likeliest candidate. Confidence is no problem--Maurice already has inscribed "M-Smooth, All-Star 1992" on the bill of his worn baseball cap. But it's his older-brother presence that Bill appreciates most.

A few days before, when a younger player returned to the bench in tears after striking out in practice, Bill did not hurry down to comfort him as he might have the previous year. Rather, he tapped Maurice, and told him to go have a word with the boy. Soon they both were smiling. One night later in the season, the coaches each pick a player they identify with the most, someone they can imagine being if they had been born in Cabrini. No one picks Maurice.

"He's . . . he's too good," says one coach, and the others nod in agreement. "The way he handles himself out there, he's like a little adult. I could never be that strong."

They are halfway up the stairs when the shots come. Automatics, nines, smaller pistols--Maurice can pick out a few as he runs. Some of his friends can imitate the reports of different guns like birdcalls, but Maurice and Rufus aren't so skilled. Their windows face the back of the building, and besides, there isn't as much shooting on Sedgwick Street as in the high rises.

"Come on now, go!"

Mary, their mother, doesn't really have any reason to yell. Once on the long stairway, they're shielded from the street and from the shots, fired presumably in yet another leadership rift among the Stones, the gang that runs their street. Still, she hurries them, the kids bounding two and three steps at a time, the mother quick-stepping one by one. In a practiced motion, she unlocks the deadbolt, sweeps the boys inside and pulls the steel security gate closed, and fists the padlock closed with a smack.

"First!" Rufus yells, but Maurice is too quick. He races to the refrigerator and pulls the game cartridge from the butter keeper--cold makes it last longer--and dives over the couch toward the 27-inch solid-state Zenith Chromacolor II with real oak paneling that their mother bought for $50 from her uncle. It takes a couple minutes to warm up and the picture's so fuzzy that you have to watch with all the lights out, but it works. Soon the microchip organ grinder commences its endless tinny whirl and the glimmering figure of Bam-Bam Bigelow is body-slamming the Honky-Tonk Man. The shots in the street can hardly be heard over the boys' excited commentary.


"Buster ain't got nothing . . .

"Whoooa, helicopter slam . . .

"Pin, baby, pin!"

The apartment, dimly lit by the flickering screen, isn't much to look at. The walls lean against each another precariously, the foam-board squares of the suspended ceiling lie at various rakish angles, and the faux-marble linoleum floor is so worn that walkways between rooms dip in the center like steps to a medieval cathedral. Bedsheets serve as drapes over dirt-clouded windows; furnishings consist of a table and three Eisenhower-era metal chairs, two stained and ancient twin mattresses--one for Mary and one for the boys--and a velvety three-piece couch that once cost $40. The living room walls are blank except for a framed print of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss and a two-by-four with the wood-burned command PARTY HARDY. Clothes and dishes are scattered liberally about the floor, and the building emits a dank smell, at once stale and acrid. The boys' mother usually keeps a better house, but lately she's been sick, and it's all she can do to keep up the energy to accompany the boys to the baseball field. Though walking causes her pain, she never lets the boys go outside alone. That's her rule.

"I was born with this gray hair," Mary says, touching her head and turning her considerable voice up to full volume. "I don't need no more from you."

They have lived in this apartment for nine months now, ever since they moved from a Cabrini high rise. Maurice didn't want to move but his mother said it was becoming too dangerous; she wanted to get out before her children were too old. They packed everything in plastic bags and hauled them three blocks north to Cabrini's suburbs, to Sedgwick, the motley stretch of walkups, bungalows, bars, and barbershops that is home to so many unpredictable characters that the police refer to it as Sesame Street. Life isn't great here, but it's better than in the high rises. There are working families, less gunfire, and, up near North Avenue on Hudson and Cleveland streets, attractive frame houses with small, well-kept yards. Though rents are many times what they'd be in Cabrini, and though people sometimes complain about the wave of white urban pioneers moving into the area, Maurice and his family feel fortunate to live where they live. Like everyone else in the suburbs, they make a point of referring to Cabrini as "the projects."

