After a few practices that felt more like controlled chaos than organized baseball, the coaches of the Tillicum Crushers weren’t sure what to expect when the boys put on their uniforms for the first time.
Using mitts borrowed from their school equipment locker, the 7- and 8-year-old players from the newly formed Pony League team ran out of the dugout on opening day — some still unsure of the difference between right and left field.
“We are decidedly behind the curve,” said David Anderson, a lifelong Tillicum resident and business owner who organized the team.
When all the teams of the Lakewood Baseball Club were on display for the April 12 opener, differences between the Crushers and their peers were obvious. While other players were outfitted from cleats to caps in matching uniforms, the Crushers arrived in mismatched pants, some with holes in the knees.
The Crushers come from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Lakewood. Most of the boys’ families don’t have the financial means to pay for their uniforms, let alone their sons’ participation on the team.
“It’s something the kids probably wouldn’t have done if Dave hadn’t made it easy,” said head coach Mike Barr, who is Anderson’s son-in-law.
Barr’s son Jacob, 7, and his growing interest in baseball spurred Anderson to suggest the team. Instead of sending Jacob to play outside of Tillicum, Anderson proposed forming a team made up of Tillicum Elementary School students, including his grandson.
Aware not many families could afford the $90 registration fee or the extra equipment and uniform costs, Anderson reached out to the Tillicum community to raise the $1,081 needed to register 12 boys.
Support came in almost immediately.
“I have watched 30 years of Tillicum going from worse to worser,” said Ardith Schrag, who lives in Silcox Island in the middle of American Lake, which borders Tillicum.
In recent years pride has grown in the community, improving Tillicum’s image. Schrag wanted to be part of that. When she learned the team needed help, she wrote a check for $500.
“We’ve got to get these kids focused on the positives, and sports are such a grand avenue to get people going,” she said.
Other businesses and community members chipped in. When Anderson went to pick up the boys after school April 18 to take them to practice, a Tillicum Elementary teacher gave him a hug, with tears spilling onto her cheeks. She handed him an envelope with $100.
Last Saturday’s Crushers game was a rainout, but Tammie Hancock stood in her yellow poncho and cheered her son, Derek Doss Jr., before the game was called.
“My son has always loved sports, and I think I was probably the first one to sign up as soon as I heard about it,” she said. “It’s good for after school; it gets them into something that’s fun and constructive.”
The boys may not fully understand what’s happening, but Anderson said he makes sure they learn what it means to be part of a community beyond baseball.
“Every practice we have a drill that is called ‘litter pick up,’” he said. “No kid can come back for treats without his garbage picked up.”
Anderson is teaching the boys how to pay it forward, he said, and plans to take them on a larger litter cleanup as way to say thank you to those who made it possible for them to play.
All of the players now have mitts — at first only three could afford them — and the team shares one bat at practice.
While parents may notice the socioeconomics at play, the boys are oblivious. Their parents are also disproving the stereotypes of their community.
“Tillicum gets a pretty bad reputation for parents in general,” Barr said. “But the parents have been at every practice to pick their kids up and all of them were at the first game.”
The boys lost their first game 2-1, but exceeded the coaches’ expectations. They loaded the bases more than once, but weren’t able to get a hit. When the game ended in extra innings, the boys ran to the dugout, some unsure who won.
Regardless of the scoreboard, they had fun.
“My son came home from practice the other day and said to my wife, ‘I wish I had practice or a game every day,’” Barr said. “Not just are their baseball skills improving, their personal skills are improving.”
Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467