A recent Sunday morning found Roxbury’s Marcella Park nearly empty save for Robert Lewis Jr., bat in hand, leading a handful of his young ballplayers in a light workout.
“Head down! Keep your feet sturdy!” barked Lewis as he tossed pitches to Hugo Mateo, 17, a Madison Park High School junior from Everett who’s hoping to play for Lewis’s elite 17-and-under travel team this summer.
Mateo has bigger dreams than baseball. Neither of his parents attended college. A National Honor Society nominee, he hopes to break that pattern. As a coach, Lewis “tells you what you’re strong at and weaker at,” Mateo said. “He always says it’s academics first, then baseball, though. Which is key.”
Lewis, 54, has long been associated with Boston Astros baseball, an inner-city program he founded 35 years ago, and with organizations such as The Boston Foundation and City Year, where he’s held senior leadership positions. His latest professional chapter, The BASE program in Roxbury, combines two of his great passions, youth baseball and mentoring black and Latino kids, in a program aiming to clear a path to college for youths challenged with finding one on their own.
His timing seems unusually propitious. A recent report commissioned by the Black and Latino Collaborative, a group representing businesses, philanthropic organizations, and aides to elected officials, highlights the fact that black and Latino youths now make up nearly two-thirds of the city’s 19-and-under male population, and that how this group fares, educationally and otherwise, will have a significant impact on Boston’s future.
Indeed, opening ceremonies for The BASE headquarters in Egleston Square drew a cross-section of leaders interested in showing their support for the program and for Boston’s inner-city youth.
“What you saw when you looked around that room — law enforcement officials and clergy, educators and athletes, black people and white — reflects the essence of what [Lewis] is doing,” Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree said later. “Now he’s using baseball, of all things, to open up opportunities for young men.”
By locating his new program in the heart of Roxbury, Ogletree added, “He’s not only talking the talk, he’s walking the walk.”
The BASE offers academic tutoring combined with year-round baseball instruction and an intensive training program for area baseball coaches. Beginning last fall, it opened its facility to 150 youths in grades 7-12, most from Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, and plans to serve 400 or more as it expands. Meanwhile, Lewis has raised over $12 million in pledged scholarships, academic and athletic, from area colleges — with substantially more to come, he says.
Eighty percent of the program’s enrollees are Latino and another 15 percent are African-American, according to Lewis, who recruits players through a well-established network of high school coaches and youth baseball coordinators. Many come from families scarred by street violence. One former Boston Astros player turned his life around by leaving gang life for baseball, then pitching his Oklahoma junior college to a national title.
“These kids have been underdogs their whole lives,” Lewis said. “They know how to find their way to a wake. But finding a college campus, most of them are clueless.”
To use the facilities and play for any of the teams with which Lewis’s program is associated — these include Astros teams of all age levels, 13 and up; town-league teams; and all-star travel squads — players must either stay in school, join an accredited job-training program, or pursue a GED. Compliance is closely monitored by Lewis and his staff. No school, no baseball.
In January 2013, Lewis walked away from a six-figure job at the Boston Foundation and began formulating a blueprint for The BASE, drawing upon his contacts among coaches, educators, and donors.
“For 35 years, I’d been telling my kids to work hard and swing for the fences,” Lewis said, explaining his decision to trade business suits for blue jeans. Philanthropic work was rewarding, he added, but not as satisfying as working one-on-one with talented, hungry young athletes.
“I missed the hustle,” he said. “I wanted to feel what they were feeling.”
Spotting baseball talent was easy enough — Lewis has kept his hand in coaching for nearly four decades — but evaluating character was equally crucial to his program’s success. He refuses to label his recruits “at risk” or “underprivileged.”
“I’m not selling them short that way,” he said. “Excellence is the minimum here. We call these kids ‘great,’ because that’s what they are.”
To spend time around Lewis and his players, on and off the field, is to witness both an old dream being realized and new dreams taking shape in the bloom of baseball season.
At the opening of the clubhouse, packed with politicians, community leaders, corporate executives, and Astros ballplayers, current and former, guests toured the 7,100 square-foot facility, which features meeting and study space, a computer lab, and indoor batting cages. Speakers included ex-big leaguer Darrell Miller, director of Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., and college presidents Francesco Cesareo (Assumption) and Richard Lloyd (Vermont’s St. Joseph), who together have pledged $6.6 million in scholarships to the program over the next four tears.
There’s no fee for participants, but there are plenty of perks, including after-school tutoring and SAT test prep, free medical and dental services, nutrition and financial counseling, and trips to college fairs. Starting in September, The BASE will host classes credited toward an associate degree cosponsored by Endicott College and the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.
Underwriting The BASE’s $1.5 million annual operating budget is a starry lineup of financial institutions, charitable foundations, sports programs, and other nonprofits, among them The Boston Foundation, Eastern Bank, the law firm WilmerHale, The Lewis Family Foundation, and the Epstein family’s Foundation to be Named Later. Lewis calls them “my team,” and like any head coach he’s picky about who’s on his roster.
“Every one must have a history of working with black and Latino boys,” he said.
Some of his kids have been kicked out of other programs, he explained, because no one in authority understood what these youths were dealing with back home. “I want partners who realize that if a kid acts up sometimes, it might be because his best friend got shot,” Lewis said.
When his turn came to speak at opening ceremonies, a beaming Lewis said that while having an indoor training facility in the heart of Roxbury is a prized asset, “You’re tricked if you think this [program] is about baseball. It’s a tool to make young people great.”
While that may be true, the baseball played under Lewis’s tutelage over the past few seasons has been pretty impressive, too.
Last year, his Astros’ 18U squad won the Triple Crown Sports US Baseball Championships in Virginia, its second such title in three years, besting teams from 21 states. The 2012 18U Astros were named Triple Crown Sports Team of the Year, another rare honor, and 15 of 16 teammates on the 2013 roster have gone on to play college baseball.
Most remarkable, according to players like star slugger Malcolm Nachmanoff, was the contrast between the Astros’ diversity and the mostly suburban teams they competed against. Nachmanoff, 19, is bound for Stony Brook University after completing a post-grad year at Loomis Chaffee, a Connecticut prep school.
“Ours was black, white, and Spanish,” recalled Nachmanoff. “We were playing predominantly white teams who’d never seen an inner-city travel team like that before.”
Many players currently enrolled in Lewis’s program will gather June 9 for a college letter-of-intent signing ceremony. Lewis expects that at least a few of them will also be selected in the upcoming MLB draft.
Count Boston College head baseball coach Mike Gambino as another fan rooting for Lewis to succeed. The two met earlier this year and “hit it off immediately,” according to Gambino.
“What Robert talks about is similar to what we talk about at BC, that baseball is important, but it’s more important we develop our players as people,” said Gambino. “I love his mission and his values. Anything we can do to help further that mission and grow the game of baseball, I’m in.”