Rick Paulas | Longreads | September 2017 | 7 minutes (1,856 words)
Unless you’re a fictional character boldly leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper in a stretch leotard, origin stories are fickle, slippery narratives, particularly when it comes to artistic endeavors. Maybe the idea came while you were taking a bath, but why’d you get into that bath? What were you thinking just before the eureka moment? How’d you get to those thoughts?
So, when I asked San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Eugene Corr why he took nine youth baseball players from an impoverished section of West Oakland to Cuba back in 2010, I knew I’d get a distilled version of reality. In Corr’s documentary about the trip, Ghost Town to Havana, he mentions his own fractured relationship with his father, a former youth baseball instructor, so I figured that’d fit in somewhere. Along with the magic of the bat-and-ball sport that binds together the capitalist and socialist countries that have 103 miles of sea between them.
But what I didn’t expect was that the whole trip happened because Corr got mad at George W. Bush.
“I still think the Iraq War was a historic mistake,” Corr says, over coffee near his Berkeley home. “So much that’s gone wrong with the world seems to stem from that. I was so angry about that, I did three things. I bought a headstone for my grandmother’s grave in a cemetery in Richmond, I started a screenwriting program at San Quentin, and I went to Cuba.”
While roaming the streets of Havana on the technically illegal trip, Corr heard the familiar cracks of the bat and snaps in the mitt, and followed those sounds to a small field. He found a group of Cuban youngsters taking baseball instructions from a man in his 60s “with the body of a 17-year-old,” says Corr, fit from daily bike rides and Cuba’s rationed diet of eggs, rice, and beans. The man was Nicolas Reyes, and despite Corr’s broken Spanish, they hit it off.
“It reminded me so much of Richmond in the ’50s. The same kind of joy, family, community participation,” Corr says. Reyes reminded Corr of his own father, a longtime youth coach who mentored the area’s neglected kids, sometimes to the detriment of his own son. “I know I’m an older guy and romanticize those years, but they were pretty amazing. If you want to know what Richmond and Oakland were like in the 1950s, you have to go to Cuba now.”
The similarities between life in Havana and that of his own upbringing in 1950s Richmond—a town north of Berkeley that initially boomed from its shipyards during World War II and is now home to the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park—were strong enough for Corr that a new project began to germinate. A documentary filmmaker and screenwriter by trade—he co-wrote the script for Prefontaine, the 1997 biopic of the long distance runner starring Jared Leto, and has directed episodes of Miami Vice and Arli$$—Corr instantly knew he wanted to make a film about two youth baseball coaches from low-income areas, showing their struggles and passions to highlight the similarities and differences between communities. He also knew that if he was going to pull it off, he’d have to raise funds independently.
“This is not a pitchable idea,” he says. “You’re going to follow around two coaches, and shit’s going to happen.” He went on to receive more than 100 donations from foundations and individuals, primarily from the Bay Area.
Back home from his trip, his next task was casting a counterpoint to Nicolas, a search he believed would lead to Richmond. But when he tried to find a youth baseball coach in the area, he couldn’t. Corr has some theories why. “I worked in [Richmond] factories from the time I was 17 to 26,” he says. “That was during a time when you could buy a house on a working man’s wages. But the disappearance of the union jobs compromised the stability of the community. And in order to volunteer [to coach youth baseball], you need a little stability.”
What he didn’t expect was for his search to lead him to an even more economically decimated area of the Bay.
* * *
One day in 2007, Corr was with some pals at Brennan’s, an old Berkeley sports pub, grumbling about his inability to find a youth coach in Richmond, when a friend handed over an article written by journalist Scott Ostler for the San Francisco Chronicle. It told the story of the Royals, a youth baseball team from a small West Oakland enclave known as Ghost Town.
As the Chronicle detailed, the Royals began on April 8th, 2004. That evening, Thomas Simpson, a 14-year-old freshman, was playing in the yard of Roscoe and Lehi Bryant, a normal hangout for the neighborhood kids, partly due to the Bryants’ dogs and trampoline. Shortly after sunset, Simpson left to walk home, stopping across the street to chat with some friends. A white van pulled up, several gunshots were fired, the van peeled off, and Simpson fell to the ground. He died in Roscoe’s arms.
The question that surfaced that night, as Roscoe told Ostler in the piece, was “how could we keep kids off the street in large numbers?” When kids stuck in poverty-stricken neighborhoods have only gangs to turn to, that’s where they end up. The answer that the Bryants came up with was to start their own baseball team in Ghost Town.
