by Marcus Harrison Green
A new coach is bringing renewed hope to Rainier Beach High School’s baseball team, and it has little to do with victory tallies.
“I don’t care about our win/loss record. I care that these kids graduate, and go on to a career,” says first-year coach Gerald Smiley.
Smiley, who graduated from Rainier Beach in 2002, is calling on the South Seattle community to assist him in making sure his kids go on to productive futures by supporting them in the present.
On Tuesday, the South End native initiated a GoFundMe campaign so the team can purchase uniforms, balls, bats, warm-up jackets, gloves, and cleats, after the team’s current equipment and weight room were recently rated the worst and most unsafe in the Seattle School District by a company specializing in equipment evaluation.
The team, which receives neither funding from the district nor benefits from an affluent Parent Teacher Association, started this year with a budget totaling zero.
For the 34-year-old Smiley, who played baseball for the Vikings, the scenario was all too familiar.
“When I played here we didn’t have anything. We wore the same uniforms year in, and year out,” Smiley says while on his way to deliver clothes to a homeless shelter with some of his players.
The former Texas Ranger, who spent five seasons with the team, says he returned to his high school alma mater after his two eldest daughters asked him to return to Seattle to help prepare them for their own athletic careers.
Smiley walked away from his ambition of running a high-end athletic training facility in Texas, along with several investors eager to fund the former professional ballplayer’s business venture.
“Coming back has really been a blessing. Rainier Beach had been trying to get me to come back for the last 5 years to coach, but the timing was right at this point,” says Smiley, who adds that after coaching college baseball and serving as a scout for major league teams the time was finally right to return to his former high school.
“I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten,” says Smiley about the opportunities afforded some of the youth in the area, though he could easily be talking about Rainier Beach High’s performance on the field. The team has won only 5 games over the last decade while losing 150.
He attributes that to a long-time trend of baseball mimicking tennis, a sport requiring expensive personal coaching and access to training facilities often barren from inner-cities, resulting in the exclusion of children of modest means. Something he says has led to dwindling numbers of African-Americans in Major League Baseball. Nearly one-fifth of the league was Black in 1986. Today, they make up just 8 percent of players.
“Baseball’s become a sickening business. I remember when all you had to do was pay $30 and go play, now you need hitting coaches and expensive equipment,” he laments.
Smiley shares that while the top-tier black high-school baseball players get picked up by college powerhouses like Vanderbilt and UCLA, there are so many more high-schoolers who could be college bound via scholarships if given the opportunities to develop their skills at the high school level.
However, the coach, who has developed a mobile baseball coaching app for kids, doesn’t entirely lay the blame at the feet of circumstance.
“We need to stop blaming other people, and look at ourselves in the mirror, and start making a change,” he says.
“Our young brothers and sisters can do anything they want to do. They’re getting brainwashed by social media. We can’t have our kids watching YouTube videos of people getting beat up, instead of using those resources to expand our learning.”
A perception shift of the area is also essential, according to Smiley, which is why he is having his team participate in neighborhood cleanups and clothing drives.
“We’re all in this together. We need to reach out and touch all our kids. We really need the media to change the perception about us here. If something happens in Othello, the media says it was in Rainier Beach,” he says, adding that people still associate him with the term “thug” when he shares he graduated from Rainier Beach High.
Smiley, who is an organizer with the Laborers International Labor Union in his day job, says it will take an effort by the entire community to help provide additional opportunities for local youth, and deter negative pitfalls. He has already reached out to coaches at Cleveland and Garfield High Schools to forge positive alliances for his athletes and wants to organize the community members as a constant support system for youth in the area.
The momentum appears on his side. His campaign has already raised nearly $10,000 of its $27,000 goal in the past 4 days.
“Kids need to have a good coach that believes in them, supports them, and shows them that they care about them,” asserts Smiley.
It seems Rainier Beach High has hit a home run.
Donations to the Rainier Beach High School Baseball Team’s GoFundMe campaign can be made here.
Marcus Harrison Green is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, and a past recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in Rainier Beach and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image courtesy of Rainier Beach High School