Kyle Jackson, a first baseman and pitcher for the Howard University Club Baseball Team, steps in to the batting cage. He shores up his grip on the wooden bat before falling into his stance and swinging at the first pitch he sees. Crack! The ball rips into the opposite corner of the netted cage, the sound turning a few heads at Banneker Park.
“That’s a knock,” remarks Quentin Stewart, a graduating senior and center fielder for the HU Club team. Stewart along with team captain Bryce Ellen watch as the club’s president and starting pitcher, Ellis Ryan, throws batting practice to Jackson. Within the hour, the rest of the team arrives one by one, each of them eager to hit some baseballs after a long day of classes and other responsibilities.
It’s a packed house at Banneker on this night. A large fitness group has congregated along the track and a high school baseball contest takes place on the field, momentarily thwarting the club’s practice plans. They joke about playing the kids for rights to the field, but settle on the cage; their offense was a sore spot in last weekend’s series anyways.
Practices are relaxed, but in no way are they sitting around going through the motions. They are not the best ballplayers; most of them did not even play high school ball. Yet they come out here to hone their skills, working on the minutest details because in baseball it is always the little things.
“Swing through the ball.”
“Don’t drag your back foot.”
“It’s supposed to look like you’re chopping wood.”
In a way, these guys are like every other student-athlete. They struggle balancing their studies and practice time, they complain about wind sprints and they build unforgettable friendships on the playing field.
Except they are not like every other student-athlete. They coach themselves, they do not play in front of crowds, they do not harbor major league aspirations and their funding comes out of their own pockets.
And the club prefers playing baseball this way. Last week, they played music during innings and everyone picked walk-up songs. They are a carefree bunch that simply loves everything about the game.
“No matter how many people we have on the field, no matter who’s starting where, everyone’s always having fun,” Ellen said.
Fun is a recurring idea, but it is not the only one the team carries out. While the club enjoys certain freedoms, they have a hard time ignoring the fact that they live in a day and age where African Americans on a baseball diamond is a rare sight. They want to make a difference, and one way of doing that is carrying on the original purpose of the HU Club team: bringing back Howard’s disbanded baseball program.
“If we really try hard enough, win enough games, get enough buzz around the club team, social media, word of mouth, maybe we can get the real team back,” said Stewart, who manages the club’s social media accounts.
Bison Baseball was discontinued in 2002 for what school officials cited as a lack of suitable facilities, according to news reports at the time. (Officials did not respond to phone calls and emails for this article.) Scheduling conflicts at Banneker prevented the team from hosting home games and even practicing, which would sometimes be held on the football field or inside Burr gymnasium. Efforts were made to renovate the field and build a clubhouse, but those plans never transpired.
Some athletes and their parents saw the elimination of baseball as a move to ensure the institution’s Title IX compliance, the federal law that requires gender equity in college athletics. The school denied Title IX had any influence on its decision, but Howard baseball would not be the first program to fall to suspension due to these requirements.
Whatever the case, the Howard Club Baseball team was formed after the loss to keep the sport alive on the hilltop. Howard joined the National Club Baseball Association, an intercollegiate baseball organization that provides a structure for college students to play competitive baseball. Howard’s game schedule includes the University of Maryland, George Mason, Georgetown, Salisbury and American University.
Every year, students wander around campus searching for an organization to join, a place where they can escape their shells and make new friends. A few of them stumble upon this small group of guys who share a love of baseball.
Ellis Ryan, the club president, graduates next month. He played all four years for the club team, becoming a captain his sophomore year and taking on the role of financial adviser his senior year.
“The end goal in the next few years is to get a real team recognized by the NCAA,” Ryan said. “I want to say I was a small part of that.”
Tevin Eurie covers sports for 101Magazine.net.