Finding Baltimore City’s Next Major League Draftee

Who will be the next MLB draftee from Baltimore City proper? (via a.canvas.of.light)

Sitting at stoplights in his Baltimore neighborhood, Andy Weltlinger would, on occasion, look to his left and see a ballplayer. Sometimes it was Nelson Cruz. Sometimes it was Chris Davis. Manny Machado. Adam Jones. Tim Beckham.

“A lot of players live along the Key Highway Corridor,” Weltlinger says. “This goes back 20 years, to Roberto Alomar.”

But no matter how many Orioles he’d see obeying traffic laws, he’d never seen a real Baltimore ballplayer where he wanted to see one most: onstage at the MLB Draft, shaking hands with the commissioner.

The last Baltimore City public high school baseball player to be selected in the MLB Draft was Travis Ezi 19 years ago. Only five more players from high schools in Baltimore City have been drafted since then, none of them from public schools. It’s a surprisingly low number — Baltimore’s not big, but it’s a major American city in a region with two MLB franchises (at least, that’s the rumor). And Weltlinger’s periodic big-league stoplight encounters only reinforced his feeling that something was wrong.

“These are the best players in the world, and they’re on Key Highway sitting at a traffic light, right in front of Digital Harbor High School, where kids don’t know how to properly throw or hold a bat,” Weltlinger says. “Baltimore public schools, I think there’s 18 of them, on average have sent one player to play baseball in college [per year]. My alma mater, Calvert Hall, which is a privileged Catholic school up in the county, two years ago had 13 players [play in college]. That’s not the vision… that I’m sure Major League Baseball has about how our pastime should be. It’s just pathetic.”

Thinking about Baltimore’s lack of native draftees, the sense of injustice grew in Weltlinger’s head until he decided to get off the bench and do something. He started volunteering at Digital Harbor, where he got to see just how little local youth teams had to work with.

“The kids don’t even know they were given the shaft,” he says. “They don’t know what a nice field looks like or how it feels to play in a stadium, to pitch off a nice pitching mound. Instead of going back and volunteering at Digital Harbor again, I started an organization that would attack some of the structural issues our kids were dealing with.”

That organization is the Baltimore Urban Baseball Association — or BUBA, pronounced “Bubba.” Its purpose: to rejuvenate baseball in Baltimore City.

***

People get into baseball for a lot of reasons. Maybe you follow a relative’s passion into the sport, or get signed up for it as a child. Maybe you were just dropped off at the field as your family’s wood-paneled minivan peeled out of the parking lot. In Weltlinger’s case, it was envy.

“Everyone in my first-grade class started coming to class in their little league uniforms,” he explains. “And I was just jealous.”

After kicking rocks all the way home, Weltlinger told his parents what his problem was — and they didn’t even know what he was talking about. Weltlinger’s parents are first-generation Hungarian immigrants, and there’s no baseball in Hungary. They signed him up to play nonetheless, but the lack of familiarity still presented some difficulties: Weltlinger is left-handed, but because his parents saw all of his teammates batting from the right side, they assumed that was just the rule and reversed his natural stance. Weltlinger was talented enough to overcome the twisting of his handedness and wound up being drafted out of high school by the Astros in 1992. He didn’t sign, instead accepting a full-ride offer from Cal State Fullerton.

“And I didn’t do very well there,” Weltlinger admits. “I tell people sometimes that I just left to come back to Towson to play, but what really happened was that I failed off the team and I didn’t take care of my business.”

The memory of that failure is part of what propels Weltlinger’s determination for BUBA to succeed. “[Leaving Cal State Fullerton] created trauma in my life, and that trauma has been with me to fuel some success in my career,” he says. “18 years later, I’m still using that failure and that trauma to restart my baseball career in a whole other capacity. My drive now is just fighting for kids in Baltimore City who are underserved.”

Three Generations of “Mr. Cub”
Cavarretta, Hack, and Banks were the faces of the franchise.

***

BUBA’s goal is to help urban youth “grow their academic, athletic, and social skills” through baseball. The program is thriving: Weltlinger says the record is 83 kids showing up to one of their sessions, which means 83 kids got to learn how to play — and how to fail — at a sport in which, as Weltlinger learned, everything is a learning opportunity.

Failure is a powerful and ever-present baseball coach, regardless of age. The best players fail in 70% of their at-bats. Some players fail off the field, and every player fails on it. We remember the ones who played it best when, really, they’re just the ones who failed the least.

It’s a valuable lesson, but one often learned in hindsight. Anyone who has tried to communicate and relate with children can quickly realize they’re not as fluent in the language of adolescence as they used to be, especially given how rapidly the experience of growing up can change from generation to generation. By his own admission, Weltlinger came of age at a more privileged school than those attended by the players he coaches, leading to both age and experiential gaps between them. It can be a lot of pressure to try and explain something you love well enough to other people that they start loving it, too. You also don’t want them to make fun of your shoes.

“I don’t have kids, and I’m an only child, so I’m a little awkward around teenagers to begin with,” Weltlinger admits. “Honestly, to be around teenagers who might be a little underserved or underprivileged is a little bit more challenging. But after I started, I just fell in love with the kids.”

Weltlinger and many other BUBA volunteers see baseball as an opportunity for kids not just to play, but to not be doing something else. Weltlinger strongly believes that it gives local kids a few occupied hours when they would otherwise find more unsavory uses for their time. As one Baltimore rideshare driver informed me this week as he lamented a recent spike in vandalizing: “These kids just don’t have shit to do.”

