The students call the building "The Clubhouse," and just through its doors at Alpha Middle School in Elverta, there is a life-size wall poster of 2005 National League batting champion and two-time All-Star infielder Derrek Lee of Sacramento. On the opposite wall is a poster of two-time All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A row of lockers is on the wall next to Lee's poster, and buckets of balls are everywhere.
One wall features a 4-foot baseball cutout emblazoned with the autograph of former major leaguer and Cordova High School star Jerry Manuel, which is appropriate since this is the new home of the Jerry Manuel Foundation.
The foundation partnered with the Elverta Joint Elementary School District to reopen Alpha Middle School as a charter school with a huge dose of baseball.
The foundation's mission is to educate African American boys and girls, with opportunities in the classroom, on the field and in the community. And the philosophy is to use education, character development and baseball skills training to increase the number of African American men and women in leadership roles and to reignite a passion for baseball.
Manuel said one goal is to increase the number of African Americans playing baseball, which is at a 30-year low.
"There is an issue at the major-league level with the number of African Americans dropping dramatically. When I played, there were 27 percent African Americans. Now there is only 8 percent," said Manuel, 59, the 2000 American League Manager of the Year with the Chicago White Sox. "What's worse is we haven't had a player that transcends the game of baseball like LeBron James does for the NBA."
Manuel is aware the breakdown starts at the lowest levels of the game.
"Education is critical to the foundation of our program, and teaching the proper fundamentals of how to learn, study and become good students is imperative," Manuel said. "It's even more imperative that we get these young people at a very impressionable age. That's a very tricky age. We need to get to them early from a baseball standpoint. If you pick up baseball when you are a sophomore in high school, it's too late."
Manuel has another reason to combine baseball and education.
"There are way too many of our young men in criminal institutions rather than college institutions," Manuel said. "The carrot to our program is baseball, but it will be the students' work in the classroom that gets them on the field. It would be great if they can learn physics and relate it to baseball."
Many students already have participated in the partnership between the foundation and the school district, according to Dr. Michael Borgaard, the district's superintendent. He said 50 percent of Alpha Middle School's 120 students and 60 percent of the foundation's students made the honor roll this year.
The number of enrollments in the program is slowly climbing, with baseball as a lure.
"I didn't think I had a chance in baseball," Addae Hanson, 13, said. "JMF has given me confidence by taking everything step by step."
JERRY MANUEL CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
No. 1 draft pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1972
Played for Detroit, Montreal and San Diego, 1975-76, 1980-82
Bench coach for the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins
Managed the Chicago White Sox, 1998-2003
American League Manager of the Year, 2000
Managed the New York Mets, 2008-2010
Won 704 games as a major-league manager
Currently a studio analyst for MLB Network
Mark McDermott is a freelance writer specializing in Sacramento-area baseball. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.