On a paint-peeled wall between the kitchen and the dining room hang remembrances of the last two summers: two small framed funeral announcements, calligraphied words encircling dim photocopied portraits, with flowers pressed behind cracked glass. On the left is the boys' cousin Eddie, a sweet-faced 20-year-old whose body was found underneath some garbage on the west side, shot in the temple and his insides kicked in. They've never known why he died, but people say he refused to carry out a hit, and his gang punished him. On the right, the announcement for their cousin Lonzo, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed last summer. Lonzo was working lookout for a Cobra dealer in the lobby of 1159 North Larrabee when some undercover police ran up, trying for a bust. The dealer, according to Cabrini protocol, ran, but for some reason Lonzo turned and shot twice. An officer dropped him with two shots to the head.

"Lonzo was real hard when he was on the street," Mary remembers. "Real hard. But sometimes he seemed like just a little child. He'd always yell, 'I love you,' whenever he saw me, and he weren't embarrassed about it or anything. He would be real sweet to the boys, too, and would put them on his knee and tell them not to get involved in gangs. But then he'd walk outside, and it was like he was a different person."

Maurice doesn't like looking at the announcements. If he looks at his cousins' faces too much, he figures, he might end up as they did. To Maurice, this is no idle fear, for he lately happened onto a small but vitally important secret: many things in his life are mysteriously connected. "It's like I can figure out what's gonna happen before it do happen," he tries to explain, his thoughtful frown dissolving into a smile. "I'm just lucky, I guess."

It started last summer with Nintendo. Maurice noticed that on the days he scored well in Bases Loaded 2 he played well in the real games. He tested to see if this cause-and-effect worked in other areas, and sure enough, it did. If he wore his Charlotte Hornets T-shirt it usually meant that he would pitch well. If he didn't cut his hair he played better in everything. At times it was as if he were drawing lines on some partially finished map.

"I knew Andre was going to hit it out," he says while watching a Cubs game. "He always tap the plate twice when he's fittina whack a homer." He thinks further. "I knew it, 'cause I do the same thing."

"I knew that car was going to pass us," he says while driving with Coach Brad. "It was red, like Bill's car that I drove that one time, and so I knew it had to be fast."

But there are some areas that can't be delineated on Maurice's map quite so easily, things that he finds better to ignore or deny. One day, a friend spots a large roach crawling across the floor of Maurice's apartment and comments on its size.

"A roach?" says Maurice incredulously, tilting his head to get a better look. "I ain't never seen those around here before."

Maurice knows about his father. His mother's told him too many times for him to forget--how she had dropped out of college to have Maurice, how on the day Maurice was born his father was arrested for robbery, how he was around for a while a few years later but then got into cocaine. Yet Maurice has never fully understood the story, not even when he saw him on the street, the sad, stooped man with papery skin and a white plastic rosary worn around his neck. Maurice sometimes imagines that his father is not a skinny junkie, but someone else, a famous athlete maybe, someone who will, when Maurice is a famous athlete himself, come forward and reveal the truth.

Late in the season, Maurice's mother will give him a piece of important and slightly disturbing news: his father wants to see him. She ran into him on Sedgwick and he said he was moving to Los Angeles in a few weeks. He has friends who can set him up with janitorial work, he said. Real good work, high paying, with benefits and everything. He'll send for Maurice to visit after a few months, definitely. Mary nodded and smiled and told him that she'd bring their son over to say good-bye. She didn't tell him that she'd heard a different story--that late one night in the Pump, he and a buddy of his, Lavarus, got into it with a Stone named Frog and Lavarus shot Frog and the Stones leadership put out a hit on Maurice's father and Lavarus in retaliation.

"He ain't much of a father, but he deserve to see his son before he go," she'll tell Maurice. "Maybe something out there in California will straighten him up."

