MJBL Event Is Moving To North Carolina

By Tom Keller
Updated: September 16, 2008

baseballs GREENSBORO — “Look in your mother’s eyes when she’s trying to figure out how to pay rent, and tell her you want to buy a $130 pair of cleats,” a baseball coach once told me. “Son, we can’t eat it.”

This is the state of America’s pastime, an expensive sport whose price tag is growing each inning and keeping more disadvantaged youth out of the lineup.

Greensboro will soon be the epicenter of an effort to change that. The city will host the annual Inner City Baseball Classic, a national tournament that brought in more than 1,000 players, coaches and scouts this year.

“We do feel this week that we’re tipping off something big,” said Ken Free, the former MEAC commissioner who serves on the board for the Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department and the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League. “It’s been rewarding.”

William Forrester is executive director of the MJBL, a 42-year-old nonprofit that promotes baseball to inner-city kids. The group’s signature event is the Inner City Baseball Classic, which features a symposium on minority issues in the sport.

Derrick Johnson is head baseball coach at Smith High. He helped three local teams attend for the first time this year in Columbia, S.C. Two of them won the national championship in their age bracket.

Johnson wanted more. He wanted to move the tournament to Greensboro, and he wanted it bad. He told Forrester as much at every turn. They met each night of the tournament, Johnson’s sales pitch stretching two, three, four hours into the morning.

When bids came from five other cities, including Atlanta, Johnson called Forrester to remind him of the sporting events Greensboro has run successfully. The ACC basketball tournaments. The Palomino World Series. The Wyndham Championship.

“That’s y’all’s golf tournament?” asked Forrester, watching it on TV at that moment. “Man.”

“If you really want this thing to grow and become the tournament you envisioned,” Johnson told Forrester, “you need to bring it to Greensboro.”

The tournament, which will span five days in August, will feature games at Stoner-White Stadium, Barber Park, Carolyn Allen Community Park and War Memorial Stadium. And the economic impact of the event could be significant.

“Any time you bring visitors to the city, other things spin off that,” said Marc Bush, president of the Greensboro Sports Commission.

There are some who don’t understand the mission of the event. After we ran a story in late July about the Greensboro teams going to play in Columbia, I got more than one agitated voicemail — all anonymous — wondering if we’d have given the same coverage to a White World Series.

That attitude misses the point. The economic realities of the game are unavoidable. AAU and travel ball are the destination for high-end players, and they carry thousand-dollar price tags that squeeze out the poor.

In this country, that usually means the non-white. And if those kids don’t have a place to play, they’re more likely to lose interest in the sport and start considering more dangerous alternatives.

That’s why Johnson, now the MJBL commissioner for the state, doesn’t dream of this tournament as a breeding ground for pros. He just wants a field of equality, a place where kids who want to play the game can do so without putting their families in debt.

“You can the blame the white man. You can cry over spilt milk. Not me,” Johnson said. “You can’t wait on somebody to hand you something.”