What does baseball mean to you?
For the kids living in Oakland’s notorious Ghost Town neighborhood, it means being part of a community — a refuge from all of the violence and trauma that each one lives with every day. Having grown up in the East Bay, filmmaker Eugene Corr wanted to show how important inner city coaches are in providing this much needed sense of sodality.
His new documentary Ghost Town to Havana focuses on two different coaches: Roscoe Bryant of the Oakland Royals and Nicolas Reyes of Cuba. We see Bryant team’s travel to play with Reyes’ team on his field in Havana, discovering more about themselves and the world outside their own private war zone.
Tonight, Oct. 27, Coach Roscoe — along with all other inner city coaches — will be honored at a special screening of the heart-felt documentary at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. Expect live music, celebrity guests, and a lot of surprises. Doors open at 6 p.m., film screens at 7 p.m..
SF Weekly spoke with Corr and Bryant about the journey making Ghost Town and how the spirit of baseball is one of the most important keys in community building.
Can we talk the genesis of the project? What was the pitch (pun intended)?
Eugene Corr: It started in Havana Cuba in 2007. I was kind of a tourist pissed off at George Bush because we weren’t supposed to go to Cuba. So I went there and saw a youth baseball game. That’s how I met Nicholas Reyes, the Cuban coach in the film. He reminded me so much of East Bay guys, the guys I grew up with who in some cases were mentors and heroes to me. I had kind of an out of body experience because it reminded me so much of Richmond in the 1950s when baseball was king. I knew wanted to make this film because my own father was a baseball coach for 34 years.
So I got back to the Bay Area looked for a coach. I was in a bar and I told these friends of mine that I was looking for a someone who was my mentor in the East Bay. Are there any guys like that anymore? And this guy handed me this newspaper. There was this article about Roscoe and his wife Lehi who had founded the Oakland Royals. That was really the beginning of the project. I knew right away that I was going to follow a couple coaches and those were the two. I wanted to explore the lives of both of these men.
How did you feel when you were approached with this, Roscoe?
Roscoe Bryant: “No. I don’t want to do this.” I’m a private person, but my wife sat down and we talked about it and she explained to me what the exposure could do for the kids and the community. We could grow off of something like this, possibly expand. So that, right off the bat, to be further doing what we were trying to do…it was like okay, let’s go for it.
EC: Just to add to that, [Roscoe] set down terms immediately. He lived at a tough corner, 29th and M.L.K., and right across the street there was drug dealing going on all the time. He set limits. He said all the TV stations come down and film the latest murder, the latest shooting, whatever it is. He said no hookers, no drug dealers, none of the standard stuff that we all see in films about Oakland to the degree that violence impinges on the story and on the kids.
RB: A lot of these kids in Oakland are not much different than professional soldiers. They do suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. If you’ve seen people killed on a regular basis where your family members are, it’s not good, it’s not healthy and there are residual effects from it. So for me, I’ve just always wanted to be there, be that little beacon of light, be that one guy that the kids can talk to honestly.
What is it about the spirit of baseball that fosters this mentorship and helps these kids cope with PTSD?
RB: Number one, you’re on a team. You’ve just become a part of something. It’s not negative. It’s not a gang. It’s something positive. It’s something you can actually shine or do well in. But the game of baseball itself just gives so much back to our kids. It teaches them social skills. You’ve got nine other players out there, you have to learn to get along in order to be productive. It teaches you problem solving skills. Do I run? Do I stay? It teaches you patience. Baseball can be a slow game. It’s not like football or basketball. Sometimes you’re out in the outfield for half an hour, y’know. So you learn how to deal with patience, how to deal with inactive time.
Baseball itself is a game of failure. It teaches you how to deal with failure. I say it’s the game of failure because if you hit three out of ten times you’re a stud. Fact of the matter is, you’ve failed more than you’ve succeeded. So baseball teaches our children how to deal with failures that they’re going to face in life. I don’t know many people who got the first job they wanted, got the first girlfriend they wanted, got the first anything they wanted. In life, you pretty much have to strike out a couple times before you can really get a good hit.
Do you have a take on that, Eugene?
EC: Watching Roscoe, one of the things I’ve found is that it’s like a first course in citizenship. The kids learn, they do learn how to get along with each other. So there’s the whole socialization process. It’s ritualized trying. You can see these kids realize that if they keep doing this, if they keep trying, they get better, they get more successful. That can be a revelation for a kid. There’s a whole host of things that come as a result of working with others towards a common goal under the guidance of a good coach. It becomes a metaphor for life, and for kids surrounded by death, there’s something very life-affirming about that. It’s just beautiful.
You can definitely feel that when watching this documentary. It makes you realize how important and underappreciated coaches are as community members.
EC: And I think the coaches need to come from the community. They need support. With Roscoe, he’s working full time, sometimes two jobs, sometimes three jobs, and he’s volunteering. If you’re making $150,000 a year, volunteering means one thing. And I don’t know what Roscoe makes, but if you’re making $40,000 or less, volunteering means something quite different. All youth sports in America are volunteer. And even though all of our great athletes tend to be African American, most African American kids don’t have a chance to be a part of that.
