Harvard Park, at 62nd and Denker in South Central L.A., was nothing but a giant quagmire Friday afternoon after the recent rains.
The four all-dirt diamonds pointed at each other from each corner of the park were under water. Yet, there was a pick-up soccer game taking place on the common outfield grass area.
That’s the kind of things that baffles Eric Davis .
“It’s a ghost town (for baseball), but not for soccer,” says Davis (right). “It’s depressing.”
Davis and his Little League friend, Darryl Strawberry, would come back to this place every January between 1982 and 1994, during the prime years of their careers with the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets.
Davis, from Fremont High, and Strawberry, the No. 1 overall pick out of Crenshaw, joined the late Chris Brown, then with the San Francisco Giants via Crenshaw, to start what they would call “The Program.”
It was more than just an off-season conditioning routine. They mentored up-and-coming local talent like Royce Clayton, Rodney McCray and DeJon Watson (now the Dodgers’ assistant GM). They bonded with teammates like Barry Larkin, David Justice and Frank Thomas. They gave back to the community that’s known more as the home turf of the Harvard Park Brims, a Bloods gang with the Crips on all four sides.
Davis and Strawberry needed these visits to stay connected to their roots — even during the time in the early ’90s when the found themselves in the same Dodgers outfield together for a couple of seasons.
The two serve as executive producers and the co-narrators of a new documentary, “Harvard Park,” which debuts Sunday on BET (11 a.m.) and the Centric channel (8 p.m.), and will be available Monday for download on iTunes and Netflix.
Davis, 49 and living in Calabasas, and the just-turned-50 Strawberry, from his home in St. Louis, talked about the story of their trip back to this innercity “Field of Dreams” came together on the day that Major League Baseball sets aside for its annual Jackie Robinson Day celebration:
QUESTION: Do you get a chance to go back to Harvard Park much today, to have a sense of what it looks like and feels like and how much it’s changed since you guys were there?
DAVIS: I don’t get down there as much because of the fact that I am the Special Assistant to the General Manager with Cincinnati, so I’m in and out a lot during baseball season.
Not just Harvard Park, but Sportsman Park (now called Jessie Owens Park on Western), South Park (near 51st and Avalon), Baldwin Hills, Rancho Cienega — a lot of inner city parks that were, as I want to call it, glorifiable baseball monuments in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, (but now) they’re all used for other different things.
The reason you have a baseball field is to play baseball, not soccer or anything of that nature. To see how that has transpired over the years is very difficult to watch.
Now, in South Central, we have a huge Latino population and (soccer) is their sport of choice. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems like as a society we always gravitate to others more than we gravitate to what America is about. And I know that America is the land of opportunity and we built on that reputation, but somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten away from what we’re all about.
We’re good at helping others, rightfully, so we’re the most powerful nation in the world. But contrary to demand is that we take our own nation for granted, that it will always be a certain way and that’s not the case. Go back down to South Central and see … history has been tainted on what inner city baseball was like in Los Angeles. There never has been a city that has produced more major leaguers than Los Angeles. But there’s no monuments, no history that’s been told. This is the baseball capital of America. If you don’t get the history, how are you going to learn?
We’re in a ‘look’ society now. (People) have to see everything in order to believe it. With the media that we have today, if you don’t see it, you don’t believe it. We’ve dropped the ball on what our history was in Los Angeles with baseball. And we have to get back to that or it’s just going to get worse.
STRAWBERRY: Right, that’s a good point Eric. . . . When you get an opportunity watch the documentary, you’ll see the lives of players who came to interact and their lives that were touched and affected by it.
I think more than anything we’re just probably grateful that we’re still alive, that we have a chance to tell . . . what the inner cities were really like back in those days when we were playing baseball, growing up or playing Little League. There were African American players all over.
