Excerpt: A Chance to Win
Every day, he parked himself at the far end of the slate-gray platform outside his apartment building, midnight-blue Yankees cap pulled low over his eyes, arms folded across his chest, tensed jaws masked by a thick, black beard. He glared out at Elizabeth Avenue, numb to the block’s clatter and thrum. Young men with hard stares swigged beer outside a bodega, radio growling angry rap. Young mothers tugged kids past the front-door security glass. A procession of medical transport vans and livery cabs idled in the curved driveway, then rattled away. New Jersey Transit buses moaned up the hill along Weequahic Park. Still, Rodney sat, despondent and alone.
Every so often, something broke the spell. A boy stopped and waited for Rodney’s massive hand to land on his skinny, outstretched palm. Someone in a passing car sang out, “Rock!” A corner boy raised his clenched fist, a street salute. Former customers, weathered beyond their years, ambled up for a quick hello. All had some place to be, something that kept them moving. But not Rodney. He just sat there in the thin shade of two bare pear trees and wondered how he was going to live the rest of his life like this.
Even before his injury, Rodney had been guarded and brooding; that veil had now hardened into a shell. He spoke in gruff, clipped sentences and never made eye contact. He did not talk to you if there was someone else around. If you were alone, and he trusted you, he might let down his guard, a little. But there were not many people he trusted anymore.
Under most circumstances, I would not have even considered approaching him, let alone engage him in a conversation. But on a late-winter afternoon in 2005, Rodney was waiting for me.
I was a reporter for Newark’s daily newspaper, the Star-Ledger, researching an article about the physical and emotional toll of living in one of America’s most violent cities. He was a former high school pitching ace and corner-level drug dealer who had lost the use of his legs. Our meeting was arranged by an anticrime activist I’d met at the scene of a homicide. After the activist introduced us, Rodney motioned for me to follow him inside—he couldn’t be caught talking to me on the street. We waited at a bank of three balky elevators. No one in the building remembered when all of the cars worked at the same time, and it took several minutes to make it to the sixth floor, where Rodney led me into his dim one-bedroom apartment. There, beside a big-screen television flashing muted SportsCenter highlights, he told me his story.
Rodney had no scrapbook or pictures to illustrate his life; almost all of his personal possessions had been lost or stolen years ago. Instead, his home was cluttered with seemingly random odds and ends: a helmet from an adult-league football team, a ceramic bust of an African woman, a two-foot-tall stuffed replica of Foghorn Leghorn, bottles of Windex and aerosol air freshener, a portable stereo, a Tiki Barber bobblehead doll, scattered papers and DVDs. Nothing of much meaning.
When we finished, I thanked him and went on reporting my article, which ran a few weeks later, accompanied by a photo of him outside his building, looking the same as when I’d first encountered him. The piece got mixed reviews among his friends; many were proud of him for speaking openly about his ordeal, but Rodney had also broken a cardinal rule among drug dealers: stay out of the public eye. Old partners warned him about the blunder, and some began keeping their distance out of fear that the article would draw attention from police. But Rodney didn’t care about that anymore. Nothing good had come of his allegiance to the streets. Just lost hope, failed potential, prison, paraplegia. He had fallen about as low as a man could go.
I didn’t expect to speak to Rodney again, but for some reason he held on to my business card, and sometimes he called, with no seeming purpose other than to chat. I couldn’t understand this. I wondered if he expected something more of me. Maybe he needed help. But he asked for nothing. Years later, when we’d become close, I’d ask him why he, a dealer, continued to pursue a relationship with me, a reporter. He told me he saw something vaguely beneficial in knowing me and wanted to hold on to whatever shred of positivity that existed in his life. He wanted to make amends, and perhaps he needed someone to help him believe it was possible.
Every once in a while, I found myself driving past Rodney’s building and saw him posted on the platform—same stare, same despair. Sometimes I hopped out to say hi, and we’d go talk. Upstairs, there were things Rodney felt more comfortable sharing with me than his closest confidants—his depression, his regrets, his desire to somehow make up for all the damage he’d done, not only to himself, but to his neighborhood. He was still traumatized from his injury, which was more than a decade old, and no less permanent. He’d lost his manhood, his control over his bladder and bowels, his self-worth. He’d converted to Islam, aiming to find some new strength or wisdom, and there were times when he believed he’d made a connection with God. But those moments were fleeting glimmers of light. He was weak. He could not resist the quick money of drugs. He knew it was wrong, but it was easier than looking for a job, and even if he tried, he could not imagine anyone wanting to hire a disabled ex-con.
