Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

A diamond in the rough

Pahokee baseball team struggles to gain recognitio­n

- By Wells Dusenbury Staff writer

PAHOKEE — Drive on the farthest western reaches of Larrimore Road, a remote, almost country lane that ends at the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee, and as you approach Pahokee High School, you become aware that one side of the street is not like the other.

On the north side is Anquan Boldin Stadium, a monument to a Blue Devils football program that has produced six state championsh­ips and dozens of NFL players, including its namesake.

But turn south, and tucked away down a narrow utility driveway next to the high school parking lot is a sight Pahokee’s swarms of football fans would find less familiar.

A baseball diamond.

You could say the home of Blue Devils baseball is pastoral, even scenic. Backed by cane fields dressed in dark, rich soil, lush green pinstripes and button-holed by palm trees beyond left field, it’s The Muck’s version of “Field of Dreams.”

This bare patch has yet to find its own Anquan Boldin, but Chad Sanford is trying at least to make its neglect and desolation less stark.

The Pahokee baseball coach sees building this field — and the Blue Devils program — as his mission. He kicked it off with a modest Go-FundMe page last fall.

“We don’t have an outfield fence,” Sanford said. “Our dugout is pretty much a chain-link fence with a cover over it.”

For Sanford, 27 and in his second year at Pahokee, making the field inviting — or, for now, playable — should be a snap in a place that reveres its high school sports. But, he said, “It’s been a challenge.”

With all the field is missing, the one challenge Sanford has licked is memorizing the checklist.

“We don’t have lights,” he says. “We have two small sets of bleachers. We don’t have a PA system. We don’t have anywhere for either team’s pitchers to warm up. No batting cage and no scoreboard.”

Last year, he said, the Blue Devils fielded a roster of 13 players but had only three aluminum bats. They finished the season with one. The other two broke.

“One of my players had ground balls getting through his glove,” Sanford went on. “So I looked closely — and he’s using a T-ball glove.

“He said, ‘It’s the only glove I’ve ever had.’”

If getting the basics is tough, thus making luxuries of batting cages and a sound system, then Sanford’s vision of building a baseball team resembling Blue Devils football may be the stuff of dreams.

“It’s hard, not going to lie. We don’t get much love from the town,” Moises Fernandez says. “They don’t look at the baseball team as important down here.”

The Blue Devils’ junior outfielder says that for Pahokeeans, the general belief is that baseball belongs to the “coastline schools” — Park Vista, Dwyer, Boca Raton.

“Their hype is baseball. They play year-round. We play football. That’s what we play.”

So, how to cultivate a love of baseball, especially for a team lacking tradition and faced with the apathy that years of futility can breed?

Even the baseball field has been annexed for football — look no further than the outfield, where the property fence crossing left field and cutting into center is labeled with football yardage markers.

For generation­s, Blue Devils baseball has been stuck, spinning its wheels in the muck. Pahokee’s baseball team made its only regional playoff appearance in 1973 — and lost in the first round. The school didn’t even field a team from 2009-2011 for lack of interest. In between were many lonely 0-fer seasons.

Sophomore first-baseman Jonathan Smith says the lack of fan support hurts.

“Whenever I play basketball, a lot of people come to the games and will be like, ‘I saw you, and I saw you do this,’” says Smith, a point guard for the Blue Devils. “When I say I play baseball, they say, ‘No, I’m not coming.’ I guess they’re not interested.”

But Sanford believes his baseball program has begun to make inroads.

Last season, the team picked up its first victory in 10 years. The Blue Devils won again this season, beating rival Glades Central 10-1 in their midseason Muck Diamond Series. Pahokee finished the season 1-16.

In November, as he prepped for spring, Sanford created the GoFundMe page. The goal of “Pahokee Baseball: A New Era” is to raise $10,000. Six months in, a total of 12 people have donated $1,125.

Trying to find the money to develop a low-priority high school sports program is a close to a zerosum game.

All of Pahokee’s athletic teams, like most public-school teams in the state, are dependent on fundraisin­g — whether from sponsorshi­ps, ticket sales, concession­s, game-day parking, events like golf outings and spaghetti dinners, even hawking candy bars. Successful programs — particular­ly football teams — never seem at a loss for money; interest in the sport is high, and everybody funds a winner.

