. . . and the meaning of life
By Peggy Kreimer
Post staff reporter
Markel McClendon draws a line in the dust with a baseball bat and positions himself just so behind home plate. He's 9 years old, ball cap casting a cool shadow across his face in the morning sun, following his coach's number one rule.
"You have to keep your eye on the ball," Markel says.
The pitch comes at him. He swings. The bat travels full circle around his slender body.
He swings at the next ball. The bat catches the edge and the ball dribbles away.
Markel keeps swinging and the practice balls gather around him as the pitcher keeps pulling new balls from a bag on the mound.
Whomp. Markel connects. The ball rockets down the first base line.
Markel McClendon tries to act nonchalant, but his grin is breaking into a triumphant laugh as the shouts ring out:
It's 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Covington's Eastside neighborhood, where the summer baseball camp has turned from a program to a passion.
The City of Covington Recreation Department agreed to sponsor Coach Preston Wilson's summer baseball camp for six weeks this summer. That concluded last week, but just because the funding stopped, Wilson didn't see any reason for the program to stop.
"We're going to keep going 'til school starts," he said. "These kids need structure. They need to keep getting up in the morning and know somebody's waiting for them, somebody's counting on them to be here."
That's especially important for kids in the Eastside, a largely black, low-income neighborhood that's home to the Jacob Price housing project. "People think about the Eastside and they think drugs, shootings," Wilson said. "But this is what's happening here, too."
Thirteen kids showed up for the morning ball camp on a recent Wednesday. They range in age from 6 to 12 - girls and boys, tall and short, black and white, all there for the same reason - to learn how to play ball.
"We don't have a team, we're not playing games," Wilson said. "We're teaching the fundamentals of baseball - how to throw, catch and hit the ball, how many people there are on the team, what the rules are, how to run the bases. And we're teaching discipline, working together. It's about relationships."
And it's about knowing that someone believes you can do it.
Wilson's a retired highway inspector who does substitute teaching at Newport High School during the school year.
He coached youth teams in the past and took two Police Athletic League teams to world championships. But in recent years, he'd gotten out of the coaching business because he wanted to watch his son play high school baseball as a dad instead of as a coach. But then he didn't see anyone else stepping in to teach the next generation of neighborhood ball players.
"My son's out of school now," Wilson said. "I decided to take it up on my own."
The city has sponsored week-long baseball and other sports camps in city schools during the school year in the past.
Wilson wanted to do something bigger and do it in the summer.
"That takes somebody special to run it," said Covington Recreation Director Denny Bowman. "Preston is the perfect person. He coached baseball for 25 years. He's in the schools. He knows education. He knows kids. He teaches more than the sport, he teaches sportsmanship."
The city paid a total of $5,000 for Wilson and two assistants to run the six week camp, which officially ended Thursday with a team breakfast.
Assistants are Holmes High School senior and baseball player John Smith and Wilson's son, Pharo Wilson, 20, who also was a standout ball player at Holmes.
The summer program meets at the Randolph Park ball field in Covington's Eastside, but, as the city's only summer ball camp, it's open to any kid in the city.
Most of the kids this summer live in the Eastside neighborhood, and the camp has become a neighborhood effort.
The balls, bats and gloves are a combination of city equipment, the old bats and gloves of Wilson's sons, and anything else he could beg or borrow.
Three neighborhood supporters - Robert Whaley, Lawrence Smith and Edward Whitson - donated hats and T-shirts for the kids.
The result has been a slice of Americana in Covington's inner city.
Nobody strikes out in this game. The players line up to take their turns. If they don't make a hit, they run anyway. Some still try to carry the bat with them. If their stance is off, Wilson might encircle their arms with his, gripping the bat with a tiny player and helping him make that bat connect with the ball.
Every play, every valiant swing, every earnest dash for the base triggers shouts of "Good job!"
"They need to hear that encouragement," Wilson says.
Daily running practices include individual 60-yard dashes. "It's not to see who's the fastest. It's to better your individual time," he tells the kids. "Just run as fast as you can and keep trying to do better."
In six weeks, their progress has been remarkable, said assistant coach Smith.
"When we started, some of them had their gloves on the wrong hands. They didn't know where second base was," he said.
Alea Cardenas, 11, and her brother, Jacob, 10, are grandchildren of former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Leo Cardenas.
"My grandfather used to teach my brother, but he didn't teach me," Alea said. "I never was interested. I was, 'That's baseball. That's boring.' I didn't care. But I do now."
She can scoop up ground balls and she knows how to hold the bat.
Several of the kids in the program go to the Kid Zone day care at Seventh and Madison. Day care worker Angie Nelson accompanies them to the baseball camp.
"I'm the team mom," she said. "A lot of their parents can't get here. They're working, so I'm here to cheer them on. I get to brag on them.
"I've watched them develop coordination, develop confidence."
As she watched the kids field balls, cheer each other on and gather around as Wilson demonstrated how to grip a ball, Nelson grinned.
"I hope when I get where I'm going, I have that kind of patience. He's got a big heart and a lot of love to come out here every day."
She's there most days, too.
"This program might seem like a little thing, but it's the little things that really make a difference for kids," she said.
"These are little kids now, but how do we know we're not dealing with somebody potentially famous and this is what started the spark."