At night, when the Zenith is no longer buzzing and his mother and brother are asleep, Maurice can sometimes hear a strange, high-pitched noise that sounds like giggling. It scared him at first, but eventually he figured out its source--horses, which live at the stable next door and spend their days pulling glossy carriages of tourists and honeymooners around the Gold Coast for $30 a half hour. Maurice likes watching the horses, though he feels sorry for them, penned up in the small yard, chewing hay. Some of the old men who sit drinking wine on the sidewalk outside the stable feel sorry for them too, and sometimes slip a bit of candy into the wet lippy mouths and talk to them like old friends, telling them that for a nickel and a bottle of Wild Irish, they'll trade places. Three squares a day, afternoons hauling folks around the Gold Coast, Hispanic boys combing your back. It wouldn't be half bad.

Maurice stands at home plate on the northeast diamond, waggling a blue bat and looking out to the mound. It's past eight o'clock and the dust from the field hangs like mist; opening day is long over. This morning, Bob Muzikowski, Al Carter, and a passel of sleepy coaches and players gathered along the foul lines for a first pitch by state representative Jesse White, followed by the first game: Kikuyus against the Morgan Stanley Mau Maus. After a rough start, in which several players threatened to quit, the Kikuyus broke the game open with eight runs in the fourth and won 17-2. Maurice is happy; he homered, singled, and made a play in the outfield. But now the games are over; the Acuras, Saabs, and Audis of the coaches have pulled away. Now there are only kids.

"Come on Freddie, gimme your heat," Maurice yells at the Kikuyus' nine-year-old pitcher, corkscrewing his black XJ-9000s into the dust at the front of where the batter's box should be, if any chalk remained to mark it. "I fittina whack it to the gate."

Maurice rubs a dusty hand over the bat, clearing off its barrel. The battered blue aluminum 30-incher has been his prize possession since he found it under the el tracks last summer. Its handle is bare of tape and its surface is scored with hundreds of tiny dents the size of teeth marks. Whenever he can't come up with a league ball or a tennis ball, Maurice uses rocks. With slow, elaborate formality, he steadies himself and goes through the ritual: tapping the bat on the outside edge of home plate, pointing it toward the pitcher, then cocking his wrists next to his ear, transforming himself into the gently rocking image of Andre Dawson.

As Freddie settles himself on the mound, the few kids left in the field stop to watch. Freddie's brow furrows and his cheeks puff. He kicks and throws.

"Steeeuuhhh-rike one!" shouts Demetrius, mimicking an umpire's deep voice.

"Shut up, Demetrius," Maurice mumbles. He runs quickly through his ritual, and takes his stance again. Freddie kicks and throws.

This time Maurice connects. The ball arcs toward shallow left field. "It might be!" he shouts in well-practiced tones. "It could be! It is! Another home run for Maurice Dawson!"

Even as the ball disappears in a spray of dandelions, Maurice is well into his home run trot, stomping in the spots where the bases should be, carrying his bat with him, fingers wound tightly around the barrel.

Freddie stands on the mound for a while, momentarily distraught that someone was able to hit his heat. But then he notices some boys lobbing rocks at a passing Ravenswood train and runs off to join them. Maurice, his victory lap complete, decides to celebrate. He jogs over to his brother, Rufus, who's been watching silently by the right field fence.

"Rufie, you wanna go to Chester's and get some pizza?"

It was phrased gently enough, but to quiet, demure Rufus, the question holds great portent. The two are standing on Sedgwick. To the north, home, where their mother, feeling ill, has gone several hours before; to the south, the alluring smell of Chester's Pizza. Over it all hovers their mother's three nevers: never run with a gang, never be caught out after dark, and if you see anything bad happen never tell nobody but her about it--not even the police--because somebody might try to hurt you.

"Mama say we gotta get home right after the game." Rufus's voice rises to a whine. "We can't be gettin' no pizza--it gettin' dark."

"We be back soon," says Maurice, his hand automatically contracting into the gesture he sometimes makes when persuading someone to do something: thumb and third finger touching, other fingers splayed, a thoughtful-looking gesticulation somewhat resembling an OK signal. He nods into his hand, affirming its authority. "Mama would want us to get some dinner anyway."

And he's gone across the glass-strewn sidewalk toward Division Street, swinging his bat like the cane of an English gentleman. Rufus hangs back for a few seconds in silent protest, then runs to catch up, casting a backward glance toward home. They walk quickly, Rufus a half-step behind, Maurice tapping the head of his bat on the sidewalk and enjoying the sugary crunch of the glass beneath. They're a few steps from Division Street when they hear a voice.

