While their designation as the first Black team to win the D.C. Little League championship in more than three decades has propelled the Mamie Johnson Little League team to local and national stardom, players say they have their sights set on a bigger prize.
The dozen preteen sluggers from Ward 7 will head to Bristol, Connecticut, next week to face off against six teams for a chance to play in the Little League Baseball World Series in mid-August.
If they make it to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Mamie Johnson Little League will join Vacamonte Little League, a prominent squad from Panama that just won the Latin American regional championship, among others.
“I’m pretty happy for the win, but we’re not done,” team member Jibril Scott told The Informer during a Tuesday night practice inside the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast.
Jibril and his teammates made the academy’s batting cages their home for two hours, swiftly swing their bats under the watchful eyes of three coaches focused on consistency, form and focus.
Jibril, 12, who serves as a pitcher on the team, smirked as he spoke about his best moments more than a week ago. Later he explained how he planned to improve his left-handed swing.
“I was giving them that heat [last] Tuesday. I had that curveball,” the Southeast resident said. “We’re not settling. We want to go all the way to the [Little League Baseball] World Series.”
Mamie Johnson Little League’s notable accomplishment occurred amid a decline in the African-American presence in baseball. Less than 9 percent of baseball players in the Major Leagues self-identified as African American in 2016, a significant fall from an all-time high of 19 percent in 1975.
Unlike their popular local basketball and football counterparts, the Washington Nationals has only but recently garnered significant interest among generational Washingtonians, many of whom recall the bitter debate over the baseball stadium more than a decade ago that revealed racial and cultural schisms around the sport.
Baseball aficionado Keith Barnes started the Mamie Johnson Little League in 2014 as a means of involving more African-American youth in the sport. He named the baseball team for Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a native Washingtonian and the first female pitcher in the Negro Leagues who died at the age of 82 last year.
Barnes said he learned about Johnson after she and former little league pitcher Mo’ne Davis met during the 2014 Little League World Series. He later connected with Johnson, who allowed him to name the youth league after her. Last summer, Johnson watched the members of her namesake organization compete in the D.C. Little League Championship.
Barnes told The Informer that the team’s victory honored Johnson’s legacy and affirmed the value of their journey.
“[The team] fought hard and carried it on through,” he said.
Barnes, president of Mamie Johnson Little League, described the sight of what he said were hundreds of people in the bleachers of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. He also reflected on the growing pains experienced in the last few years.
“It was a challenge in the beginning, recruiting them and consistently having them come to practice and getting them serious about baseball,” he said. “They learned to keep persevering and work hard, knowing that it will pay off.”
Sparking an interest in baseball among neighborhood youth required collaboration. That’s why Barnes connected with well-resourced stakeholders at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Stadium.
Since its inception, Mamie Johnson Little League has been headquartered at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, across the street from John Phillip Sousa Middle School. For years, Barnes and other coaches scoured nearby recreation centers and schools for players, many of whom had never touched a baseball.
Those selected for the squad practiced the fundamentals and received coaching in addition to what Barnes and his colleagues provide after school and during the summer.
“This is a big deal and speaks to the fact that people can collaborate and work together so long as they have the same goals in mind about what’s best for young people,” said Tal Alter, vice president of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and Dream Foundation.
Alter said the arrangement with Barnes has been an equal partnership that truly benefits the youth.
“Keith’s primary focus was not winning championships but providing young people with an experience and having them fall in love with baseball,” Alter said. “These are young people learning the game and using baseball as a vehicle for whatever else they want to do.”
For players like 12-year-old Dejuan Taylor, baseball has been an eye-opener to important life lessons, such as remaining focused on the field, regardless of the situation.
At Tuesday’s practice, Dejuan practiced pitching and occupied the batting cages, so much so that a coach yelled for him to come back into the fold minutes after he took a break to talk with The Informer.
“It wasn’t that hard, but we had to focus and try not to get distracted,” he said. “We just had hitting the ball, make good plays, and don’t worry about the errors.”
Dejuan, an active participant in the Washington Nationals Baseball Academy since it opened in 2013, said the team’s D.C. Little League Championship win had a profound effect on him.
“I thought about what our win would mean to Black people,” he said. “We were the first Black team to win in 31 years. That means that we can be good at other sports, not just certain ones.”