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DUPLANTIS AND THE BENNIE
DUPLANTIS AND THE BENNIE
Dustin Duplatis' 2006 Toyota Corolla rattled into the parking lot next to Field B and quivered to a halt. Dustin blew out a sigh of relief. Every trip in the old beater was an adventure. He wondered how many more practices it would get him to. As an untenured PE teacher, he could hardly afford a better car. He hoped that if this summer's travel ball team did well he might catch the attention of the North Shore AD and get promoted to JV baseball coach. That job paid twice as much as his assistant's position. Maybe then he could buy a different car, or at least a new transmission.
But that wasn't very likely this summer. His 15u team draft didn't go well. He had coached six of the players he drafted. None of them were going to set the league on fire. Some of them were solid players, others not so much. Five others he didn't know at all .They played at other schools. Then there was his Extended Opportunity player.
Dustin was not opposed to the Extended Opportunity Policy. He had voted for it when the North Shore board adopted it. It only seemed fair that those who benefited from privilege should provide the means for those who hadn't to get their foot in the door of the North Shore Travel Baseball Association.
Dustin had seen how a lack of money affected a player's chances of cashing in on the professional sports bonanza. Back in his playing days, his south suburban high school bordered a blighted area that was home to many of his teammates of color. Many of them played on the school's baseball team with good results.
But come summertime while Dustin and his west side buddies signed up for the travel programs that got them another 30-40 games, his south side teammates went to work in the local fast food dispensaries and grocery stores, helping to make sure the rent got paid. Funds weren't available for them to shell out the four figure cost of a travel baseball team. When the college recruiters came looking at the most talented and offering scholarship money, the west side white boys who didn't have to work the summers typically got much more attention. It was natural that those who put more time into honing their skill got better at it. Dustin and his west side buddies didn't have anything conflicting with their baseball commitments
The Extended Opportunity Program was the genius of Arthur Bennington, CEO of AB Practical Technologies and local baseball philanthropist. He'd grown up on the south side and plowed several hundred thousand of his billion dollar net worth into the "Bennie", as Dustin and his fellow coaches liked to call it.
The Association devoted all of its money to scholarships for the low income players that qualified. That paid their entry fee into the program. There was nothing left to pay for a program administrator, even on a part time basis. The practical effect of that was to leave it up to the coaches to make all the connections with the scholarship winner. In Dustin's experience, that was the problem.
Most of kids from his 15u team had at least one parent who didn't work outsisde the home and could drive them to practice and games. They toted their own smart phones and if they didn't respond to his messages their parents would.. This was just not the case with the Bennie kids.If they had a cell phone it was usually out of minutes.This left Dustin running around the south side the hour before a game trying to round up his players to guarantee he'd have a full lineup.
The rule was that each team in the league would take at least one Bennie player. That way each team had an equal stake in the success of the program . Each would bear the burden that resulted in having a player on the team that didn't have the resources of the rest.
Dustin thought this was good as well. Since he graduated from High School at the turn of the century the differences between the west and south sides of the city had only grown. Most south side kids didn't give baseball a second thought these days. The school team was nearly all white. Players of color generally tried out for the school team to stay in shape for basketball season and because they weren't fast enough to do well in track. So the Bennie players tended to be less than stellar athletes. Not athletically gifted, not privileged with money and family support, these kids added to Dustin's workload in ways he didn't feel well equipped to handle. He had a degree in sports management, not social work.
As he sat on the padded pine of North Shore's brick and wrought iron dugout, overlooking the manicured field that his boys would soon occupy for their first practice, he thought to himself that this year was shaping up like the previous two. In front of him were eleven well scrubbed, sharply dressed white boys. Each donning brand new Under Armor and Nike attire, snagging balls in the webs of their recently purchased Rawlings and Mizunos and pushing off to throw from their shiny New Balance spikes. Missing was one LaMarkus Tate, the Bennie player from the south side who was ten minutes late . His phone number, as listed on the info sheet from the Bennington Association, was blurting a message that the number was no longer in service.
Dustin drew a sigh and put down the pen and clipboard he was using to take notes, jotting down who said they wanted to play what. "Not this again," he thought. "At least tonight its just a practice not a game." If it were a game, it would have been time to decide if he wanted to make the twenty minute drive to the south side and the address listed on the form to see if he could find his Bennie player. Dustin thought himself socially progressive, but the drive through the south side was one that sometimes left him white knuckled. The neighborhood had declined into something to be avoided. The possibility of driving there made him glad he drove the beater rather than the SUV he dreamed about after his hoped-for promotion.