(Or, sometimes: “Ghosttown.” The name has murky origins too, possible explanations being the 1960s forced exodus that left rows of empty Victorians before the freeway and BART line were constructed, a drug kingpin who littered the streets with bodies in the ’80s, or maybe a pair of casket dealers that were headquartered nearby. Which is to say, they’re all really kind of the same story: generations of the city neglecting their most disposable communities, resulting in kids being pushed out onto dangerous streets and beginning the cycle anew.)
After reading about the Royals, Corr approached Coach Roscoe with the idea of juxtaposing conditions in Havana with those in Oakland through the lens of youth baseball programs. Corr hoped that it would include taking the team on a trip to Cuba, although he wasn’t quite sure of those logistics yet. To Bryant, saying yes to this was a no-brainer, as it was an extension of his mission of trying to show his kids there was more to the world than just Ghost Town, which is sometimes as simple as piling kids in the van and driving them across the Bay Bridge.
“They can live 12 years in Oakland, and they’ve never been to San Francisco. It’s ridiculous,” says Corr. “For many years, kids have grown up on these postage-stamp neighborhoods and never got out.”
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
With Bryant and Reyes on board, it was time to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles that plague the neighboring countries. Under the Bush administration, going to Cuba was a difficult prospect, so Corr held out for the returns of the 2008 election. “Roscoe called me that night and said, ‘Obama! We’re going to Cuba, brother!’” says Corr. “I said, maybe. It might be possible.” After a lawyer friend walked the squad through the process—including getting the okay from a department within the Treasury Department, obtaining passports for the boys—it was time for the trip.
The resulting documentary about the weeklong trip tells the stories of two coaches and two baseball teams, but more than that, it exposes ways in which the American model of youth development has fallen short compared to Cuba. For starters, having the security, both economic and social (“it’s a street of hugs,” says Corr), that allows the time to coach, as opposed to the U.S. model of relying on the good hearts of volunteers, which is to say, those with enough money to have the free time to do so. “We’ve abandoned working people in our country,” says Corr. “Communities are falling apart, and when they fall apart, institutions of cohesion disappear.” And when programs like youth baseball disappear, kids aren’t left with good alternatives.
“If you’re not on a team, you’re in a gang,” says Corr. “They’re identical. You got a gang leader, you got a coach, you’re trying to whip someone in the next neighborhood. You’re trying to prove your courage, you get respect. Anthropologically and sociologically, it’s the same deal.”
The trip took place in 2010, meaning that the kids in the documentary aren’t kids anymore. They’ve graduated out of youth baseball into whatever lives they’re leading. When I ask Corr for an update, the player he seems most worried about is Chris Fletcher. “I stayed in touch, but I lost touch,” he says. “I know Chris hasn’t gone to jail.”
It’s safe to say that Chris makes the largest impression of the players in the film, if only because of the tragedy he experiences while cameras are rolling. During the trip, Chris’ grandmother called Coach Roscoe with the news that Chris’ stepfather had been murdered in a gang killing; this, after Fletcher’s biological father was already killed when he was four. Not wanting to spoil the trip, Coach Roscoe confiscated the kids’ cell phones to keep news from spreading. When he arrived back home, Chris’ mom drove him to an outdoor shrine that’d been set up on a Ghost Town sidewalk. “Whose candlelight is that?” Chris asked. And that’s how he found out.
“There are candlelights all over Oakland,” says Corr. “Honestly, for some of the kids, they’d be better off if they stayed in Cuba.”
* * *
Since the film’s release in 2015, Corr has been holding a series of “barnstorming” screenings around the Bay, in community centers like PTA meetings and independent theaters. The screenings tend to feature a Q&A with Corr and Bryant, maybe some other local ballplayers, in the hopes of not only spreading the importance of youth programs, but how to get them off the ground. “I’ve been shocked at how many single mothers show up to these, but they worry about the kids,” Corr says. “Do they have the time to volunteer? Some do now, but can they sustain it?”
For that to be possible, major money needs to be invested. A national movement needs to take root. Corr mentions partnering with an organization like Major League Baseball, if only because of how much sense it makes, but there haven’t been bites yet, despite MLB’s ability to funnel money to training camps abroad. “Every one of the 30 Major League teams have baseball camps in the Dominican Republic, but they don’t have 30 baseball academies here,” says Corr.
But even that would be a band-aid solution to a gaping wound. To fix what’s really troubling Corr about the lack of youth programs, there needs a more broad treatment to a systemic infection.
“In the beginning, I thought Cuba was the outlier. But it’s not. We’re the outlier. We do nothing for poor kids compared to the other countries in the world, while a poor, communist country does so much more,” he says. “The harsh truth is, our values are economic. And if a kid has no economic value, we have no fucking interest in that kid at all.”
* * *
* * *