“Another Level” Softball Team Scores Home Run in the Hood
By Marlon McRae
Pass by Brooklyn’s Kingston Park on a summer Sunday and you will likely see men, young and old, in uniform, playing softball on two congested fields. The crowds of spectators at the Brooklyn United Softball Association (BUSA) league games aren’t nearly as large as
those at major-league baseball games, but the players seem to be just as intense. They don’t receive million-dollar salaries, but play hard for the love of the game.
“I play for the excitement and for my ego,” said Jerome “Speedy” Blackman, pitcher for the Mo’ Better team. “Everyone wants to win and the competition is good.”
In fact, Blackman’s teams have been very successful. Mo’ Better, founded by Blackman and teammate Chris LeGree, has won nine league championships since 1990. With one team dominating for so many years you wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm of the other league members began to dwindle. That has not been the case. The league remains extremely competitive, even though Mo’ Better got off to a 20-3 start to begin the season. In fact, Mo’ Better has some stiff competition this year with the newest addition to the league, Another Level. The first-year team, comprised mostly of players from other squads in the league, finished the regular season with a 26-1 record.
“They’re a good team,” said Frank Evans, manager of T & F. “They have the best defense, good speed and their players are more dedicated than the rest of the players.”
Another Level infielder Vince Williams believes that there are more decisive factors that add to his team’s success. “Our closeness,” said Williams. “We all get along. We hang out together. We
do everything together. We’re together during the week. Most guys just come out on the weekend and that’s it.”
For many of the players the league is like a brotherhood. A fraternity. Beyond the games there are cookouts and parties. Good times and lots of laughs, social drinking and socializing. For many, the league has become a major part of their life. “I’ve been playing in this league about 30 years,” said Butch Nelson, shortstop for the Brooklyn team. “I started out when I was 14, a youngster, a rookie, now I’m one of the elder statesmen. I’m moving on now though. I’ve been
playing too long.”
So just where do the players go once they finally hang up their shoes? Many can be seen in the same dugouts managing, or in the stands as spectators heckling their former teammates and opponents. Nelson didn’t waste much time doing the latter. In between a doubleheader on the final day of the regular season Nelson headed over to the other field to playfully heckle a member of the Mo’ Better team who also happened to be his former boss. Although Nelson claims he is retiring, don’t be surprised to see him back on the diamond next season giving it his all. It’s hard for players and community members alike to stop participating in something that has been a part of the community for so long.
The BUSA was founded in 1971 by Dan Williams. Williams, in his final year as a 32-year member of the league, currently serves as the assistant commissioner. Through the years, Williams has participated as a league official and managed his own team, The Playboys, for many years.”Dan Williams is the history of the league,” said Commissioner John Calhoun. The league was originally called the Brownsville Softball League and played its games in Bedford-Stuyvesant at Patchen Park. Renovations forced the league to move to Betsy Head Park and then Gershwin Park. Finally, the league settled in at Kingston Park in 1990, a move spearheaded by its then-commissioner Ray Haskins (he served from 1990-2000).
“The league voted to move the games to Callahan-Kelly Park. But it only has one diamond, it’s a very small field and when it got dark, it wasn’t amenable for a community event,” said Haskins. “My first act was to move the league to Kingston Park. At Kingston, we had a whole litany of things.”
These various amenities included sprinklers, lights, bathrooms and barbecue areas. At this time, the association also changed its name to the Brownsville Community Softball League, a name that stuck until the league assumed its current identity in 2001. While Dan Williams founded the league, Haskins contributed with numerous innovations: doubleheaders; highly competitive night matchups; trimming team rosters to 18 players and the extra hitter (the softball equivalent of the designated hitter).
The BUSA isn’t the first adult league to play in Kingston Park. The B.I.S.A and the now-defunct Bar League played its games at Kingston in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact the Bar League was one of the largest leagues that this city has ever seen and once had 120 teams that played in sites all over Brooklyn. “The Bar League reached out to the community in the sense that most teams were sponsored by bars,” said Yogi McRae, a former bar league player. Yogi, a member of five Divisional Championship teams in the Bar League, witnessed the good and the bad effects that the league had on his community.
“The positive thing about the Bar League was that it brought out a lot of people in the community. The negative thing was that a lot of the teams would hang out in the bars. This led to a consumption of a lot of alcohol.”
While Haskins did not play in the Bar League he is well aware of the positive and negative effects that softball leagues can have on a community. “A lot of times people [in the league] overlook the community, but the community is important,” said Haskins. “[The league] serves as a source of entertainment for the community. A lot of people will come out to the park and see the basketball and softball games as opposed to seeing a professional game or staying home and watching a professional game on T.V.”
As for the future of the league, it continues to thrive, but corporate sponsors and youth participation might very well define the fate of the BUSA.
Each team puts up an entry fee of $860 that helps to pay for the park permit and league prizes. At the end of the season the league champions receive trophies and prize money. The teams pay for other costs such as uniforms, umpire fees and equipment.
“If there was a way we could get sponsors to help us out that would be a big boost to the league,” said Calhoun. The league would also get a major boost if young athletes in the neighborhood played softball. Many tend to gravitate toward basketball, as evidenced by the decreasing number of African-Americans in major-league baseball and as seen in Kingston Park, where the Kingston Unlimited Classic, a popular basketball league, generates just as much interest as the BUSA.
Many that do play lack the fundamental skills that the veterans possess. “Most of the young guys in the league now are in their mid-to-late 20s,” said Brian “Smooth” Jones, player/coach, Brooklyn. “We are trying to find that next generation. I haven’t seen the next generation to come up and replace us.” “The young guys playing now aren’t as skilled now because they weren’t grounded in the fundamentals,” said Haskins. For now, the members of the BUSA will shift their focus to the playoffs. It seems that most of the teams are focusing on one team in particular, Another Level. Brooklyn was the only team to defeat Another Level during the regular season. Smooth feels his team has a good chance of winning again should the two squads meet in the postseason.
“We feel good that we gave them that loss,” said Smooth. “When the playoffs start, that record doesn’t win championships. The better team will win.” However, Another Level doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on getting revenge, their main goal appears to be winning a championship.
“We are our biggest competition,” said Vince Williams. “We don’t worry about no other teams. We go out there and do what we gotta do. We come out there on Sundays and do what we gotta do and take it to another level.”