Casting through memories, Rodney kept returning to the moment when his life began to break: the summer he turned fourteen, his first year out of Little League, just before he started high school. It was the last time he remembered being truly happy. When he looked around Elizabeth Avenue now, he saw hundreds of children just like him, growing up just as he had—poor, fatherless, coasting through an inept school system, fascinated with the streets, confronted with the decisions that, fairly or not, would define their adult lives. He knew what they needed: someone to steer them from the path that had been so easy for him to take, the one that now ended at the front curb of the building where he grew up, parked in his wheelchair, watching the world go by. He just needed a way to reach them.
He found his answer in June 2007, when public works crews showed up in the park across the street. For as long as anyone could remember, the spot had been a patch of stubbly grass and pebbly dirt that served as a makeshift baseball diamond. No one played there anymore, but the head of the struggling local Little League had persuaded officials to build something that could spark a new interest in the game. Through the summer, the crews cleared and flattened the land and carved out a new field with bleachers, dugouts, lights, a scoreboard, and a carpet of artificial turf. Children hopped the fence and were smitten. The surface was spongy under their feet, like nothing they’d ever felt. They tested it out, swinging imaginary bats, running the baselines. Some of them knew how to play, or at least thought they knew, based on what they’d seen on TV or their Wii video game systems. Soon they were battling each other in raucous pickup games, using old bats and balls salvaged from someone’s uncle’s closet. Rodney saw this and knew what he had to do.
Baseball was the only thing—besides dealing drugs—that he knew well. He’d once been among the city’s most promising schoolboy pitchers, with a fastball clocked in the low nineties, good enough for a chance at a pro career. He’d blown it, but the game remained dear to him; it was a symbol of childhood, of an unspoiled life.
He called me up and said he had news: “I’m going to coach baseball.” How, he wasn’t sure. He’d never coached anything before and knew of no other wheelchair-bound men who had. He had no plan or strategy, and no guide, other than his heart.
Baseball seemed an unlikely way to reach inner-city boys and girls. In Newark, and across urban America, the sport had been eclipsed in popularity by football and basketball. There were many reasons why city kids didn’t play—expensive equipment, decrepit facilities, poor marketing, the disproportionately small number of baseball scholarships available for big-time college programs. But there was another disturbing trend that didn’t get as much attention. Baseball had always been a game that children learned from their fathers, and in too many cases—six out of ten, according to Newark’s census figures—fathers weren’t around.
For decades, Newark had been a national emblem of urban dysfunction, the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows. The prevailing narrative was of long-faded glory and municipal despair. Some of it was true, but not all of it, nowhere near. You could pick out parts of Newark and fit them into the caricatured vision of the American ghetto—countless already had—but anyone who bothered to look past this superficial portrait found a place that was vibrant and resilient, capable of terrible brutality, but also of extraordinary acts of compassion. Its future was being paved by the devout, the reformed, the strivers and strugglers—people finding promise in the shallowest of footholds. Their victories were small and their progress modest, but they were proud to say they were from Newark. They called it Brick City and wore homemade T-shirts that boasted, we hit hard. Working there as a crime reporter, I came to think of Newark as a prizefighter, the battered former champion in a comeback match who refuses to go down. Not winning, but not losing, either. And with the start of each new round came a renewed sense of possibility, even as the fighter charged into another storm of blows.
Newark’s longtime mayor had spent much of his twenty-year tenure trying to recast Newark’s image as a “renaissance city,” but had just left office under a pall of corruption. In his place was Cory Booker, a young, charismatic graduate of Yale Law School. Booker had grown up in the suburbs, but his supporters looked past that and saw him as what they badly needed: a new way of doing things. Booker seized the role, promising to help Newark reclaim its place among the country’s most desirable, productive cities. He proclaimed that Newark—with a murder rate twice that of the Bronx, a third of its residents living in poverty, and a 40 percent high school graduation rate—was “a front line of what I believe is a fight for the American dream.”
If that was true, if Booker was right, if Newark truly did represent what was possible in America’s neglected postindustrial cities, then I wondered where that left Rodney. For much of his childhood, and for most of his adult life, Rodney had contributed to the blight and dysfunction. He’d been the problem. Now he wanted to turn things around and, in some small way, be part of the city’s resurgence. If Newark was a front line, then Rodney was one of its soldiers. Newark’s success depended at least as much on people like him as on Booker. Their journeys, I came to realize, were intertwined.
On an early evening in April 2008, I met Rodney at his apartment, where he was getting ready for the debut of his team, the Elizabeth Avenue Eagles. I came because he’d asked me, and I wanted to show him support. But I also kept a notebook in my back pocket, just in case.
I sat across from Rodney as he slipped a black hooded sweatshirt over his thick shoulders and twisted a San Francisco Giants cap onto his shaved, size 8 head. He yanked the brim down to the bridge of his nose. He looked to his lap, where a blank scoring book balanced on his knees, and took a heavy breath. The sweet odor of Cool Water incense lingered faintly in the air. A smoke alarm, running out of power, bleated above him. He pressed the joystick of his newly donated electric scooter and spun from his living room, down the front hall, and out the door.