Southern California had so many leagues and so many different players that had an opportunity to make it. (Some) really took it serious and ran with it. And I think of me and Eric and Chris, (but) there were guys like Eddie (Murray), Ozzie (Smith), Chili (Davis) Hubie (Brooks). Our stigma behind them was a different one. We created something that was right there in our own backyard, our love and passion and understanding of representing what Harvard Park meant to us, and what the inner city meant to us. It was a community of hope . . . Even if their day was going bad and they were struggling, they would pull up to the park and come over and talk to me and Eric and it would just bring a smile to their face, whatever the circumstances were at that particular time.
We weren’t doing it (because) we felt like we were important. We just felt part of this and we wanted to develop this . . . so everybody could have an opportunity.
The greatest thing about being at Harvard Park were the fun memories that I’ll always cherish. There were some characters who came out there, you wouldn’t imagine. Riding bikes to get there, it was just all kinds of personalities from all walks of life that came out to Harvard Park just to be a part of it.
Q: You two know about the impact of Jackie Robinson, having grown up in L.A. and playing for the Dodgers. What does he mean to you today, and is there any disconnect that you feel Jackie Robinson has with any of today’s players?
STRAWBERRY: There was no Darryl Strawberry if it wasn’t for Jackie. If he hadn’t crossed that line and been able to take the negative criticism and the racial slurs and all the things — no handshakes, no one wanted to be his friend, probably had to be alone every night in separate places when they traveled because of the color of his skin — players of every color should know the real history.
(Today’s players) shouldn’t just run out there and think they’re entitled to wear that uniform. I don’t think anyone’s told them the history: There’s someone who came way before you, (who) opened the door for every player. He’s the reason why your paycheck is the way it is today.
I was always grateful for the fact (he and) his wonderful wife Rachel had to endure so much negative criticism. I couldn’t have bared it, I don’t think it. I don’t think I’d have wanted to bear what he had to go through.
DAVIS: It’s probably the highest honor that our documentary could have received, having it aired on (Jackie Robinson Day).
Every player that came after Jackie, there’s a part of Jackie that’s in them, and it should always be there. What bothers me is that it’s not mentioned enough. Two weeks before (April 15), a week after – and that’s all we get? It’s almost like it’s pinpointed to special occasions on where we represent what Jackie is all about and what he stood for and what he and his family endured.
DAVIS: I couldn’t start to even fathom what it was like (for Robinson). I got a small dose of racism when I came in, in the early ’80s. (And) Jackie probably wasn’t the greatest Negro League player (at the time) but he was probably the best suited for what he was about to endure at that particular time, mentally beyond his years.
When Branch Rickey chose Jackie, it wasn’t (just for that) moment, it was for days like now in 2012, where blacks and guys from Latin America have opportunity because of the color of their skin. I’m so grateful that it was able to come to that point and that particular day.
Q: What does all that say about the current inner-city programs that the MLB has set up to try to recruit more African-American players?
DAVIS: I know what MLB has done with the Urban Youth Academy (linked here), which doesn’t have the name of RBI – which stands for Revising Baseball in the Innercity, but I just don’t see that. It’s not to say it’s not a viable entity, but I can recall when John Young came to Darryl and myself in 1989, his main objectives were to revise baseball in inner-cities around the country. But for that to have happened 20 some odd years ago, and for us to sit here and talk about where it is in conjunction with where it should be, it’s depressing. It’s hurtful.
There’s not a lot of attention paid to RBI as long as it’s been in existence. I don’t see the growth. I don’t see where it’s headed in terms of where it should have been by this time,. Are there people working night and day behind RBI? Absolutely. I’ve been a part of RBI for a long time. But, honestly, it’s not being taken care of financially the way that it should be. . . . We’re not taking the initiative to make sure that it’s operable financially. It bothers me and when you don’t have that. Then you’re going to have a demise in blacks playing the game, and that’s why we’re in the state that we’re in.
STRAWBERRY: Right, and the reality of it, I haven’t seen it. I know it’s around, but I haven’t seen it developed in the inner cities. … I’m not involved with baseball anymore, but I know they have academies all over in Latin American countries . . .
