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They Bring the Big Leagues Back Home

February 03, 1988|DAVID DeVOSS | Times Staff Writer

The winter sun gave off a diffused light midway between pastel and honey. A gentle Santa Ana had arrived with a promise of spring, scrubbing the air clean. Eventually, the shadows would lengthen, and the Harvard Park area of South-Central Los Angeles would again be caught up in gang warfare and drugs. But for the moment, the ragged ball field belonged to the boys of summer, professional baseball players out to have fun.

John Moseley moved from behind a backstop covered with graffiti and told a $1-million outfielder to shorten his stride. At 78, the retired Public Works Department truck driver had every right to be paternal. He had coached or befriended nearly every man on the field. He'd even coached some of their parents, he recalled. He taught Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry how to hit. Cincinnati center fielder Eric Davis was already being touted as the next Willie Mays. It didn't surprise Moseley when the Giants drafted third baseman Chris Brown within weeks of his 1979 graduation from Crenshaw High School.

"That's young Paul Blair Jr. out there now," Moseley said, pointing to the gangly son of the former Baltimore Orioles outfielder. "I got his dad into a whole lot of whippings because I had him out playing instead of doing his chores."

Friendship Makes Him Proudest

What makes Moseley proudest, however, is something he did not create: the friendship linking inner-city alumni Brown, Strawberry and Davis. "It's a very special relationship," Moseley said. "Those three boys are bound together by some magnetic force. I take great pleasure in coming here afternoons to watch those Three Musketeers."

The friendship exists at many different levels and extends back to 1972, when Davis and Strawberry met at age 10 at a Little League All-Star game. When Davis, 25, was married in December, Strawberry, 25, and Brown, 26, were his groomsmen. Besides being Davis' Woodland Hills neighbor, Brown is also godfather to his daughter.

"When you've watched each other grow up, it's easier to relate," Davis said. "Since he was drafted first, Chris was able to tell us what to expect from professional baseball. Later I was able to help Darryl when he had some emotional problems. I know he supported me back in 1980 when I found myself competing against more experienced players at Eugene" (Cincinnati's Northwest League affiliate).

The friendship that provided the drive to excel at Crenshaw and Fremont high schools, and later supplied the stability to cope with the pressure of professional sports, evolved on a series of youth baseball teams similar to those that today occupy Los Angeles' 268 park baseball diamonds. Each summer, more than 26,000 youngsters ages 5 to 14 try out for positions on the city's 2,000 park and Little League teams. The vast number of teams and the organization of their leagues allow Los Angeles to produce a disproportionate number of major league ballplayers.

More often than not, inner-city athletes hone their ambition and discover heroes not at Dodger Stadium, but at places like Harvard Park.

'Always Focused on the Field'

"That little Straw used to stand by this cage and watch his Daddy and me play softball on the post office team," remembered P. K. Kennedy, a family friend who manages the Jordan Downs Recreation Center. "Most kids run around, but his attention always was focused on the field."

Though he slept in a house at 60th Street and 7th Avenue, many of Strawberry's waking hours were spent at Harvard Park.

"Strawberry was my first baseman when I had the L.A. Black Sox back in 1977," Moseley said. "When he overslept, I'd go over to his house, douse him with a pitcher of water and haul him back here. All the boys grew up here. This is their home. That's why Harvard Park remains a very special place."

Not much about Harvard Park can be described as big league. The infield is a moonscape studded with fist-sized clods of dirt. Twinkling bits of broken glass mark the foul lines. Deep left field belongs to the locals with names like Skooby and Spuddog, who sip their beverages from small paper bags and flash blue steel at the first approach of a stranger.

Despite these distractions, Harvard Park is where a dozen or so baseball pros head every winter for a two-month period of conditioning known as The Program. For Strawberry, Brown, Davis and their friends, the training that begins each January is as much spiritual renewal as physical conditioning. Instead of duplicating major league conditions, a conscious effort is made to re-create the conditions under which they played as teen-agers.

A Glove, Some Trash Cans

A spare glove dropped in the dirt often serves as home plate. A pile of dented trash cans protects the batting practice pitcher from line drives. Dress uniforms are discouraged and many play without hats. Only the rack of personalized bats and the abundance of unscuffed balls serve as physical evidence that major leaguers are at work.

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