Just Like Jackie Robinson

By Kenneth Fine
Updated: July 31, 2006

GOLDSBORO, N.C.On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black man in the game’s long history to stand in the batter’s box.

Nearly 60 years later, 125 Goldsboro children sported his name across their chests, as another summer in the Jackie Robinson Baseball League came to an end. Most of the players don’t know much about Robinson — he was good ball player, played in the World Series like they hope to, some said. But Goldsboro Mayor Al King, and the other men who organized the league three years ago, said one day they will understand why his name lives on across jerseys in little leagues throughout the country.

“It’s like with your parents,” King said. “You don’t really appreciate all that they are until you grow older. That’s how it will be for those kids and Jackie. As they grow, they’ll understand just the kind of man he was and why his name will live on.”

When Angelique Phifer, known throughout the league as “Lil’ Mama,” puts on her helmet and walks toward the plate, the boys in the field take a deep breath and shout in unison.

“Back up,” they say. “Keep backing up.”

On Saturday, as the 9-year-old girl dug into the batter’s box with two runners on base, the defense’s reaction was no different.

As the boys crept back, the pitching machine fired a fastball. RBI base hit up the middle.

“I don’t ever strike out,” Angelique said after the game. “I feel so good when (the girls) went out and showed the boys that we can do their stuff too.”

Many parents said Angelique is one of the stars of the league. Her team, the first all-girls squad in the league’s history, was undefeated going into Saturday’s game.

Tech Sgt. Garry Phifer said he was thrilled when he heard his daughter would get the chance to play for an all-girls team. From day one, they had a “swagger about them,” he said.

“When she gets on the field, she thinks she’s the boss,” Phifer said. “But that’s what you want your catcher to be.”

Julius Murphy, 10, is another aspiring catcher in the league. He acknowledged that the girls team had game, but added that he and the other players know now that baseball is about more than winning and losing.

“Baseball makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life,” he said. “I’m not just sitting on my couch eating chips.”

For Julius, learning the fundamentals of America’s pastime and hanging out with friends is the perfect way to spend the hot summer months.

“First, when I came out here, I didn’t know how to swing at all,” he said. “The coaches taught me if you keep your elbow up, you get more power.”

The coaches teach the children other things, too. Upon introduction to a stranger, each of the players looks in your eyes as they shake your hand.

“We’re trying to teach them respect and build their character,” Phifer said. “There is no hot-dogging it out there and none of the kids play with their hats crooked.”

Tyler Warren and his brother Ryan are both in their first year as Jackie Robinson baseball players.

Tyler, 10, said he has gotten the chance to meet new friends and pick up basic skills in the field.

“What I really love about baseball is that I can meet new people,” he said. “I’m going to play it all throughout school. When you’re playing baseball, it seems like school goes by quicker.”

Ryan, 8, agreed with his brother — baseball will likely be a lifelong passion.

“I’ve been playing baseball for five years,” he said. “I love playing and I’m interested in it. I’ll be playing forever.”

Some, though, aren’t necessarily thinking about a career in the big leagues. Darren Applewhite, 9, said he is just out there to play, and is still deciding about next year.

“It’s just fun,” he said. “You get to go and hit the ball.”

The coaches

When a player strikes out in the Jackie Robinson Baseball League, you won’t hear any boos or heavy sighs.

Instead, “good cut,” “keep fighting,” and “next time baby,” are all fans hear from the skipper.

Being the manager of a Jackie Robinson team is about more than teaching baseball, coaches said. For many, nurturing the growth of boys and girls and teaching that effort is more important than victory are more important tasks.

Retired Tech Sgt. Mike Ratliff lights up with every pitch, swing and throw he sees, he said. The joy of coaching and helping mold better people is worth every Saturday he puts into the job.

“Not a Saturday goes by when I don’t have a parent come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for taking the time out of your week to help my child,'” Ratliff said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

As he watched the final few games, he was awestruck by the progress the children had made in baseball — and in life.

“These kids, oh man, they have made progress,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, they were swinging and missing. Now, they’re lining out.”

Coach Phifer nodded his head in agreement and added a few memories of his own.

“We had kids hit the ball and run to third base,” he said. “They would run with the bat and had no idea what they were doing.

“Look at them now.”

Lashonda Barnes knows her team has learned to play — her all-girls squad went undefeated. Still, she is more proud of their accomplishments off the field.

“As far as I know, they are all straight-A students,” she said. “Even though this is summertime, you have to do well in school.”

Her first year in coaching has been “a very rewarding experience,” she said.

“I’m just lost for words,” Mrs. Barnes said. “Every last one of them has a positive attitude.”

Ratliff added sometimes, a coach has to be mentor and friend, too.