DAVIS: Every Major League team does . . ..
STRAWBERRY: (But) they don’t build academies in America, and it just blows my mind. You might have forgot America’s players were the best in the game when we were playing. That’s not the case anymore. I have a lot of respect (for Latin American players) because they’re just like us – they’re hungry and they want to win. That’s what it’s all about. But I’m just saying: Where is our academy here? They do it in AAU basketball — both of my sons grew up playing AAU. I just wonder what has happened over here in America for our (baseball) players, black and white American players, (giving them) the same chance and opportunity of getting to the major leagues.
Q: Do you think your documentary can spark more on that discussion?
STRAWBERRY: Well, we hope so. I hope it has a tremendous effect on (the) people who run these organizations, (to) look at what these guys are all about. Can you imagine if we can get our young American players today to come back together like this (program) and what can come out of it?
I mean, look at some of the players that came through (Harvard Park). . . . That’s the same thing that can transpire here in America for these kids here. If these kids had a chance — the same thing can be taught to them, this is how it works, you know former major league players that want to be involved, here is how you grab a bat, here this is how you run the bases, this is how throw the ball – it’s about teaching. That’s what it was all about for us.
(Note: In a conference call open to the media with Strawberry and Davis, the following questions and answers also came to be discussed):
Q: What was the genesis to make this film? And do ever think we’ll see the level of African Americans back in baseball the way we did when you guys were coming up playing?
DAVIS: This was something that we lived, first and foremost. We didn’t set out initially to do a documentary but I think as time has progressed and the demise of the black player in Major League Baseball, as well as minor league baseball, through opportunities of scouting and so forth, it seemed to me hit an all-time low. I think the timing was perfect for us to move forward on this project.
(As for the other question), there is a problem and not from the media, but from former players, because when we do talk about it, it’s normally talked about sparingly. . . . I hope that (African American players) come back, how fast it will come back depends on the ex-players (and) the current players in Major League Baseball.
How committed and how upset that we are that there is not the (number) of black players that it used to be (needs to focus) on the reasons why. And to me, (it is that) as black men, we have failed. Because any male that has been introduced to baseball (were done so by) your father, your grandfather, your uncle or someone of that nature. It’s probably 99 percent correct that (a male is who) introduces you to baseball. And because of the single families that we have with our black women today, it’s not just in their DNA to talk baseball. And so until we become Godfathers to our kids as a whole, it’s going to continue to suffer and I think that, by us doing this documentary, it will create the awareness.
When we were coming up, if you didn’t have a father figure, there was a male figure whether he took you to the games, whether they grabbed up all the black kids in the community and took you to the parks to play baseball, or introduce you to the game, that has fallen off. It has taken on a financial side of the exploitation of our black kids as far as basketball and football is concerned.
Because of the money commitments, kids going straight out of high school for hardship reasons or whatever the case may be, they’re starting to (lead) those kids more to those particular sports. Baseball is not a glamour sport, you know what I’m saying? It’s not cool. It’s not hip hop-ish. And that’s the culture that we have today. So as a whole we have to try to unify ourselves and figure out the best possible way to go forward.
STRAWBERRY: The reality of putting this film together was not for a kind of reality show, but from a history growing up in South Central Los Angeles and having a dream, and bringing it to the magnitude of a successful Major League Baseball player, as you know.
And (it’s about) what the community meant to us, being a part of always being there and coming back. We just couldn’t leave. It was hard for us to leave a place like that and say, Let’s go to UCLA and (see it) work out. I didn’t play at UCLA, I didn’t play at SC, I played in an inner city park. So I wanted to be around people that were struggling up just like I was coming up.
I didn’t have a lot. I had a dream and you have to dream to be able to make it a reality. As I sit here and listen to Eric talk about it , you can really roll the video back now — we wasn’t thinking about you know this being a film – but for all the players that have walked through Harvard Park, not every last one of them made it, but it changed their lives. It brought hope to them out there that me and Eric (allowed) them to be a part of what we had already accomplished.