He decided to push the thoughts of the missing Bennie aside for a moment and deal with something he was more adept at- configuring a lineup It was then that he first saw the outline of LaMarkus Tate striding over the grassy knoll that separated the parking lot from the backstop behind home plate. It was a visage to behold. Lit by the bank of flourescent lights that bathed the parking lot behind him, the figure stopped and stood tall, gazing at the field below. Dustin felt his jaw drop as he surveyed the physical specimen he beheld. The figure stood at least six feet in Dustin's estimation. His natural height was accented by a large stock of braided hair, exposed from under the cap he had tilted toward the sky and slightly to the left of center for effect. The braids were brown and bright yellow, having the appearance of a lion's mane, as they dropped to his shoulders. They accented the boy's copper brown skin.
The braids where hardly the most impressive thing about what Duplaintis was viewing. It was the chiseled frame that caught his attention. It did not look like the body of a 15 year old boy. It was more like what one would see in a ancient sculpture of some Greek god. The biceps were buldging, the chest barreled out and then narrowed to flat and narrow waist. The thighs like tree trunks. Dustin had never seen a frame like this on any athlete he had coached. Within seconds his pulse rate began to pick up speed and he found himself walking briskly toward the figure, trying to contain his excitement over the possibility that this could actually be the Bennie player he had been waiting on.
The bronzed figure was carrying a bat and had a fielder's glove stuck on the business end of it. Dustin continued his rapid approach toward the boy and nodded at him when he turned his gaze toward Dustin.
"LaMarkus?' he queried, looking down at his clipboard roster.
"Yeah…," said the boy in a deep baritone, "ah… its just Mark."
"Got it!" Dustin blurted, barely containing his excitement. "You're here for North Shore Bombers practice- right?" he heard himself saying, almost with the expectant hope of a prayer.
"Uh… yeah...I guess this is the right place, this is the team for North Shore, right, man?"
"It sure is, I'm Coach Duplantis, why don't you you get your cleats on and go out and warm up, we were just about to take some infield. Do you have a favorite position you'd want to try out for?"
The boy slid a drawstring satchel from his shoulder and fished out a pair of weather beaten black baseball spikes. " I d'kno, I played short mostly this year...but I'm good with anywhere you need me man, I'm here to play, know what I mean?" With that last phrase the boy flashed Dustin a broad smile, revealing a gold plated grill across his upper row of teeth.
Somewhat taken back by the golden smile, Dustin muttered "Absolutely!" and started jotting that down on his clipboard. Mark sat down in the corner of the dugout to change into his spikes. He propped his leg up on the opposite side of the bench to tie his spikes. As he did, Dustin noticed a black band around his ankle with some sort of black box bulging from the middle of it. The black box had a blinking LED light on it.
The sight of that box on his leg caused Duplantis to pause and lose some of his newfound excitement. The last time he had seen a device like that he was doing mandatory public service in college and volunteered twenty hours in the local probation office. Back then the probation officers he worked with called the black box an "ankle braclet." It allowed criminal defendants who would otherwise be in jail to be out in public as long as they stayed away from certain locations and people. The box sent a signal back to the probation officer that allowed tracking of the wearer's movements.
Duplantis suddenly was worried about more than baseball. What kind of kid had the Bennington Association sent him? Weren't there rules against kids with criminal records? He doubted much effort was made to check backgrounds given his trouble finding a good address for some players .
As Mark tied his cleats, Dustin noticed there was a large tattoo on his right forearm of a skull missing its bottom jaw. Was that a gang symbol? And then he recalled the satchel made a clanking noise when Mark swung it off his shoulder and it struck the wood part of the bench. Did he perhaps have a handgun in there? Duplantis was worried, was this kid going to compromise the safety of the rest of the team? How would he explain a gun incident to the overly protective mothers of the rest of his 15u squad.? What if LaMarkus couldn't make games because he was holed up in the juvenile detention center? He made a mental note to call the Bennington AssocIation and get some answers.
In the meantime Mark had finished tying his cleats and had removed the black box and laid it on the bench. A red LED light on the box started to flash, blinking at an ever quickening rate. "Great," thought Dustin, "he's supposed to have that thing on and now we're gonna get cops out here."