"Hey, lil boy."

The two stiffen, but keep walking as if they haven't heard. Maurice. stops tapping the bat and holds it close to his leg, hoping whoever is talking to them won't see it.

"Hey, lil boy," says the voice, "lemme use that bat for a second."

It's coming from the other side of the street. Maurice and Rufus pick up the pace. They're a few yards from Division Street, next to Carson Field's southwest backstop.

"Hey, lil boy!"

A girl is moving toward them in an urgent walk-run, placing her hands on passing cars as she crosses the street. Two other girls are with her, but they do not cross. Maurice and Rufus have never seen any of them before.

She draws closer. She's 14 or 15 years old but made up to look older. She wears red corduroy overalls and has her hair tied up fashionably with hundreds of red plastic beads the shape of hearts. She stands more than a head taller than Maurice.

"Lil boy, you lemme borrow that bat and I'll give you some money," she says. Her voice is friendly, almost sisterly. "I give you a dolla."

"Come on," one of her companions yells. "Ain't got much time."

A glance up the street tells Maurice why the girls are in such a hurry. They're Forty-Ouncers, members of a girl gang from south of Division Street, and they're about to fight another girl gang, the BTPs, at the empty lot across the street from the baseball field. The Forty-Ouncers ("They named that 'cause they have to drink a 40-ounce malt liquor bottle to join," Maurice later explains) and the BTPs ("Big Time Pu--you know what I'm gonna say," says Maurice) had been friendly, but the Forty-Ouncers recently flipped, or switched gang alliances, providing the motive for this particular gathering.

All at once the girl in red is standing over Maurice and reaching out her hand like a schoolmarm. She is utterly self-assured. "I don't want to have to take yo bat, lil boy," she says, "but I will if you make me."

"You can't have it." Maurice gives a weak smile and drops his head, sending a message different from the words he speaks. The girl is bigger and heavier than Maurice, and she has friends with her. There is no sense protesting. She grabs the barrel and with a quick twist wrenches it out of his hand.

"Thanks," she yells as she runs away, the red hearts clicking in her hair. "I give it back, I promise." She laughs.

Maurice watches his bat go across the street, where the girl rejoins her friends at the front of the northward-moving group. He doesn't say anything. The assemblage looks strangely pretty--tall, strong people in bright clothes walking toward one another so confidently, their shadows stretching across Sedgwick and onto the baseball diamond.

The two groups stop a few feet apart from each other in front of a small brick-and-wood warehouse on the corner of Scott and Sedgwick. The building, flanked by empty lots, stands as a relic of the neighborhood's earlier days, its jaunty lines vaguely recalling an Old West storefront. The sign out front announces "Ideal Provisions." After some posturing and shouting, two girls start a mild tussle on the, building's doorstep. On the baseball field, mitts and bats thunk to the ground as the kids run to the fence to watch. On Division Street, a police car passes. It does not stop.

Suddenly, one of the BTPs breaks from the fight and runs west, behind the warehouse. Three Forty-Ouncers from the south, one of them the tall girl in red, put on the chase. The boys lose sight of them behind the bricks.

"Man!" Maurice's eyes shine. "They gettin' into it!"

They haven't reappeared yet when the cry goes up. "She gotta gun, she gotta gun!" The girls now come into view, moving fast. The BTP, the one in the lead, a long-legged girl in stone-washed jeans, is running low to the ground. She's put some distance between herself and her three pursuers, who are frustrated by her speed. The one in red slows to a jog, waving Maurice's bat.

Another girl, in black Bulls sweats, raises her arm and--crack--a puff of smoke comes from her fist.

At the sound of a shot, everything stops. Nobody runs, nobody screams, nobody hits the dirt. Everybody just crouches a little, partly in self-defense but also in anticipation, waiting to see if someone falls.