He rolled outside, and I followed. Across Elizabeth Avenue, pin oaks glowed green and yellow in the lowering sun. Birds twittered inside them. The scrim of low-floating clouds that had hung over the neighborhood that morning had faded. A milky wisp swirled into the otherwise radiant blue sky. Rodney huffed into his fists and motored up the hill along the sidewalk that hugged the park. He passed three pink magnolias in full blossom, and he was struck by a giddy sense of anticipation he hadn’t felt since he was a boy, when the winter weather broke and the day felt fresh and full of potential.
Over near the bleachers, kids were playing pickup, using stumps and branches as bases and the trunk of an old oak as a backstop. Many were wearing the same clothes they’d gone to school in: polos and rugby shirts, blue jeans, cargo pants, shorts, sneakers. Seeing Rodney, they surrounded him and battered him with questions.
“Coach Rock, who we playin’ today?”
“Can I pitch?”
“We gettin’ uniforms?”
A few minutes before six p.m., the league president arrived bearing a Rite-Aid bag of cheap white T-shirts—interim jerseys, blank in front, red numbers on the backs. “Oh bay-bay!” a boy shouted. They grabbed at the shirts and bickered over numbers. One of them, who went by the nickname Pooh, muscled through the tangle and pulled off his shirt, revealing boxer shorts that had ridden up past the waistband of his black sweatpants. He slipped number 10 over his doughy frame. “Let’s go!” he cried.
The umpire announced that it was time to play ball. Rodney wheeled to the dugout, scratched in the lineup, grunted the assignments. Everyone put their hands together. Someone counted to three and they barked in unison, “Eagles!” Then the home team took the field.
The pitcher, a boy in cornrows, glossy basketball shorts, and unlaced high-tops, wound up and, on the first pitch of the season, drilled the leadoff batter in the left arm. On the next pitch the runner stole second base; on the next, he took third. Then the pitcher delivered a fastball down the middle, and the number-two hitter dribbled a grounder through the left side of the infield. The runner scored. A teasing cheer erupted from the visitors’ dugout.
The Eagles fell silent. Rodney sat in the third-base coach’s box, eyes locked on the field, saying nothing. A gulp of dread moved down him. He was afraid of what would come next. He considered calling time-out and summoning everyone back to the dugout, telling them that he’d been thinking about it and maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all, that they should all go home and find something else to do. Then he snapped back to reality. This moment was months in the making—years, really. He’d come too far. He could make this work. He had to.
For the next few months, I tagged along with Rodney and his new charges. I sat in the dugout, lounged in the bleachers, hung out in their homes. As the season progressed, it sometimes felt to Rodney that Little League was more difficult than the drug business. His players were unpredictable, excitable, brash, disorderly; they fought over every error, and someone was always threatening to quit. He had to cool their tempers and soothe their tears. He had to consult with complaining parents, negotiate with opposing coaches, scramble for missing equipment. Before games, Rodney often found himself stuck with half a team. As the clock struck six, a pack of them would emerge from Elizabeth Avenue, shirts untucked, caps askew, greeting him, as if nothing was amiss: “What’s up, Coach?” In the dugout, they chomped on candy, made fun of each other’s mothers, sparred, wrestled, farted, flirted with girls through the chain link. Once, between innings, three helmeted Eagles took turns banging each other on the head with bats, chuckling through a game of on-deck Whac-A-Mole while the opposing pitcher warmed up. “See, it’s all about comedy,” an adult chastised. “That’s why y’all be losing.” One night, after dozing off in front of the television in his apartment, Rodney awoke to a rerun of The Bad News Bears. He watched for a few minutes and thought, That’s us. But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. At the end of the film, the Bears didn’t win, but they left with their pride intact. He’d settle for something like that.
About half of the Eagles were what Rodney called “street”—they came from the lower end of Elizabeth Avenue, in the high-rise apartment buildings that faced the park, and freely roamed the neighborhood. The others lived a little farther up the hill, in buildings that were marginally better, or in stand-alone houses elsewhere in the South Ward, where they were more sheltered and less likely to be seen walking around without supervision. These distinctions were invisible to a stranger like me, though. To my outsider’s eyes, they swaggered and scowled and talked tough in ways that made them seem precocious beyond their years. But emotionally, they were clearly still little kids. When they got a hit or scored a run, they acted as if they’d won the Little League World Series, swarming each other, dancing in the dugout, taunting the opposing team. When they screwed up, it was if those victories had never happened. The cruel world—or at least the umpire—had, once again, turned against them.