"Mark," Duplantis stated firmly, "are you supposed to be wearing that?'"
Tate broke into another wide, golden grin, " Nah, man..its cool, its cool," and with that he jogged out of the dugout and out to the infield, leaving Dustin alone in the dugout with his anxious thoughts.
Duplantis stood frozen in the dugout not sure of his next move. Did he call the Bennington Association and tell them what how their scholarship winner presented himself to the first practice? Did he open the satchel and search it to make sure his team was safe from firearm violence? Should he confront Mark with the fact that he just removed his electronic bracelet and exposed the whole team to the possibility of watching him be arrested for violating his probation?
Dustin mulled over his choices for a minute or two and decided perhaps it was best to do what he knew how to do- put his team through an infield drill. "Alright boys, lets do this!," he blurted loudly. "Just go out to where you wanna play for now, we'll figure out where you belong later."
As Duplantis watched, three boys ran toward first, two at second, three more at third. Only LaMarkus jogged out to short. "Not surprising," thought Duplantis, taking the field at short was pretty intimidating for a 15 year old. Usually reserved for the teams best player, Dustin often had to tell one of his kids to take it, nobody having the moxie to do it on their own. That was not the case with Tate.
Dustin stepped to the batter's box and started hitting fungos. The first few went as expected. His dribbler to first hopped over Pembrooke's hestitant stab at it and rolled into short right field. Lyman confidently grabbed the two hopper he hit to second and just as confidently fired it ten feet over Pembrooke's head and into the parking lot. First day jitters thought Dustin.
Dustin choked up and shot a one hopper at LaMarkus, who smoothly backhanded it and fired a bullet right on line to Pembrooke without bothering to look at him. The sound of throw echoed so loudly in Pembrooke's mitt that one of the kids watching from the outfield audibly gasped.
After Burns fumbled a soft grounder, Duplantis pointed at short and warned Tate the next one was "comin' atcha." He wound the bat back a little farther than usually and smacked a hard grounder straight over the second base bag. Tate took off at the crack of the bat and headed for the hole. As the ball bounded over the infield dirt and headed toward center field., Tate launched his body towards it in a fully extended dive, spearing it in the web of his mitt just as it reached the outfield grass, and just before his shoulder collided with the ground as he rolled over in a semi-somersault. Then he popped up, firing a perfect strike to first.
This time there was more than one audible gasp coming from the outfield. "Dude, that was awesome!," yelled Burns. Several others echoed the sentiment. Tate responded by bowing to the waist. Dustin could hardly believe what he had witnessed. He had seen few plays of that caliber in his D1 college days, let alone on the first day of a 15u practice.
The rest of infield went the same way. Tate continued to impress and amaze, the remainder of the squad plodded their way through it and enjoyed the show. By the end of the half hour session, Dustin was certain who his shortstop was and had all but forgotten that his shortstop might be a danger to the public. The black box continued to blink as it sat on the padded bench in the dugout.
Dustin called the boys in and started batting practice. Pembrooke, Scarborough and Tate were the first three in the box. Dustin took the mound and motioned Pembrooke into the batters box. Like he had for the entire school season, Pembrooke started off the travel season by lunging at Dustin's half speed lobs and managing to miss most of them. Scarbrough took the next slot and was equally unimpressive. Then Tate stepped in.
Dustin's first soft toss lob came in waist high and right down the middle. Mark crushed it off the left field fence. Nodding his approval, Dustin wound up a little more vigorously and fired a fastball to the outside of the plate. Tate went with the pitch and lined a shot into the right field corner, one hopping the fence.
Pleased that his Bennie player could not only field, but hit as well, Dustin decided to test the limits of his ability. He normally saved the full arsenal he'd developed in his college days for his personal workouts. But this kid could obviously hit a fastball - what about a slider, a curve or a change up? Dustin decided to test that out.
Holding nothing back, he fired a 90 mph hummer that looked like it was headed down the middle til it slid to the right and out of the strike zone. Tate reached for it and stroked it over Dustin's head and into short center field. Next he tried his best curveball and the kid smacked a solid line drive over the shortstop position. When he next unleashed a 70 mph change, the kid finally looked baffled, whiffing at it long before it ever reached the plate. "at least I've got proof he's human," Dustin thought.