One Saturday, he learned that one of his players was afraid to come out to the field because some of the teenagers on his block were picking on him for playing baseball. They made him feel uneasy about having fun, Ratliff said.

“I took him home that day,” he said. “The kids I coach are my kids. These kids are our future. This is why we’re here.”

The history

A few months before their dream of an inner-city baseball league came to fruition three years ago, King and Rooster Narron met to talk baseball.

They talked about the great big league players who came out of Goldsboro and Wayne County — names like Jerry Narron, George Altman, Craig Brown and others. The “tradition of Goldsboro” in the majors had seemingly vanished, Rooster Narron said.

“In the big leagues, there was a tradition of Goldsboro,” he said. “When people said Goldsboro, everybody knew where you were talking about.”

These days, however, most of the big-name athletes from the city and county play other sports, he added.

King said he has followed baseball since his childhood, and in addition to the lack of big-name players from Wayne and Goldsboro in the majors, it seems fewer American blacks are playing the game.

“I was wondering what happened to all the black ball players,” King said. “We sat there all morning talking about baseball and tried to figure out why black kids weren’t playing.”

After a few hours of discussion, he had it figured out. Goldsboro and Wayne no longer supported the sport the way it did football and basketball.

“I know why,” King said. “Basketball and football. If you’ve got one kid with a basketball, you’ve got public goals and you can go play. With football, you’ve got one kid with a football and they can go out and throw the football around and catch it. But with baseball, you need a field, a diamond. You have to have a bat, balls and mitts. Basketball and football took over.”

This was especially true in the inner-city, King added. Children there simply couldn’t afford the equipment or find a place to play organized ball.

Narron agreed.

“When you’re talking about inner-city kids, they may only have one parent,” he said. “And if you’ve got a 6-year-old child and you’re a single parent working two jobs, you might not be able to get them over to the Boys Club.”

So the two men decided to bring the game to the children’s backyard, they said. Narron added the hardest part of organizing the league was already taken care of.

“The toughest part of the whole scenario was already in place,” he said. “We had the (Fairview) fields. Some of them just had to walk across the street to get there.”

Sponsors countywide provided free jerseys, caps, gloves and other equipment. Others donated hot dogs, candy and other concessions.

The league was born, King said. Now, the only remaining task was finding the right person to lead it.

“That was one of the missing links,” he said. “I mean, I knew we could get this thing organized, but I wasn’t going to have the time to lead it. Rooster wasn’t going to have the time. We needed somebody who has got the passion to take this thing and make it happen.”

They found that person in Tech Sgt. Garry Phifer.

“There was some buzz going around about this guy, man,” King said. “Once we talked to him, we knew he was the one.”

The league was a chance to provide inner-city children with something more, King added. And with Phifer as a role-model, he felt confident they would develop a love for the game and passion for life.

“That’s who we targeted, inner-city kids,” he said. “We made it available to any child in the county who wanted to come out, but that’s who we really wanted to target. We wanted to give them something to do that was constructive and fun.”

Narron said he hoped baseball would bring families together, too.

“Back when we were young, these baseball players had two parents that supported them,” he said. “Whether they were black or white. Now, we’ve had a deterioration in our society and, as it happens, in the inner city. Those kids have lost contact with that support. Part of this game is getting parents who might not be very involved with their kids involved.”

More than 80 children formed the teams in the league’s inaugural year, Phifer said. It was obvious that the game was new to them, but that’s what made it fun, King added.

“The kids would stand up there the first year and they didn’t know which end of the bat to hold,” he said. “They didn’t know which side of the plate to stand on. When they would hit the ball, they didn’t know where to run. They’d go to third base, to the pitcher’s mound, anywhere. At the end of the season, to see the progress those kids had made in just one year, it was mind boggling.”

Now in its third year under Phifer’s leadership, the league has grown to 125.

Narron said he hopes that an earlier start in baseball will bring the tradition of Goldsboro back to the bigs.

“If you’ve got 200 kids playing that are real young, by the time they get to middle school and high school, maybe we’ll have 20 to 25 baseball players,” he said. “Some of these kids have got the talent.”

Unlike basketball, football and other sports, baseball is a game the better players learn at a young age, Narron added.

“It’s like driving a car,” he said. “If you start out when you’re a kid, driving the tractor around and then the farm truck, by the time you’re 16, you’ve already been driving since you were 12. That’s the way the game is. The earlier you start, the better you’ll grow up to be.”

Looking toward next season

As the games ended, trophies were handed out and the crowds dissipated, marking the end of another season of Jackie Robinson baseball.

King said it’s clear that this program is helping lure black ball players back to the game, molding better human beings all the while.

“There’s no question, the community is the winner here,” he said.