No one does. The girl in the lead keeps running, rounds a fence, and disappears across the basketball courts. Everybody then shifts to face the girl in the Bulls sweats. She doesn't look at anybody, but coolly tucks the gun in her pocket and walks slowly back to where her gang has gathered. There is no reason to run--no police are around and everybody knows that none will be called.

Without taking their eyes off the girl with the gun, Maurice and Rufus back slowly through the gate onto the southwest diamond, walk across the field, and station themselves with a few other kids behind the backstop under the tracks.

"Man, you see that girl run?" says Maurice. "She be jettin'."

"I think I heard the bullet," says Rufus, hopping gently over a crack on the sidewalk. "It go fooooosh, like right past my head!"

"What, you never seen nobody do no shootin' before?" asks Demetrius's high-pitched voice. "Man, I seen that mess every day."

"Same wid me, homey," says Tyrone, a bigger kid who plays for the Ibos. "That girl ain't got nothin' but a lil old two-two."

"Yeah," says Maurice, trying to sound knowledgeable. "I seen plenty shooting, just never saw a girl shoot another girl before."

"Right," says Jalen, igniting a vigorous debate over who's seen the most shootings in their lives.

"Man, I seen like 10, 20 people get shot."

"I seen my cousin shoot this boy three times and the boy lived."

"One time me and my friend, we shot this gun. It was under the el and we shot a bunch of times, but there weren't but one bullet inside."

As the ball players argue behind the backstop, Carson Field returns to normal. Freddie hops aboard a borrowed white bicycle and wobbles gently across the dandelions, chasing something or other across the outfield. Along Scott Street, next to the field, a small child in a pink jumper is learning to walk by holding onto the fence surrounding the bare patches on the sidewalk where flower beds used to be. Three girls in dresses walk by, carrying red carnations in clear plastic containers, boutonnieres for prom night. A voice comes from behind the ball players.

"Reese, what we gonna do?"

It's Rufus, and Maurice knows why he's scared. On Sedgwick, smack between the boys and their home, the BTPs and the Forty-Ouncers are still milling about. The fighting has stopped, but neither gang wants to leave lest it be perceived as the loser.

Maurice looks around. The shadows of the Oscar Mayer plant now envelop them, and it's getting chilly. Rufus hugs a fence post next to the backstop, his yellow windbreaker buttoned up around his doughy face, his eyes shining. Right now he seems much more than three years younger than Maurice.

"We'll get home," says Maurice, his hand tensing into his OK sign. "We'll figure something out."

Demetrius speaks up. "Climb the Oscar Mayer fence--you can outrun them fat-ass security guards."

"Nope," says Jalen, dismissing the idea with a contemptuous flick of his head.

"Buster Rufus probably gonna trip and get caught." This looks to be a distinct possibility. Jalen continues. "Go Scott to Wells, Wells up to whatchacallit North Avenue, then go back down Sedgwick. That get you home." He turns away, satisfied.

"That like a hundred miles, Jalen," says Maurice.

Tyrone, the big kid, says they should just walk right past, nobody will mess with them. "I stick out my chest and give them my crazy eyes," he says.

Maurice finally settles on a route of his own devising: east on Scott to Wells, south to Division, and west to his grandma's apartment at 1150-60 Sedgwick. Things are usually quiet there. They can hang out until their mother comes to get them.

"Let's go," Maurice says, peeling his brother's fingers from the fence post.

Just then, Freddie pedals up, moving fast. He throws the bike into a skid and leaps off.

"I seen your bat, Reese--some girl be walkin' with it, there."

Maurice follows Freddie's arm to the basketball court, toward a tall figure in red.

"Come on, man!" Freddie stamps his foot. "Let's get it!"

Maurice looks at Freddie, at the distant girl, then at his brother.

"Nah--I don't care about that bat anyway," he lies softly. "I got lots more of them at home."

The names and identities of the children and their families have been changed. Daniel Coyle has been coaching Little League ball at Cabrini-Green since the summer of 1991. This article is adapted from Coyle's book Hardball, based on the '92 season, and reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of The Putnam Berkley Group, Inc. Copyright 1993 by Daniel Coyle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando; photos/Eric O'Connell.

Add a comment