When Michael Rosenband walked away from a lucrative Wall Street career and became the head baseball coach at Carver Vocational Technical High School in West Baltimore in 2011, he inherited a team that had gone winless the year before.
Carver does not have a baseball field. The coaches and players had to walk two miles each way while lugging their equipment to practice at Leon Day, the park named after the legendary right-handed pitcher for the Baltimore Black Sox and Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro Leagues.
When he took an initial equipment inventory, he found seven old gloves. Three of them had broken webbing. When practices started, many of the kids who came out for the team had never played baseball before.
In the national baseball community, Rosenband is considered somewhat of a miracle worker. This past spring, Carver captured its second consecutive Division II City championship and was honored before an Orioles game. Each player got to shake hands with Cedric Mullins.
This year, the Carver Bears will be playing in Division I, competing against some of the few schools that have their own baseball diamond on campus.
“A few years ago, we were able to raise funds to purchase a 15-passenger van so we didn’t have to walk four miles back and forth to practice,” Rosenband said. “But the task of building a consistent winner is difficult every year. Our home field is now in Druid Hill Park, but we’re not able to practice there until three weeks into the season. So we have to figure out how to practice for three weeks without having access to a field.”
As the anticipation builds for what many hope will be a magical playoff run for the Orioles, there’s a renewed sense of hope in the air.
Camden Yards and the sports bars throughout the city are packed, with strangers becoming fast friends as they cheer and dream aloud about the chances of bringing a World Series back to Baltimore, a town that truly loves baseball.
A new generation of fans is being cultivated, with young kids who have no concept of how moribund the franchise has been in recent years wearing their home run chains and mimicking a baserunner turning on a mock faucet after reaching first base on a single. They gleefully imitate the outfield sprinkler celebration and spray water out of their mouths like the big leaguers in the bullpen.
“Our young fans have truly embraced this team after getting to know some of the guys that are really bringing us these great moments this season,” said Jennifer Grondahl, the Orioles’ senior vice president of communications and community development. “You see kids wearing Cedric Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle, Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson jerseys in the stadium and all over town.”
The Orioles are helping to spread the gospel of the sport to the growing youth audience through their RBI program, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. It offers a six-week league in both the summer and fall, with hopes of empowering the next generation of baseball and softball players in Baltimore City.
“For a long time, our team has been underdogs,” Grondahl said. “We play in the American League East, which is always the toughest division in baseball. Even when we weren’t on top, we’ve always been a fighting team, which mirrors the spirit of the city. I think that fighting spirit lives on in our RBI kids, many of whom have to fight for opportunities.”
Grondahl can draw a direct correlation to the excitement generated by the invigorating finish of last year’s team with the increasing interest in players participating in the RBI program.
“We saw a 46% increase this last year in growth and went from 30 teams in 2022 to 44 teams in 2023,” she said. “We have approximately 650 kids in the program, and last year we added a Junior RBI program that serves youth from the ages of 5 to 12, and that program had over 300 players. Catching them at an earlier age will be really impactful because, in order for them to progress, grow and get the fundamentals, you want them to play for as long as possible.”
Folks in the city’s grassroots community are happy that more kids are embracing and being exposed to the game. But the question that most of them are asking is: Will this resurgence, excitement and renewed interest have any effect on the beleaguered state of baseball in Baltimore City Public Schools?
One of Rosenband’s mottos is “Crisis creates opportunities.” But no one would blame him for getting exhausted by the consistent crises the team faces.
During those first few weeks without access to a baseball diamond, he’ll teach the game as best he can on a whiteboard.
“There are a lot of rules and acquired knowledge that come with a consistent and continuous exposure to baseball,” Rosenband said. “When you’re provided access at an early age, you’re able to develop an IQ for the game. Many of my players have had limited exposure and, for some, this is actually their first time playing.
“So we have to teach them what a cutoff is, what a backup is,” he continued. “We’re trying to give them a rudimentary sense of situational awareness. A lot of mistakes happen early on because our kids are just learning to play. And we’re competing against other schools that face similar challenges.”
While they wait for the Department of Recreation & Parks to get their home field in playing shape, they use a recessed space on the other side of the Carver gym that they call “The Pit.” The players carry out 13 rolled-up pieces of turf that they lay out and assemble like a jigsaw puzzle. The space is small, but they’ve figured out how to give the inexperienced players a sense of how far they have to pitch and how far they have to run to get on base.
When their field is ready, they pile into the 1993 Dodge Ram van, the one they’ve paid more to maintain and keep running than when they bought the used vehicle years ago.
“This year, we’re in the same division as Poly, who won the Division I championship last year,” Rosenband said. “I’m a huge fan of what Coach [Corey] Goodwin has accomplished over there. They have two Little League feeder programs, and he has a great operation going with his Visions Select travel team. But we’re at a deficit in that they can take a few steps from the school onto their field. We’ve got an hour of transport time with loading the van, getting to the field and warming up before practice starts. We have to get back at a reasonable time because our kids have to catch public transportation home. So teams with their own home fields get an hour or so more practice time that we don’t have.”
Andy Weltlinger, the founder of BUBA, which stands for the Baltimore Urban Baseball Association, played baseball at Calvert Hall and Towson University. In 2016, he began volunteering as an assistant coach at Digital Harbor and was shocked by what he saw in terms of the players’ minimal skill levels and the fact that the team had to walk 1 1/2 miles, with equipment in tow, to practice at Swann Park.
