Thursday, May 30, 2013

Prep Report: Serra HS Baseball Playing for (and Chasing) History

Serra High School here in Gardena is an athletic powerhouse. You might have heard of a few football guys who went there. Marqise Lee, the No. 1 college WR in the country, and NFL rookie-to-be Robert Woods. One of the top female track-and-field athletes in the country, UCLA's Turquoise Thompson, also spent her senior year at Serra, where her mother is the head track-and-field coach.

Their football team remains one of the best in Southern California and their 2013 squad will be one of the favorites to win state. Their basketball team is one of the better small schools in Southern California and their boys and girls track program ranks among the best in the state and nation.

Just this school year, they've won state titles in football and girls' basketball. Their track team heads north to the state track-and-field meet this weekend as the favorites to win several events and the boys' team title.

But also this weekend, another Serra team is poised to win a division championship. Their baseball heads to Dodger Stadium on Friday for the chance to win the program's first CIF title. Yet, they're also playing for much more than just that. They're perhaps the first predominantly Black team to be this close to a CIF title in three decades, although that has not been confirmed.

Darryl Strawberry went to Crenshaw and Eric Davis went to Fremont. Both had outstanding careers in the 1980's and briefly played together for the Dodgers in the early 90's. Both have continued to be active in the Los Angeles baseball community and at youth events.
Chris Brown was on the 1979 Crenshaw team with Darryl Strawberry and by several accounts, including Strawberry in his autobiography, he was the best player on one of the most talented teams in California prep history. He tragically died in 2006 in a mysterious fire.
Much has been said about baseball losing its prominence in the inner city. The history of Black baseball in Los Angeles is rich with players such as All-Stars Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry, Chris Brown and Eric Davis. Coco Crisp and Twins centerfielder Aaron Hicks are recent players carrying on tradition from Los Angeles.

But over the last two decades, baseball has dried up and as the demographics have changed, Black baseball players have grown rarer. Most inner city baseball teams and most teams in LA Unified in general are Latino. Basketball, football and soccer have replaced baseball as the most popular sport here.
Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith both attended Locke High School. A mentor of mine played with them both in Locke. and used to tell me stories in college about how great they were. Locke is one of the few schools in the country that can boast of having multiple Hall of Famers who were also teammates.
When I was at the LA Sentinel, I got to know coaches and players in RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) and the Urban Youth Academy. I saw former All-State player Chris Smith, who tore it up at Compton Centennial and was later drafted by the Yankees. I got to know Gerald Pickens, a man who has been a huge influence in teaching and coaching the game since 1973 and has worked with hundreds of kids both famous and not so famous to pass his wisdom and impact their lives.

Best of all I learned about Crenshaw High School's baseball tradition. They're known for it's basketball and football teams but in 1979 and 1980, they were a dominant baseball program that reached two LA City Section finals.

The 79 team, led by Strawberry and Brown, was insanely talented and had nine players get drafted but lost to Granada Hills and John Elway, who was as good in baseball as he was in football then. Those teams were the last from the inner-city to reach the City Finals. With that in mind, I had to see Serra as they got close to this goal in the Southern Section.

Serra standout Dominic Smith, shown here in 2012, is the captain of a well-oiled machine that's playing in the CIF Division III championship Friday against Mira Costa (Photo by Jason Lewis/Los Angeles Sentinel)
I mainly wanted to see Dominic Smith, who I first met in 2010 and could possibly be a 1st-round pick in the MLB Draft. I came away not just impressed with Smith on the mound as a solid lefty (6 IP, 6 K's, 4 BB, 5 hits, 2 runs) but impressed with the steady bat of Trent Hammond, the speed of Denz'l Chapman and the poise/gifts of sophomore phenom Solomon Bates, who throws hard and pitched 5 shutout innings to send Serra to the finals.

Serra has plenty of balance and they're disciplined at the plate and in the field. They don't make too many mistakes and they're as fundamentally sound as any team around. All that credit should go to head coach Wilmer Aaron.

I met Aaron first in 2007 at a banquet for RBI - Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities. He was passionate, fiery and a teacher of the game who spoke on how much time he spent with the kids he worked with. I was a bit intimidated as a young reporter but looking back, it was endearing to see somebody so passionate about teaching the game and showing folks that Black kids still want to play baseball.

Aaron - the cousin of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron - later got the job at Serra and he called me up in 2010 to tell me about this freshman who just won a batting title and was a star in the making. That's where I met Smith and I told Aaron that I couldn't wait to see him develop but also to see where the program would be.

Three years later, Serra's grown into a rising program that's poised to remain great after Smith/Hammond graduate. Aaron has changed the culture and those kids are creating an identity that will last far after them. Should they win on Friday, it will mean more than just another championship on their mantle.

At Serra's game, I saw old friends in the Black baseball community I hadn't seen in years. My colleague Forrest Lee pointed out that Eric Davis was also in attendance. It was refreshing to see so many Black faces at a baseball game because even at Dodger Stadium, you won't see that often in Los Angeles.

It's a reminder that the Cavaliers are playing for more than just their school's first CIF title, but for a baseball community that has been ignored but not forgotten. It's given hope that baseball can and has thrived beneath the San Fernando Valley and north of San Pedro/Carson/Orange County. So while my eyes will be on the state track meet this weekend, I'll also be paying attention to what Serra does at Chavez Ravine.

Aaron told me last week that if you just give him kids who want to play, he'll develop them. Don't look now, but he's developing more than just players. Win or lose Friday, he's added another notch into Serra's already strong athletic powerhouse.

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