You bring this up in the film – is there still a decline in African American athletes?
RB: It’s still in effect. You’re starting to see a little bit more. But there’s dozens of reasons of why we have this problem. A lot of it is economics. Another reason, we’ve got to have coaches. You’ve got to find somebody who’s willing to do it. Then you’ve got to find the field that you can play on. Baseball, I’ve learned real quick, is a very expensive game. Our registration fees are $150 dollars, you throw in a uniform, that’s another $50. You’re at $200 already. If you want a bat that you can actually compete with, you’re going to spend $75-$100 just for that. For a glove, because you’ve gotta have a glove, you’d better invest another $70. If you’ve got two or three kids trying to play baseball, you’ve literally just spent your rent money. You’ve gotta make this choice: do I want my kid to play ball, or do I want a shelter over his head?
How was the trip to Cuba that we see in the film transformative for the kids that went on it?
RB: I think that trip changed all of these children’s lives in one way or another. For Eddie Heard, I genuinely watched him turn into a man. My son, two things. It gave him a travel bug. After Cuba, what he had seen just inspired him to travel to Nicaragua. He’s zigzagged all over America this summer. He’s in college so he’s president of his frat. So he’s getting out there. He’s doing things. He’s doing exactly what I hoped my son would do is go out and see the world.
How did effect you in the long run?
RB: It taught me a lot, same things the kids got out of it too. Poor and poverty are two totally different things. Poor you can come up out of. Poverty, I mean…the Cubans, a lot of them are stuck there. That’s where they were born at, that’s where they’re going to die at. You can only rise so far and that’s it. But here, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You can be broke and poor but still have the opportunity to come up. So for me, personally, that was really reaffirming. I really learned the difference between the two, and I think that the kids did too. Young Roscoe never asked me for a pair of Jordans when he came back from Cuba after what he’d seen. “That’s okay Dad. I’ll just take those.”
EC: In defense of Cuba, I’ll say they do one thing that they don’t do, which is they invest in the lives of poor children. And there are many more opportunities for sport programs, arts programs, music programs, education programs… .
Are you planning a return trip to Cuba to screen the film, by the way?
RB: Well, we’ve applied to the Havana film festival. A tough festival to get in. There’s a limited number of yankee films that would be accepted. But it’s in December every year. I’m flat broke now. He’s not much better. So we’ll see. He’s doing what he loves, I love making films. But the money’s really tight, so I don’t know how we’d afford to get there.
EC: I do dream of going back. I do somewhere down the line would love to go back to Cuba and play ball or just visit. Somewhere down the line, I can’t tell you when or where, I’m going to back to Cuba, one of these days.
So what are your hopes with this documentary? Do you want it to help with funding for programs?
EC: I want to support inner city coaches. I think part of that solution is financial. There would have to be stipends for inner city coaches. Talking to people, they say, well you know, with finances in the country the way they are, and the objections of Republicans spending money in the inner city, there’s no way you’re going to resuscitate the great recreation departments that Richmond and Oakland had in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They had the best recreation departments in the country! So many athletes came out of those communities. Those communities have lost their industrial base, their tax base, a lot of their job security. How can you restore opportunity in the inner city? It’s something that I want to partner with people about.
RB: What I hope people take from the movie is a simple thing. We have to do better with our children. Period point blank. We are America the greatest society in the world. We have to do better with our children. Doesn’t have to be baseball, I don’t care how they invest in our kids but we must invest in our children, period, across the board. This is the message I hope people can take from it.
Do you have any advice for being a role model?
RB: I’d just say be sincere about what you’re doing. I’ve never tried to be a role model. That’s not what I’m trying to do or be at all. I just want to help kids out, that’s it, that’s all. How people take that, they take it. But just be genuine about what you’re doing. Be serious. Be honest, especially when you’re dealing with children. If you say you’re going to be somewhere, be somewhere. Greater lessons are learned, to me, than through lying and deceit. Lessons can be learned through lying and deceit, I think the most powerful comes through being honest, being forthright.
EC: If you’re going to be a mentor in the inner city, you’re also going to have huge disappointments. Kids are going to go to the dark side. Things are going to happen that break your heart on a regular basis. You have to be pretty strong. But that spiritual sharing that goes on between a mentor and a kid, there has to be a piece of yourself in it or it doesn’t work.
Roscoe, you mentioned that you’re a private person. How has starring in a documentary impacted your life?
RB: What it’s done is brought attention to my baseball program, so that’s a huge plus, because I don’t know without this movie if I still could be doing it. This is how we’re able to continue to fund the teams. Yes, I do work two jobs every now and again, so the money’s not coming out of my pocket. I’m having a hard enough time just keeping my boys in college. People in the Bay Area are exceptionally generous for certain things, so I’m just hoping that it will allow us to continue on. I was on a twenty year plan, I’m in my eleventh year right now. I said after twenty years, I’ll reevaluate. Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing baseball until I can’t do baseball anymore.