We had coaches — Earl Brown, Mr. Mosely — who picked us up and took us to the ballpark, took us to practice. That fell off in our society. Most African American males are not around. They’re locked up in prisons for life sentences. The women are struggling to make ends meet, to take care of the kids. Basketball is more attractive than baseball, because what black player can young kids identify with in the game of baseball? There’s not many.
Back in the days when we were growing up, there were tons of players me and Eric could identify with. All those guys who came from Southern California were all in the big leagues. We don’t have that today for inner city (kids).
We played in parks that were developed (for) African American players and that’s how we all came together. Me and Eric met each other through that and we found out we lived in the same areas. We had a chance to play for Earl Brown at Compton in the same team. It’s just a miracle that you can have a such a great friend like that you grow up with and you achieve these things together. And when you see the film, it’ll shock you how we were, because nobody ever really knew the truth behind our story of making it.
We made it because we were determined to not let anybody defeat us, with criticism or racism. We pushed ourselves to a whole different level like nothing was going to stop us. I don’t think (younger players now) have the passion and desire we had back in those days. We need to get back to that — being able to give them that chance and that passion and desire to play the American game, the greatest game of all time you know, baseball.
They see Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and Dwayne Wade shoes and jerseys and they say, ‘Forget it, I’d rather play basketball, in a pick-up league somewhere at the park instead of going on a baseball field.’ The diamonds are empty because there is no structure and no development for those young kids.
Q: Can you envision players of this generation doing what you guys did back in the ’80s (with “The Program”)? Do you think that could be replicated now?
DAVIS: Will it be replicated? Honestly, I have no idea. The whole struggle with any inner city around the country as well as the world — Haiti and Columbia and Dominican Republic and so forth — it’s the idea is to get out.
It’s easy to walk away — and please don’t take this wrong, Darryl and myself aren’t the only guys who give back. There are a lot of guys who went back to their community. But for the level that we did it consistently for 14 years is unprecedented. The workout programs that they have, they tried to implement it with us, but this is what we wanted to do and this is where we wanted to be in order to it. It wasn’t just about Darryl, myself and Chris Brown. It was about a generation that we saw coming behind us because we never saw that going forward.
And the way the money is and the way guys move, and they’re so spread out, it’s probably going to be impossible (to replicate “The Program”) because of the major leaguer’s today socialize. We had a unique opportunity because we were all major leaguers, and then we formed an alliance with our minor leaguers because we grew up with (them). We were all the same age, and so having grown up in South Central, and having 25 or 30 guys that had got drafted in a two-year (window), it was easy for us to formulate the program.
When the program started to evolve, then we had guys flying in, planning their own seasons to work out at this park in order to get what we were giving — which was desire, hope, commitment, dedication. We worked out at Harvard Park as a reminder of where we came from, not where we were going, but where we came from. And if you can accept where you came from, then you’ll spend more energy on where you’re trying to go.
I was never one of those guys, and Darryl was never one of those guys, who just wanted to buy balls and send gear back to Fremont, or Crenshaw, or Manual Arts or Dorsey, or Harvard Park, or whatever park we played for. We wanted to make a presence, and I would hope and pray that the guys that are doing it now — and the guys that are going to come behind them, which we don’t know how many because it’s been a demise in the black player — that the unity will come and it will start to unify as a group and really attack this problem.
STRAWBERRY: You’re so true Eric — one thing I always looked at as the program grew, we were very serious about it and we were very dedicated to it. Itt wasn’t just something that we created and we took very lightly. We took it very serious. It was business when you got there, it was business to be on time, it was just like anything else.
It was a structure that was setup to create greatness that could come out of each individual that really stepped on the field. They had a chance to learn and that’s what we wanted to be able to give back to each player – minor leaguer, high school, whoever came out there.