I got hooked by their story. I’d grown up in a small, uniformly white suburb that was six miles, and a universe, from Newark. In my cloistered boyhood existence, Newark had been a lawless frontier, a place to avoid, or ignore. My only visits were in a baseball uniform, arriving by school bus with my varsity teammates, pummeling the unskilled, poorly equipped kids of the West and South Wards, then fleeing back down Interstate 78 without bothering to look out the window. Back then, Newark meant nothing to me; it was absent from my history books, so I had no appreciation for what the city had once been—an engine of American industry, one of the country’s busiest commercial centers, a hub of the civil rights movement. I didn’t learn any of that until I became a reporter there.
At the end of June 2008, I wrote an article that documented the Elizabeth Avenue Eagles’ inaugural season, including an improbable run through the play-offs. When I finished, I couldn’t walk away. I’d grown attached to them and to what they represented. Their lives spoke volumes about what it was like to survive in one of America’s most neglected, star-crossed cities. I’d only scratched the surface of a deeper story: of children growing up in an unforgiving world; of parents struggling to show them the way; of a man trying to do the best he could, not only for himself but for the kids. To tell that story, I needed to follow Rodney and the children as they went on with their lives, far beyond the bounds of a newspaper article. That is how this book came to be.
Eventually I settled on four people to follow: Rodney; two players, DeWan and Derek; and a father named Thaiquan.
DeWan was an earnest boy, the son of a single schoolteacher mother. He had budding dreadlocks and an easy, gap-toothed smile and had never played baseball before. At school, DeWan was chastised for not living up to his potential. At home, he ached for a man’s attention. But at the ballpark, he found a place where he could shine. Even when he struck out, which was often, he ran back to the dugout, head high.
Derek, by contrast, was a brooding veteran. He was one of only two Eagles with any baseball experience, which automatically made him a key element in Coach Rock’s constantly shifting lineup; he used Derek at nearly every position—outfield, shortstop, pitcher. Derek moved homes almost as often as he changed positions; he was raised by a network of extended family, shifted from place to place depending on who was least busy or less ill. Sometimes that person was his father, but it never was his mother.
Thaiquan Scott was a cleaned-up ex-con, a father trying to do for his kids what his own father didn’t do for him, and one of those things was baseball. Before every game, Thaiquan’s minivan arrived at the field and disgorged his five children, his wife, an array of nephews and nieces. He loved them so fiercely and he worried about them so intensely that it gave him panic attacks. But he was determined to prove that the family curse of prison and poverty ended with him.
The lives of DeWan, Derek, and Thaiquan only rarely intersected off the baseball diamond, and I went where they led me. They welcomed me into their homes. They shared their deepest hopes and fears. I went to birthday parties, football and basketball games, jazz concerts, church events, court hearings. I stuck around for more than three years and came to consider them my friends.
Through it all, Rodney remained the heart of the story, and I devote a good portion of this book detailing his adolescent trespasses, his evolution as a thug, and the chain of events that transformed him from predator to victim. The more time we spent together, and the more I got to know him, the more I rooted for his redemption. All good journalists aim to maintain an impassive distance from the people they write about, but I couldn’t help but take a personal interest in Rodney’s life, in the decisions he made. The attention that resulted from my article about his first season as a coach brought him new options and better resources. But he didn’t always take advantage of them. Watching this was often frustrating. I gave him counsel when he asked, but the choices, of course, were ultimately his to make. Every day he had to persuade himself to keep going, even if he wasn’t sure how. Every day was a battle against his dark side, which he feared he’d never escape. After observing his struggle for some time, I realized that for someone like Rodney, in a place like Newark, the path to success wasn’t always obvious or clear; it was studded with complications and disappointments, constantly testing his resolve.
I saw this same struggle everywhere in Newark. Every time something good happened, when it seemed the city was gaining a little momentum, something else set it back. The people had to choose: waver and quit, or step back into the fight. Sometimes winning meant simply holding your ground. Not losing. There was a certain dignity in that. And dignity mattered.
Everyone documented in these pages agreed without hesitation to allow me to write about them. They believed their stories needed to be told, not only to dispel popular myths about their city but, more important, to provide an accurate portrayal of the myriad economic, social, and psychological forces they wrestle with every day. Many of the adults have made terrible mistakes; they’ve hurt the ones they loved, committed crimes against friends and strangers, poisoned themselves with drugs and drink. Their bad decisions haunt them and often overshadow the good they try to do. But they do not stop trying, if not to save themselves, then to make things better for their children. Among the most common phrases I heard from them was the need to “break the cycle,” to help the next generation avoid repeating their mistakes, to give their kids opportunities they never had: to make better things possible.
Even though this book covers a period of several years, there is no tidy ending. Life doesn’t work that way, especially for the children, who, as I write this, still have high school ahead of them and are navigating the perilous road to adulthood. For them, this is the beginning.
Copyright © 2013 by Jonathan Schuppe