But minor sports are the poor relatives, especially the little brothers with losing records, and they face long odds of changing that. Teams can’t raise the cash for bigticket facilities and equipment upgrades that might help raise the level of play, attract more talent and bring in more paying — and philanthro­pic — fans.

For Pahokee baseball, even the price of being poor is costly. The school’s decision to drop this year from Florida’s Class 3A to 1A — the smallest division — for football, basketball, softball and baseball, means a hike in transporta­tion expenses. The Blue Devils’ new district opponents are spread out further across Central Florida, forcing the team to travel more than 460 miles for their few away league matchups this season.

‘A blessing to be here’

The cost of fielding a promising team will likely continue to test Sanford’s and his team’s mettle.

Unlike many other schools across Palm Beach County and South Florida, places rich with high-level baseball prospects, Pahokee lacks the youth leagues that are traditiona­lly the life blood of the sport. Many athletes from The Muck reach high school having never played organized baseball.

“My very first practice [last year], I had to show the kids the right way to hold a baseball because a lot of these kids had never thrown or caught one,” Sanford said. “I’m going to say for 95 percent [of the players], last year was their first time touching a baseball.”

Sophomore Zatavian Morgan was one of those newcomers. A 6-foot-2, 245-pound tight end on the football team blessed with exceptiona­l athleticis­m, Morgan decided to give baseball a shot after a friend persuaded him. Despite having no playing experience, he proved to be a quick study, blasting two home runs as a freshman, including one over the 365-foot leftfield property fence.

While Morgan’s early success is a positive sign, one can only imagine what athletes of his caliber could accomplish if they discovered the game at a younger age.

Growing the game in a way schools like Pahokee High might benefit from has been a point of emphasis for Major League Baseball, which has struggled since the 1980s with declining numbers of non-Latino black players. African-Americans, who held nearly one in five of all MLB roster spots in 1995, made up just 7.8 percent of the league’s players in 2015.

In an attempt to attract and develop young black athletes, MLB establishe­d its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative, which has spread to 200 cities, according to the league’s count. But so far that funding hasn’t reached Pahokee (population of about 6,000), where 11 of the high school team’s 15 players are African-American.

“Out here, every coach we’ve played against says, ‘You’ve got some serious athletes. All it’s going to take is some developmen­t and dedication,’” Sanford said, “and I couldn’t agree more.”

For now, the Blue Devils are taking it one small step at a time.

The team recently received a $1,500 donation from a local businessma­n. That’s roughly half of what it will cost to install a windscreen that will serve for at least a while as an outfield fence.

Maybe in another season or two, with a few more wins to show, they’ll have enough uniforms to dress everyone on game days.

The Blue Devils aren’t there yet. They’re here, on their barren pitch, hidden away behind a small school in Florida’s agricultur­al heartland, and they are devil-may-care at practice.

Few wear name-brand gear or even ball caps. They take practice swings and field a grubby ball wearing sneakers, T-shirts and baggy summer shorts as long as old-timey knickers. They chatter and joke together as baseball players have for 150 years. A breeze of nostalgia blows through here that’s not without romance.

These young men share a love of the game that keeps them coming out.

“Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to play,” Fernandez said. “It’s been a great experience and a blessing to be here.

“It feels good to try and build something up from the bottom. We do what we can with what we’ve got.”

‘I guess they’re not interested’ “We don’t get much love from the town. They don’t look at the baseball team as important down here.” Moises Fernandez, junior outfielder

 ?? JIM RASSOL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Blue Devils first baseman Jonathan Smith catches a ball during a recent baseball practice at Pahokee High.
JIM RASSOL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Blue Devils first baseman Jonathan Smith catches a ball during a recent baseball practice at Pahokee High.
 ?? PHOTOS BY JIM RASSOL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER ?? Above, Timothy Rooks has some fun during baseball practice. Below, head baseball coach Chad Sanford, right, has created a page on the GoFundMe Internet crowdfundi­ng site to help support his team.
PHOTOS BY JIM RASSOL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPH­ER Above, Timothy Rooks has some fun during baseball practice. Below, head baseball coach Chad Sanford, right, has created a page on the GoFundMe Internet crowdfundi­ng site to help support his team.
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