ICYMI: Baseball Edition - Harvard Park (2012)
As I mentioned previously, I am a lifelong Yankee fan. I bleed pinstripes, as it were. But in the 1980’s, it was hard to ignore the crosstown rival New York Mets. After a decade of futility, the Mets were looking up, thanks to free agent signings like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter as well as the development of home-grown talent like Lenny Dykstra, Dwight “Doc” Gooden, and Darryl Strawberry. Strawberry, in particular, was quite the impressive baseball specimen. I can remember going to games at old Shea Stadium to see “Straw” put on awesome displays of power during batting practice that would dent the occasional car in the adjacent parking lot. Sadly, his battles with drug addiction derailed what was a sure Hall of Fame worthy career.
Brian Coyne’s perceptive 2012 documentary Harvard Park tells a little-known true story about Strawberry’s background and his enduring connection to fellow longtime big leaguer Eric Davis. The two were highly sought-after prospects from South Central LA, not know for being a pipeline to the MLB. Despite both excelling in other sports like basketball and track, they both always found their mutual ways back to baseball. They crossed paths in little league and high school tournaments. They were both selected in the MLB’s 1980 amateur draft, Eric Davis going in the 8th round (which gave him a chip on his shoulder) and Darryl Strawberry being selected #1 overall (which brought nothing but high expectations).
After a few seasons in the minors, they both realized they were incredibly homesick and that the needed something more to get to the next level. They created an impromptu baseball camp in their backyard, more specifically the centrally located Harvard Park. It ran for most of the 80’s into the early 90’s, even after both became superstars. It ran from early January until they had to report to spring training in February and per Strawberry, “It was LA, so as long as it wasn’t raining, we were playing ball.” They invited all LA based professional baseball players as well as local talented high school players. We learn in the film that the “camp” is credited with hosting/cultivating approximately two dozen MLB players including Chris Brown, Royce Clayton, David Justice and future Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Barry Larkin.
Harvard Park is seen as something of a sanctuary, both away from the ensuing pressures of playing baseball as well as the stark reality of being in South Central LA – prime gang territory, fraught with gun violence and drugs. Darryl’s older brother, Mike (himself, a former baseball prospect) provided security as an LAPD officer along with regular police drive-bys. In the film, some of the players mention hearing the occasional gun shot and watching nearby car chases.
As for the actual baseball, Davis and Strawberry were adamant that all participating players do their fair share, which included taking turns pitching batting practice and shagging fly balls. The batting practice was facilitated by stacking three garbage cans to form a protective pitcher’s barrier. The players work hard, run drills, and keep their ears wide open for any advice from soon to be stars like “Straw” and “E.D.” And each day usually ended with homemade BBQ and/or fried chicken, making it feel like a picnic.
Harvard Park is a testament to the promise of young talent, the hard work needed to endure, as well as the places that you find family. Both Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis had successful careers even though they weren’t as sustaining as they would have liked, with Straw’s career hampered by drug addiction and E.D.’s career laden with a series of freakish injuries. Their connection grew deeper when they were both diagnosed with and prevailed over colon cancer, almost within two years of each other. But, despite the championships and individual accolades they attained they may agree that their greatest accomplishment may be the work and guidance that was Harvard Park.
By the film’s end, I couldn’t help but think of the last line of Jim Bouton’s baseball classic “Ball Four:”
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”