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With a new field, Jackie Robinson's former baseball team hopes to win again

by Kevin Ferguson | Off-Ramp®

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John Muir High School Pitcher Bryan Barrios warms up with coach Robert Galvan. Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

It was 80 years ago that Jackie Robinson attended John Muir High School in Pasadena. He played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team and stood out in almost every sport he could find time to play. Football, tennis, track, basketball — he was a brilliant athlete. In 1936, Robinson graduated Muir High and went on to break the color barrier in baseball, playing in six World Series and becoming the only player in Major League Baseball to have his jersey number universally retired—no player can wear number 42 now.

But 80 years on, what about his alma mater?

When Robinson came to Muir, the Pasadena high school was a destination for young athletes, dominating in nearly every major sport. Today, it's hard to imagine a Muir high grad playing in the major leagues.

Last season, the baseball team didn't win a single game. Just like the previous season.

The field at John Muir was even worse than the team.

Kevin McDade, number 7, is a senior at John Muir High School and a pitcher on the team. He watched players break bones on the field.

"Kids was getting concussions off of it, and everything, slipping off bases and all that," McDade says.

Weeds grew in the bullpen, a patch of dirt barely higher than the untrimmed grass that passed for a pitchers mound. The locker room was a swampy mess. A column in the LA Times last year put the state of the program in sharp focus. People called on the Dodgers to dig into their deep pockets and help the struggling Muir Mustangs.

And they did. The team poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into remodeling the facilities, with the boys varsity baseball team front and center. New bullpen, new dirt, new grass, new lawnmowers.

On the day it was presented to the public, Dodgers president Stan Kasten held a ceremony on the new John Muir High School field. He told the young players that even Dodger Stadium "is not any better than the field that we have right here."

Sure, the field looks great. But will it be enough to turn around the struggling team?

The John Muir of today isn’t the same John Muir it was 80 years ago. The school’s student body has gotten smaller and poorer, for one: Since 2004, enrollment's dropped steadily. 80% of Muir students are eligible for free or reduced lunches—that’s 15% higher than Pasadena’s district average. And baseball’s gotten more expensive: Gloves, bats, travel, little league fees. They add up over time.

"One of the biggest challenges is in the inner city that baseball has took a downfall in the past fifteen years. Here in Altadena, Pasadena, our boundaries, I don't think we field a senior league team, a pony league team," says Robert Galvan, head coach of the team.

Galvan also leads a team that's made entirely of black and latino teenagers in a time when baseball has become whiter and older. TV ratings for major league games have declined. In colleges, black and latino students made up less than 10 percent of Division 1 players last year. In comparison to football and basketball, scholarships for baseball are scarce.

Galvan knows a new field won't solve all that. But he says it's a start.

"If you give a teacher brand new books and material to teach, you're gonna bring students to the classroom," Galvan says. "Same situation here. You bring a good foundation, a nice little baseball field, you're gonna bring students that have a prior knowledge of baseball."

That idea is being put to the test this season — and things are looking brighter. Muir hired assistant coaches to help out Galvan, they're working with local little league teams to recruit new players. Last month, they won their first game.

On March 15, the new field made its debut, a home game against Compton Centennial. Bryan Barrios, the team captain, is pitching. And he's nervous.

"I just got some butterflies from warming up because, seeing all these people here. I've never had this much people here in one game," Barrios says.

In front of a large, excited crowd, Barrios starts off with a few nervous pitches and gives up a run. The Mustangs get a run in the 2nd then take the lead in the 5th. There are a few close calls, but Barrios pitches throughout the game and John Muir wins it 2-1, their first victory at home in a very, very long time. 

The team is elated. Coach Galvan is too, but he's not letting it distract him from the road ahead. He's not ready to call the win a turning point for the John Muir Mustangs.

"Too early, too early. I mean, 80% of our kids are still in 9th grade, so I think the turning point will be when they're juniors and the guys coming up under them will fill in. It's a beautiful thing. It's a good future, promising future," Galvan says.

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