He began offering informal workouts for players on weekends. At that first session at Latrobe Park, he waited for an hour until two kids showed up. Soon, he had a dedicated group of five who attended regularly. Those numbers then jumped to 15 kids to 80. Some of his friends and neighbors who’d played college ball came out to assist.
“With 80 kids showing up, that’s a whole new level of responsibility,” Weltlinger said. “We had to address safety issues around what happened if a kid got hurt. We needed to get insurance, had to transport cases of water and Gatorade for hydration, a staging area for parents. That’s when BUBA took off.”
On Wednesday evening at the team’s training facility on Ward Street in Pigtown, Weltlinger and other coaches, along with volunteers from the UMBC baseball team, run kids with varying degrees of skill through hitting, defensive footwork and fielding drills.
Johns Hopkins and Towson also send players to volunteer on other nights.
The operation took on more urgency for Weltlinger when he started wrestling with the math of what baseball looks like in city schools.
“There are 32 public high schools here, and probably only 12 of them field a baseball team,” he said. “Of those, only around eight of them will finish the full season due to eligibility issues. Of those 12, only around four of them have their own field on campus. No player that attended a city public school has been drafted by a Major League Baseball team over the last 23 years. In that same time span, there have been 40 or more players drafted that attended private schools or public schools in the surrounding counties. Our goal is for our kids to play baseball in college because over the last 20 years or so, up until a few years ago, Baltimore City Public Schools has only averaged about one player per year that went on to play in college.”
Weltlinger’s frustration with the city baseball landscape stemmed from his experience playing at Calvert Hall, which fields freshman, JV and varsity teams. There are approximately 85 kids in its ecosystem and about 10 coaches. They play on an award-winning field that has its own clubhouse, and they play against the best competition.
“It’s not hard for a player that’s a mediocre athlete to flourish in baseball if they have all of the right resources at their disposal,” he said. “One year recently, Calvert Hall had 10 athletes in one graduating senior class that earned scholarships to play college baseball.”
City public schools do not offer junior varsity baseball programs, which is important to note because baseball requires continuous participation in order to improve. It doesn’t help if the school you’re playing for has a lack of resources and substandard equipment.
“Groups like us, the Visions Select travel program, the Leon Day Foundation and city Little Leagues like Hamilton, Roland Park, Northwood and the James Mosher leagues, coaches like Mike Rosenband over at Carver, we’re all on the front lines together fighting this battle, doing the day-to-day work to give city kids some opportunities through baseball,” Weltlinger said.
Weltlinger has relationships with 12 major league clubs through their scouting departments. The Orioles are not one of them.
“When people ask if we have a working relationship with the Orioles, the best answer that I can give is that we don’t, which is weird considering that the work that we’re doing is right in the backyard of Camden Yards,” he said.
When he was a student at Dunbar High School, Kellen Wallace led the state in hitting as a senior in 1998 with a .698 batting average, garnering all-city and all-metro honors as an outfielder and pitcher.
During the summer of ’99, after one year playing at Baltimore City Community College, he was offered a tryout with the then-Anaheim Angels and signed as a free agent. During his two seasons playing in the minors, he suited up in the Pioneer League, Fall Arizona Instructional League and the Arizona League.
Wallace was named Lake Clifton’s head coach last year, but the school wasn’t able to field a team because it couldn’t get enough eligible students who were interested. He’s looking to relaunch the school’s varsity baseball team this spring.
In 2020, he partnered with Goodwin, the head coach at Poly, and a few others to start the Visions Select travel team.
“We started with one team and added other teams each year,” said Wallace, before working out a group of youth players at the BUBA facility. “We’ve been going strong for the last three years, have between 80 and 85 players in the program, and we’re looking to add a sixth team soon.”
At BUBA on Wednesday night, while Wallace instructs the kids on the intricacies of hitting, Weltlinger and another dedicated coach, Dondre Yon, who’s known as “Don on the Diamond,” run the group of about 25 kids through defensive footwork and fielding drills.
One of the young players is 13-year-old Jakeem McBride, an eighth grader who’ll be attending Poly next year.
The ball soars off the barrel of his bat with a loud crack and impressive velocity as he hits off a tee. Jeff Pickler, a coach with the Cincinnati Reds, stopped into the BUBA facility recently and was immediately enamored while watching McBride work out.
“Jeff Pickler is a straight shooter,” Weltlinger said. “He watched Jakeem for a few minutes, looked at me and said, ‘I can make a phone call right now and get him a scholarship offer from Ohio State.’
“We’ve been at this for eight years now and we’re making progress,” he continued. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve been seeing that what we’re doing is working. We have five or six kids now that are playing baseball in college currently that have come through our program, the Visions program and some of the other local programs that I mentioned before. A few of the current Visions players are now receiving scholarship offers. And we have younger guys coming up in the pipeline with a lot of promise. This whole process is starting to work.
“There’s a huge appetite for youth baseball here, and it’s like a coiled spring. It just needs to be cultivated. Tonight, most of these young guys are neighborhood kids that walk in off the street. I don’t know if they’re aware of the great season that the Orioles are having or if they even know they’re in the playoffs. But I do know that, if our city found the resources to invest in the sport, it could really explode here in Baltimore City.”