BUBA is split into two sides: the academy side, for young ballplayers who are already on teams and taking the game more seriously, and the engagement side, in which anyone can show up and play and learn the fundamentals of the sport. Sessions are held multiple times a week, and BUBA currently has 30 volunteers, none of whom Weltlinger knew three years ago. “It’s almost therapeutic for them,” he says, “to come out and work with kids.”

And it isn’t just the volunteers who are benefitting. “One time, I’m hitting outfield balls, and all of a sudden, a lady falls on the sidewalk right outside the fence area,” Weltlinger recalls. “Three of my guys without hesitation just ran away from the group. They hopped an eight-foot fence to go help this lady. Some of them are so mature, asking how my wife is, how my job is… I come home from work some days and I’m not even that nice to my wife. Where did they get that from? I never had that as a kid.”

So this isn’t all just for the next Baltimorean to be selected in the MLB Draft. It’s about building a community.

***

It rained a record amount — almost 72 inches — in Baltimore last year. With the sogginess of both the weather and the Orioles, who spent the season bottoming out at Camden Yards, Baltimore wasn’t exactly baseball heaven in 2018. As someone trying to stir interest in the sport, things began to seem even bleaker to Weltlinger as he realized the dismal conditions in which young ballplayers were forced to play outside of the private school circuit — including a field angled up the side of an embankment.

“We call it the ‘slanted grassy knoll,’” Weltlinger says. “The kids practice there, happily. They don’t even know that the Calvert Hall kids are practicing in a stadium. To me, it’s sickening.”

He tells a particularly wrenching story from a year or two ago at Carver High School just before a playoff game, when the team gathered excitedly in their uniforms to wait for their bus to take them to their game.

“The city bus never picked them up,” he says. “They were just left… It was heartbreaking. I can get over, ‘okay, we have no money, you only get one team and do the best you can.’ Go talk to the coaches; there’s so many examples where the bus comes late. The game’s at four o’clock; they’re only getting off the bus at four o’clock, and the umpires, because they have no compassion, tell them they have to be on the field in two minutes or else they forfeit. They don’t get to loosen up or anything.

“You’re teaching kids to have pride in their skillset, in their tradecraft, and then you have a system that’s completely fucking them over on a weekly basis.”

But thankfully for the program and the kids it serves, BUBA has stirred up enough volunteers and donors that Weltlinger’s vision for the future of the organization has gotten a lot closer to becoming reality than it was three years ago. He wants a facility in the heart of Baltimore with BUBA’s name on it, just like the dozen or so you can find out in the county. BUBA’s facility, though, would be free to use for every kid in the city: coaches bringing in teams, players getting their reps in, BUBA running clinics, independent instructors giving lessons.

Weltlinger says he’s right on the cusp of it, though the process hasn’t been without its struggles. “One of the obstacles was that I had thought getting into the nonprofit world is everyone holding hands and singing songs,” he says. “And it’s not like that. It’s cutthroat. You gotta do everything for yourself, and no one’s going to help you.”

Applying for grants and funding is tedious work. And in doing so, Weltlinger learned how need stretches across all of the city.

“We qualified for this Baltimore Children and Youth fund, 400 organizations applied for it, 80 were awarded it, ours was one of the ones that got it. I looked through the list of organizations — there are so many organizations like us in Baltimore City, that are just like us, that are grassroots, that’s a nonprofit, that’s got no funding, and they’re just working with kids. And they’ve been doing it a lot longer than us. And I never knew any of these organizations even existed.”

***

Weltlinger says he hopes that in 20 years, the media will be asking how the Baltimore region turned into a baseball factory. With some recent positive developments in regards to funding, that vision has become all the more achievable. But this isn’t really about the commissioner calling the name of a Baltimore City kid at the draft. It’s about giving kids who have to play baseball at a 45-degree angle the same chance as anybody else, no matter what school they go to.

Weltlinger lauds the accomplishments of one of his former players, Darius Brook from Digital Harbor, who originally didn’t want to go to college. Weltlinger helped him enroll at a junior college down south, where Brook is now in his third year, the captain of the school’s baseball team, and won the character award this year for the entire athletic complex.

So it’s not all about the big leagues. But one day, if Weltlinger turns to his right at a Baltimore stoplight and sees a pro ball player to whom he used to throw batting practice — well, that’ll be pretty cool, too.

“By the time it gets cold next winter, I think I’ll have this [facility] up and running,” Weltlinger says. “There’s a lot of negativity in Baltimore City, and a lot of it is justified. But there’s a lot of warmth and kindness, too.”


Justin is a writer and editor for The Good Phight and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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Yehoshua Friedmanhysdavid Recent comment authors
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hysdavid
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hysdavid

Quite an inspiring article. I grew up in Baltimore City and learned to play baseball on a dusty park in NE along the Herring Run. Andy and BUBA are doing good work and the kids are well served learning our great game. Life lessons they will carry forever.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

The sad thing is that naturally people’s priority is to take care of their own first. And in a poverty area there are no Big Daddies to kick in. Malcolm Gladwell showed that drug dealers aren’t affluent at all, ha ha. Other people have to get out of their comfort zone and help. Besides the public funding crowd funding would be a good idea as well as foundations with an accent on baseball and the African-American community. A tough job but good luck!