You had to follow certain rules. If you’re not on time, you don’t hit. We were serious about this. We were here to build up character in all these players, plus ourselves. See, me and Eric didn’t have that and we made it clear to ourselves that we were going to make a difference. .. It was going to take focus, determination. You’re going to have to take persecution sometimes. How do you turn your cheek the other way when someone is smacking you upside the head and saying something negative about you? How do you deal with that?
That’s everything that we had to learn how to deal with. Players are not unified where they come together in off-season, and we came together in for a greater purpose. We came together to have laughs but we came together to work-out and enhance our skills to become better.
I think the reason of greatness that everybody got a chance to see in Cincinnati and New York, and when Chris was playing with Frisco was, they got a chance to see the greatness because it came from Harvard Park, and you know our dedication of our greatness came from coming out of Harvard Park.
Harvard Park taught us how to have toughness, Harvard Park taught us how to have failure, Harvard Park taught us how to be successful. Itt taught us so many things as a person inside. And once we develop that mindset we were able to reach the pinnacle of what it was all about and achieve championships and greatness, but also to look back at those people that went down there every day for January 1.
Q: You guys were both in the starting line-up (with the Dodgers) the day the Rodney King verdict came down. What are your recollections from your experience as Dodgers at that time and also coming from the community that you came from?
DAVIS: It started out as a normal day. With any news of that magnitude we were watching and paying close attention to the verdict. Unfortunately we had started to play when the verdict came down. And some things started to transpire that we weren’t aware of. And at the end of the game, the sheriffs s came into the clubhouse (and told us) that the city was in an uproar and they kind of routed us home, as far as what freeways to take. Going south out of South Central, the city was in a blaze. There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of hatred that was going on in the city at that particular time because of what had transpired. We actually went home and turned on the news and saw the city being in a blaze.
At that time, Darryl and myself had a store on 84th and Broadway called All-Star Custom Interiors. The next day we got a call that the games were cancelled. And we were like, ‘Wow, this is really serious, they are canceling games.’ So, we went down to see the store and everything around it had been burned and vandalized — except our store. So it was like we had mixed emotions, because of the total chaos that was going on in the city but the upmost respect for what Darryl and myself had meant to that particular area as opposed to other areas that our store was not vandalized.
And then the time that we brought Rodney King down (to Dodger Stadium) . . . I had known Rodney’s attorney, and our thought was that it was a healing process and that here’s a man who was getting abused for getting beat. And when he came to Dodger Stadium, it was more of a comfort zone — from what Darryl and myself — to say, let’s try to move forward. But the response we got from some of the people at Dodger Stadium was like this guy was Charles Manson or somebody. It kind of hurt then, because of the fact that he was still being treated as an aggressor, or that he did some wrong outside of getting beat.
So I had mixed emotions about that. It was a very tough time in South Central at that particular time. I had never been a part of a racial riot to that magnitude. I mean, I was a kid when I watched riots hit, but to actually be in the middle of that and have something to do with it, it was a very tough time — I’m just glad we got through it.
STRAWBERRY: Well said E, that’s so true because it was a very difficult time. You’re talking about two guys that grew up patrolling up these streets of South Central Los Angeles, and never saw so much hatred towards color. Just the frustration of people and the acting out over something hurt a lot of people.
I remember my brother Michael, he was (with the) LAPD at the time too and he got his car got shot up during the riot as they rolled by. With a AK-47, he got shot up. He had a helmet on but bullets didn’t even hit him in the head, he could have been dead over the fact that the LAPD had got off this case here after being on (video) shown around America of the beating of Rodney King like he was a dog. It was just an unfortunate time for all of us to have to see that because that’s not what America’s supposed to be about.
America is supposed to be about a place of love and peace, happiness and joy and sometimes it turns out to be the opposite of that because of the color of your skin, and it shouldn’t be that way. We felt like we should have been past that, so that time of our life was very difficult to experience and looking back on it and seeing the guy.
In one of the final scenes of the “Harvard Park” documentary, former players pay tribute to the late Chris Brown by pouring a drink on home plate.