On Martin Luther King weekend, and every other day of the year, Jerry Manuel is living King’s credo of measuring others by the content of their character.
It doesn’t matter if they have no money, no father, no transportation and no prospects beyond crime or poverty. Manuel is transporting kids from inner-city Sacramento to rural Elverta, where they attend a charter school made possible by his foundation – and where they play baseball on a field of dreams carved out of untended farmland.
“The grass was this high,” said Manuel, holding his hand just below his chin. “We’ve done a lot of work.”
Manuel should be managing a major league baseball team and that he isn’t speaks to baseball’s persistent lack of African Americans in key positions of authority. So instead, Manuel – one of Sacramento’s top prep athletes ever – is channeling gifts spurned by baseball to mentor young men who need him. With the help of his family and some famous friends, Manuel identified enough kids to start the Alpha Charter School on a patch of land a good 30-minute drive north from central Sacramento.
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Sixty kids assisted by the Jerry Manuel Foundation encouraged the Elverta Joint Elementary School District to open Alpha Charter, sharing a weathered building with Alpha Middle School. Sixth, seventh and eight grades in the middle school are co-ed, while the ninth-grade students in Manuel’s charter school all are boys.
By the time you’re within a mile or two of the campus on Elwyn Avenue, it’s all farm plots and rural homes on large spreads. It’s out there – way out there.
“Where is this?” Dusty Baker asked himself as he traveled last week to speak to Manuel’s kids as they practiced on a baseball diamond made possible by a lot of compassion and fundraising.
Baker, one of Sacramento’s most famous personalities, was there at Manuel’s urging – an African American role model for kids who need one.
Baker and Manuel go back decades to the old days of Sacramento baseball. Their friendship is of baseball but transcends baseball – just as Manuel’s charter school is about using the discipline and craft of the game as a vehicle to mold good citizens and good students.
Both men could feel aggrieved by an often-cruel sport. Both lost their last managing jobs when they shouldn’t have – and have received no offers since. Manuel was let go by the New York Mets in 2010. Baker lost his job as Cincinnati Reds manager a few months ago.
“Jerry should be in the game,” Baker said by phone last week. “He hasn’t had any callbacks. I haven’t had any callbacks. If you look at things in baseball, things are actually looking worse on a minority front.”
As I spoke with Manuel last week about his work with young people, what might have been a bitter story wasn’t. The Mets were a franchise whose finances were plundered by convicted financier Bernie Madoff. An articulate man, Manuel tried to instill leadership in an organization that was falling apart on and off the field. He was a straight shooter in an organization of crooked arrows.
But he recounted those years without rancor. He had no time: boys needing his attention right now interrupted each story of his baseball past.
When he met their gazes and spoke their names, their smiles of affirmation were unmistakable.
“These are the kids that we get: single-parent families, father incarcerated,” Manuel said. “I got into this to help, but I didn’t realize the degree to which it was needed … I still have the aspiration to be in baseball, but I wasn’t going to sit around and wait. I have to do what I have to do to help – to prepare the next generation to play and to be men.”
At Alpha Charter, Manuel’s players go to school together and practice playing ball after school. They dress in a baseball clubhouse set up by Manuel’s wife, Renette – also a major fundraiser for the foundation. The players are coached by Manuel’s son Anthony, among others.
Manuel is hoping to be able to afford enough kids to extend his charter beyond just ninth grade.
He’d like to “have them from sixth grade to 12th grade,” Manuel said. “But our biggest need is transportation. That’s our stumbling block.”
Manuel is raising money to provide transportation to and from Alpha Charter – so that more kids from Oak Park, Del Paso Heights, Elk Grove, wherever – could learn and play ball in the school sanctuary created by an out-of-work baseball lifer.
On Feb. 1, Manuel’s foundation will host a dinner to honor Baker – and to raise money for transportation and equipment. The event will be held at William Jessup University, the Christian college in Rocklin. Just last week, Jessup announced it was starting its first-ever baseball program with Manuel’s help.
Maybe someday Manuel’s young men will be educated at Jessup? Maybe the desolate country road leading to Manuel’s ballpark will become clogged with boys beating a path to a better future? Maybe, if MLB never calls Manuel again, his work at Alpha will create a legacy that outlasts any triumphs at the big league level?
“What Jerry is doing is motivating me to stay the course and do the right thing,” Baker said. It’s what MLK lived – daring to dream of a better world and doing something about it.
(For more information about Manuel’s fundraiser, call (916) 577-2364.)