Baseball unites in drive-thru Play Ball event

February 27th, 2021

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in April 2019, Major League Baseball’s Play Ball initiative hosted its inaugural event in Richmond, Va. An estimated 300 boys and girls, fitted with the requisite bats, balls and gloves, filled a local park and rotated through a series of throwing, catching, hitting and fielding drills.

Teenage participants receiving fielding instruction at the April 2019 Play Ball event in Richmond.

The Metropolitan Junior Baseball League, the area’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) affiliate, put on the program. Founded in 1966 by Dr. William M.T. Forrester after his son, William Jr., was denied the opportunity to play on all-white Little League baseball teams, the MJBL is regarded as one of the oldest African American-owned and -operated inner-city youth baseball leagues in the country.

The league, whose mission is to provide socially and economically disadvantaged youth with educational and athletic programs, has grown into a national network with chapters across 17 states and the Caribbean. Forrester Jr. is now its executive director.

About four years ago, he met another father and son: Bishop Darryl Husband Sr., and his not-yet-teenage boy, Darryl II. Husband, an influential Black pastor in the Christian church throughout the region, was coaching his son’s Little League team at the time, and the two men discussed Darryl II’s complicated experience as the only Black player on the roster.

Husband’s son, Darryl II (center), with MJBL executive director William Forrester Jr. (far right) and MLB/RBI team members Bennett Shields, David James and Kindu Jones (from left to right).

That’s when Forrester Jr. invited Husband to join him as the vice president of player development and recruitment for the MJBL. The latter was “absolutely ecstatic” about the opportunity to help underprivileged kids of all ethnicities become involved in the game of baseball.

Born in 1957, Husband grew up playing baseball from the time he was 4 until he faced what he called “ethnic challenges” and gave it up by the time he reached high school. When his son, now 15, encountered similar difficulties decades later, he would not allow him to give up as easily.

“Because I had gone through that, I would not let him quit, and I would not let them make him quit, either,” Husband said. “I asked him a question one day, ‘Is this gonna make you bitter or better?’ And he said, ‘Well, dad, it’s gonna make me better.’ And I said, ‘Let’s get back to work then.’

“I didn’t have anybody there to do that for me, but my passion for the game of baseball never left me. And so I’ve spent my time here in Richmond giving the game away to any kid that will learn.”

Bishop Husband talks with the players.

Husband was in attendance that April day in his role with the MJBL. There, he met senior members of MLB’s baseball and softball development team who help run the RBI program, and he “forged a tremendous relationship” with them.

The two sides kept in touch over time, and during one conversation last summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the bishop asked if he could pray for the RBI team. It’s part of how Husband connects his work with a higher purpose; he came up with the acronym F.A.I.T.H. -- focus, attitude, integrity, teamwork and hustle -- to describe the message he imparts upon the kids in his charge. (“I tell their parents often that we’re not just building baseball players; we’re building men and women,” Husband said.)

That act gave the RBI team and MLB's chief baseball development officer Tony Reagins an idea for how they might still be able to hold Play Ball clinics during the pandemic. They called Husband and asked if it would be feasible to enlist churches to aid with their mission, given how integral they are in the Black community.

Across his decades of service as a pastor, Bishop Husband has an enviable Rolodex of religious leaders, and he eagerly opened it to the RBI team, sharing his contacts with heads of churches across the country.

Together, they have in recent months managed to hold or make plans for special drive-thru Play Ball events at churches in Chicago; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Columbia, Miss.; and Jacksonville, Fla., among others. This month alone, the program will take place in Charleston, S.C., and Oklahoma City.

And on Saturday, Play Ball returns to Richmond with a drive-thru event at Husband’s own parish, Mount Olivet Church. Participants between the ages of 4 and 18 will receive a free bat-and-ball set and refreshments in a masked, socially distanced environment.

The first Play Ball event in Richmond in April 2019, hosted by the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League.

Though spring sports are currently shut down in the city, Husband received an exemption for the program. He said the director of city operations committed about 20 volunteers to help contact kids and their parents and community centers to spread the word, as well as gather a database of kids who might be interested in signing up to play when the city reopens.

“We’re looking for an opportunity to introduce the kids as much as we can to the game,” Husband said. “To have some fun excitement out there. Maybe to have a cage where they can see someone throwing, someone hitting. … To encourage their parents to get them out of the house this summer and do something athletically and choose baseball.”

The drive-thru event is part of Husband’s overall efforts with the MJBL to revitalize urban youth involvement in the sport across Richmond and beyond. He’s fully aware of the obstacles in their path.

There’s the growth of travel baseball, which draws the most skilled African American players out of their communities. Then there’s the popularity of football and basketball -- the “money-makers” -- which sap the resources of city programs and school athletic departments. And then there’s the competitive disadvantage inner-city kids face because they only work out during the season, as opposed to county teams that train year-round.

On top of all that, there’s the rising cost to participate in the sport, from the amount of equipment needed to enrollment in outside organizations. Husband lauded the example set by the RBI program for partnering with local groups at no additional cost. In contrast, his son’s travel ball team costs $250 per month and his pitching program comes with an even higher price tag of $400. (“I mean, tell me how many kids can afford to do that?” Husband notes. “They’re just not able to.”)

“When we go into these schools and talk about RBI, they start paying attention because it is connected with Major League Baseball,” Husband said. “One of the major needs that we have, at least in Richmond, is to have some kind of facility where we don’t have to beg, borrow or rent … that we can train these kids in all year long. That alone takes the inner-city kid to another level.

“Because we know they’re not going to be able to compete if we don’t put them on that same training scale.”

When Husband isn’t running behind-the-scenes operations, he also mans the dugout for the MJBL. The league’s signature Inner City Classic, a round robin-style tournament that allows urban youth to compete against teams from other cities within its network, was most recently held in 2019. With Richmond as the host site for the first time since ’14, Husband coached the Henrico Stars under-14 team to victory with an undefeated 6-0 record over a week of play.

Husband (center) with fellow Inner City Classic champion coaches Milton Parker (left) and Ellis Olivera (right).

A busy man indeed, Bishop Husband has dedicated himself to the work of keeping kids off the streets and preparing them for success in adulthood. Growing the sport of baseball -- the game he loves -- makes that mission even more satisfying. As for the next step? He’s already working on it.

“[We’re] trying to find ways to submit proposals to our city, to our state government, to Major League Baseball as well, to invest some money into middle school baseball, elementary … because that’s where kids are going to have to start learning if we’re going to get them to high school and to college,” Husband said. “[We have] to find ways to get these kids playing baseball at a young age. And they’ll fall in love with the game like we did.”