Marcos Bretón

Where is the next generation of black baseball players? Right here

Jerry Manuel is baseball royalty in Sacramento. He is a key link in a proud lineage of locally grown men who left home and reached the major leagues.

A legend at Cordova High School in the early 1970s, Manuel amassed three career home runs in parts of five big league seasons as a player, and that means that Manuel has three more homers in the majors than I, or you and 99.9 percent of the population.

Now 65, Manuel finished playing in 1982 but he held on to a bigger dream. He was determined to be a pioneer as an African American manager. Major League Baseball had only one black manager in Manuel’s last big league season of 1982, the late Frank Robinson. It had only one black manager in baseball last season, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This season, it will again only have one, Roberts.

In the years in between, only a handful of black men were allotted mostly tenuous opportunities on mostly bad big league teams. One of these few was Manuel, who was a winner as the Chicago White Sox manager. He was voted American League manager of the year in 2000.

But he soon lost that job in a management shuffle. Manuel inherited a bad New York Mets team in 2008, but he had them going in the right direction by 2010. But again, Manuel had his opportunity taken away from him. He was dismissed after the 2010 season and that was it. The doors of opportunity closed for cerebral man who still had much to give but had no outlet to give it, to pursue his life’s work.

Opinion

At that point, this could have become an angry, bitter story because baseball had told black men like Manuel for years that they needed more experience before they could be trusted to run a major league team. Only now, with Manuel still on the outside looking in, teams routinely hire men – almost exclusively white men – for plum jobs, without any experience. The data geeks who now run baseball organizations in the age of analytics have proved to be as disdainful of diversity as their “good ol’ boy” predecessors.

More than 70 years have passed since Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in the big leagues and yet the same plantation collusion that kept black players out of the game before Robinson now excludes men like Manuel from positions of authority within a multi-billion dollar industry.

To his everlasting credit, Manuel decided that if he weren’t going to be given an opportunity in baseball, he would create one. He would come up with his own way to develop young black men to play the game that has been abandoned by recent generations of them.

He recently talked about it, sitting in an classroom at Alpha Charter School in Elverta, next to his partner in baseball, his youngest son Anthony, 36. Artwork of the greatest African American ballplayers in the history of the game adorn the classroom’s walls.

“My generation failed to bring (African American) kids into the game, “ Manuel said.

The short answer of what Manuel decided to do was this: He began working to bring African American kids back to baseball. At first, it was as simple as acquiring bats and gloves. But he soon realized that equipment alone wasn’t the answer. So he acquired baseball fields out in the county north of Sacramento, here in Elverta, where his recruits could properly practice and work.

But even that wasn’t enough.

He was dismayed that while African Americans made up nearly 20 percent of big league rosters when he quit playing in 1982, that the number had dropped to 8 percent in 2018.

Manuel realized, when he stopped managing after the 2010 season, that youth baseball had become a pay-to-play franchise where affluence meant opportunities. If families had money, kids played ball. They played with teams that traveled, or attended baseball camps costing as much as $30,000 per kid.

The more time Manuel and his son Anthony spent with kids from Del Paso Heights and Oak Park and Meadowview, the more they realized the need was much greater than simple equipment and a place to play.

“So many of our families are single parent households,” Jerry Manuel said.

The Manuels saw clearly that black kids weren’t just being priced out of baseball. They weren’t just matriculating into the basketball and football because those sports resonated more with African American kids

The skill sets unique to baseball – hitting, pitching, base running and defense – required intensive repetition in the formative years.

Manuel simply needed more time with kids to make an impact, and occasional workouts wouldn’t do.

So the Jerry Manuel Foundation started a charter school in 2013 in the Elverta Joint School Elementary District – a specialized high school charter where the focus was baseball. Charters are controversial in public school politics. But this one shouldn’t be because it is specialized enough so that it is not the threat to public schools teacher unions perceive other charter schools to be.

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Josh Gooding hits fly balls to other student athletes during lunch hour at Alpha Charter School on Wednesday, August 29, 2018. José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Manuel’s aim wasn’t to escape public schools. His aim was to teach African American kids baseball in a setting where the kids would focus on baseball and academics in a secluded environment. He only has 54 kids at his school.

It was just accredited last year, Anthony Manuel said. The Alpha Charter baseball team just joined a tiny Division 7 baseball league last year. It plays against mostly far-flung Christian schools, even though Manuel’s school is non-denominational.

The Alpha Angels were co-champions of the Sacramento Metropolitan Athletic League last season. Then they reached the finals of the Division 7 Sac-Joaquin Section baseball championships. The Angels faced Big Valley Christian of Modesto in the finals. They won 9-5.

They were led by Ronnie Belton, 17, a Del Paso Heights kid whom Jerry Manuel first spotted when the kid was 12.

“I was searching different areas,” he said.

A 6-foot-1 power hitter, Belton became the player who most embodied Manuel’s dream of reversing the exodus of black men from baseball.

“He wasn’t the best player but he had a desire to be the best player,” Anthony Manuel said. “Every day he’s been trying to get as much information as possible. Watching his talent come to fruition has been a beautiful thing.”

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Ronnie Belton has lived through periods of being homeless and living away from his family in his young life. Through Jerry Manuel’s program at the Alpha Charter School, he has found purpose and the desire to succeed. Friday, January 25, 2019. Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Last season, as junior, Belton hit .364 and was among his league’s leaders in home runs and RBI. This is a young man who didn’t have the knowledge of the game when Jerry Manuel first met him.

“He was just a little chubby kid, kind of lackadaisical,” Manuel said. “But there was something about him.”

Belton said his dad hasn’t been in the picture, and he doesn’t speak of him much. He said sometimes he has been near homelesness. He splits time with his six siblings in a two-bedroom house in Del Paso Heights – and with a godfather in Roseville.

At Alpha Charter, Ronnie is dreaming of playing college baseball.

“I want to go where I’m gong to get my time to shine, “ said Belton.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to the places where I’ve been without this man,” Belton said pointing to the elder Manuel. “I can honestly say this man saved my life.”

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Ronnie Bolton fields ground balls after school on Wednesday, August 29, 2018. Jose Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Belton’s senior season at Alpha is about to begin, as the team plays its schedule from late February to May. The time spent with Belton and his teammates changed the goal the Manuels thought they would have for their baseball. If Belton or some of the other kids reached the big leagues, that would be thrilling.

But the Manuels have their hearts and minds set on a more meaningful goal.

“We have the ability to teach the baseball as long as the sun is shining,” Jerry Manuel said.

“What I want is for our model here to be the paradigm in other places,” he said. “I want the the schools in the south and in other places to you use our model to bring African American kids back into the game. And if I can change one life, I’ll be happy. If one of our kids gets his college degree and then goes back to the inner city to make a change, to be a mentor, to change the narrative in his community, then we will have succeeded.”

“It’s not just about getting a feather in our cap,” he said. “It’s not about baseball being the end of whatever. It’s about teaching kids something and witnessing their ‘a ha!’ moment...

“You asked me about if I was bitter about being out of baseball? No. This fills the void for me.”

Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.
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