Dustin's smiled as he thought of the prospects of what it might mean for his reputation as a coach to develop a superior talent like Tate. He let go of the next pitch, a fastball high and outside, and LaMarkus fouled straight back over the backstop and into the parking lot behind. As he watched the flight of the ball, something caught his eye that once again changed his mood. Was that a police squad car sitting in the middle of the parking lot? He squinted hard and saw that it was.
Just as he made out the black and white of the squad car, a female's head appeared over the top of the grassy knoll behind the backstop. It was an African-American female. As she advanced toward the field Dustin's heart sank as her torso and then the rest of her diminutive frame materialized. She was wearing a police uniform, marching toward the field with a look of steely determination, and holding a leash, the other end of which was attached to a tiny, very nervous dog. The dog appeared to be some sort of short-haired terrier. Definitely not the usual police work variety. But the officer's pace and facial expression made it look like she was very much on duty, Dustin wondered if the dog was there to sniff for drugs. Whatever its purpose it was loud, barking nonstop and pulling away from the officer.
Dustin broke into a quick jog and tried to get the officer before she got to the field, hoping to avoid a scene. The officer's gaze was so fixed on the field that she seemed not to notice Dustin as he entered her space. "Can I help you officer…is there a problem? " Dustin offered, his heart beating rapidly.
She finally glanced his way and then pointed to the field in the general direction of LaMarkus. " You the coach here?"
"Yes ma'am I am, Dustin Duplantis' my name, what seems to be the problem?"
"You've got my son Mark out there," she blurted out, " .this here's his dog Killer." Dustin looked at the dog, who launched into another cacophony of loud yips and yaps, straining on the leash.
"Killer's still a pup, and he don't know when to quit barkin', so he needs a bark collar…it's a nylon strap with a black box on it, gives him a little shock if he barks, supposed to teach 'em to be quiet. Problem is Mark thinks it cool to wear it on his ankle, says it makes him look like a "gangsta,' He thinks people won't mess with him if they think he's a criminal or somethin' so he wears the thing around. I'm sorry to bother you, but this dog gonna drive me nuts if I don't get that collar..can I talk to my boy a minute?"
"Sure," Dustin gushed, breathing a huge sigh and smiling broadly.
'Mark!" she loudly yelled toward the field. "Mark Braxton!! Get over here!
Dustin was puzzled, his mother was calling LaMarkus by a different name than what he had on his roster sheet. That a Bennie player had a different last name than what was on the sheet was not all that unusual , but it raised Dustin's curiosity. He headed to the dugout to grab his clipboard, Mark and his mother following behind him to get the bark collar.
He picked up his clipboard and waited for Mark to retrieve the collar for his mother, then he approached , walking up to their continued conversation.
"…And you need to stop by the Country Club on you're way home and pick up your sister from tennis practice, she'll be waiting on you, so don't mess 'round, y'here?"
Mark was nodding compliantly, obviously used to taking orders from his mother. Dustin was even more confused now, Mark had a driver's license? His roller coaster mood hit a new low, if he was old enough to drive, he was too old for this team.
She bent down and strapped the collar around the dog's neck, he let out one more yip and then got very quiet.
"S'cuse me ma'am but I need to clarify some details with you, "Dustin mumbled. I've got your son down as LaMarkus Tate? Is that correct?"
"What?" she scowled at Dustin, " that's not my son, this is Mark Braxton, my name is Cecilia Braxton, his daddy's name is Phillip Braxton, I don't know any Tates, that's not him."
Dustin's heart sank. "I've got a date of birth of 8-11-02, is that Marks?, he prayed, hoping for a yes, but not holding out much hope at this point.
Cecilia blew a puff of air out her pursed lips and shook her head. "No, sir its not, my boy's 17 years old- 3-2-00 I had him. You sure he's supposed to be on this team- this is the North Shore 17u right? He in the right place isn't he?
Dustin hung his head, "No ma'am, this is the 15u team, the 17u is two fields over, field D this is field B.
"Aw, I thought these boys looked kinda small, Cecilia observed, looking around at the rest of the team, "Mark, get your stuff, you in the wrong place, lets get over ta where you're supposed to be, sorry Coach if he caused any problem…"
"No prob," Dustin mumbled as he watched his dream walk away. He turned away from Mrs. Braxton and jammed his hands into his pants pockets, feeling the keys to his Corolla and thinking he'd better get used to them.
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