Some of baseball's brightest stars -- Darryl Strawberry, Barry Larkin, Frank Thomas and Eric Davis, to name a few -- flocked to South Central Los Angeles. They would stack steel-barrel trash cans to form an L-screen, all the while helping to put at least a temporary end to the gang-banging crime and prostitution taking place in the neighborhood around them. They took grounders on the rocky, barren turf. They would play ball.
This was The Program.
When professional ballclubs wished their talented players would take their offseason workouts to nearby UCLA or Southern Cal, Strawberry and Davis returned home. And others followed.
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"We wanted to work on the fields where there were rocks. You'd have bad hops, you had guys running through there shooting on each other -- gang banging on one side and the other side -- and they'd just stop and watch us go through our routine every day," Strawberry said last week in an interview at the Sony Pictures offices in midtown New York.
"People say, 'Were you guys afraid?' And we'd say, 'Afraid of what? We grew up here.'"
Strawberry and Davis -- who each spent 17 seasons in the big leagues -- made a concerted effort to attract some of the era's best African-American talent to one of the most historically economically-devastated and crime-infested areas of the country. The two childhood friends have since taken their story to Sony Pictures Television which, in association with The Sokolow Company and Wild Life Productions, has helped to create a documentary about the historic workouts. The film will premiere on BET on April 15 at 11 a.m. ET, in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson Day.
"Had there not been a Jackie Robinson, I know there wouldn't have been an Eric Davis, and you'll have more black players say that," Davis said. "There's been a disconnect to some degree with a lot of the black players today because, as we get into 2012 and start to go further, the disconnect seems closer and closer because it's only talked about a week every year, here or there. ... There is no documentation of the history of baseball in [Los Angeles]. So once you lose the history, how is it to be taught that this was here? Harvard Park signified where we were."
It's hardly uncommon for professional ballplayers -- sometimes once they've retired -- to look for ways to give back to the old stomping grounds that were an intricate part of their playing days growing up. But what fascinates about the stories of Harvard Park is that these players were men when they made use of the fields, not boys.
And Strawberry and Davis attracted players from all parts of the country. Kenny Williams, from northern California. Frank Thomas, from Columbus, Ga. But Davis and Strawberry both say no player was more taken aback by the whole experience than Cincinnati's Barry Larkin.
"The park was in the 'hood," Larkin says in the film. "There were rocks all over the place, and I'm thinking, 'All right, we're playing in the big leagues and this is where we're working out?' But there was a saying -- 'If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. If you can field ground balls here, you can field them anywhere. If you can hit here, if you can survive in this situation here, you can survive anywhere.'"
Certainly, The Program's alumni did just fine. Williams is the White Sox general manager. Thomas, a two-time MVP, is known as one of the era's most feared power hitters. Strawberry was an eight-time All-Star and a four-time World Series champion. Davis owns two Silver Slugger awards and one World Series ring. And Larkin was elected to the Hall of Fame last year.
There are two classes of athletes who grow up in rough neighborhoods and find success: the group that runs away and never looks back, and those who return home to embrace it.
"I heard about all those guys at my high school, and I never saw them," Davis said of the prolific athletes who came before him. "Some guys moved away, some guys played in different cities and made that their home. But when I started to do my thing and Darryl started to do his thing, we wanted to be a face in those communities for the kids to see and not just be a picture on the wall."
It was an opportunity for the players to give back to the community to be sure. But the primary objective of the training camp was to get better in preparation for the upcoming season. These players had been drafted and were heading on to illustrious careers. Harvard Park was where many of them got a first taste of what the standards would be.
"It was great to see real All-Star big league players and know where I had to close the gap to get ... to play in the Major Leagues," Thomas says in the film.
Harvard Park is nestled into the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, home to some of these ballplayers and many who will come after them. But Davis says the message behind their story is not only for young people who hail from that area. He says their story applies to children across the United States, and in other countries of the world that love the game of baseball.
"It gives you hope, first and foremost," Davis said. "It should give them an opportunity to see that dreams really do come true and not to look at where you are, but where you can go. And when you go, never forget where you came from."