ELVERTA, Calif. – Jerry Manuel’s spring training these days are far different than in the past.
They consist of collecting stray baseballs sent back over the fence by a neighbor farmer, checking on new trees beyond the outfield, and coaching teens to the background noise from crowing roosters on a rundown field just down the street from a humongous cow pasture.
As pitchers and catchers reported to spring training this past week, Manuel, the former manager of the White Sox and New York Mets, has been busy working alongside son Anthony to keep young men – many, like the Manuels, African-American – on the right path academically by providing baseball opportunities.
The students come from throughout the Sacramento area to a school recently reopened with the necessary enrollment boost from those in the Jerry Manuel Foundation program. No matter that facilities are modest at best.
“It was a gut thing, like, ‘We need a school for these kids,’” Manuel said of a vision that began with getting the players going in travel ball. “I told my son: ‘I need these kids all year round because the education is bigger than travel ball. If they’re not getting that, we’re not doing them a service.’ Here we are.”
The Jerry Manuel Foundation draws middle-school students and a small group of ninth-graders to this rural town for baseball that isn’t geared strictly toward winning.
The 60-year-old Manuel, Chicago’s 2000 AL Manager of the Year, would love to get back in a big league dugout managing, or even as a bench coach if he found the right fit.
“I get withdrawals,” Manuel said. “Spring training, for a manager, is probably his most relaxed time.”
But Manuel, who last managed the Mets in 2010, was unwilling to wait around. He considers it his duty to help keep young black men headed to baseball, not just football or basketball.
“It’s a passion for me because I see the lack of participation at the major league level,” Manuel said. “It saddens me. The game will survive. Baseball is a beautiful game, even if they just played it at the Little League level, she’s going to survive. She’s that way.
“But the level of play is missing out on that dynamic player because he’s going to other sports. We’re leaving this and choosing one sport early, but nobody’s helping them choose baseball. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
In addition, Manuel is advising the process of building a new college program at William Jessup University in nearby Rocklin. Playing a role in developing players is paramount for Manuel, who regularly reminds his son winning isn’t everything at this level. These two cherish their time together.
Given that Manuel’s demanding major league baseball job kept him on the road for nearly half the year, they have discovered how passionate both are about making a difference.
“It’s awesome,” Manuel said. “He was the one in the family that everything was baseball. This is an awesome opportunity for both of us to grow together and for me to pass on what I know without the pressures of winning and losing.”
Anthony is the foundation’s head coach and director of baseball operations. He has aspirations of managing himself.
“I don’t take anything for granted, I get as much from him as I can,” Anthony said. “We’re not like a normal baseball program. School comes first. My dad makes sure we don’t stray away from that. They’ll have a place to go when they leave.”
Each morning, most of the 50 young men are dropped off at Alpha Middle School to take part in Manuel’s program, which received financial support from Sacramento native and former slugger Derrek Lee. The kids and parents don’t pay for anything but getting there.
The 31-year-old Anthony, a former minor leaguer now married with two young children, teaches homeroom before students go on to their regular classes.
There are regular reminders about Jackie Robinson’s core “nine values” – courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, excellence, commitment. For February’s Black History Month, Anthony discusses an African-American baseball player each day.
Tutoring is available, and some students in the first freshman class work independently through their course work on computers.
“If you’re not doing well in school, it’s difficult to get on the field,” Manuel said.
Eventually, Manuel hopes to receive funding from Major League Baseball for transportation and facilities upgrades.
A second field is in the works.
The Elverta School Board had hoped to reopen Alpha Middle School but faced financial challenges and other issues.
“They get up every morning and they’ve got more of a reason to go to school,” Superintendent Michael Borgaard said. “It’s wonderful to see them succeed. It’s really been one miracle after another.”
Tobias Menefee is one. He showed up in the foundation’s “clubhouse” in fall 2012, accompanied by his single mother, Tara Robinson. Manuel decided to give Menefee a chance even though he had never played baseball. He couldn’t catch or throw, and didn’t even know how to properly grip a bat.
“A lot of people wouldn’t give him a chance,” Anthony said.
Fast forward and Menefee is the program’s best player, with a baseball future. In the rain last week, Menefee and fellow 14-year-old prospect Fred Johnson were in the batting cage – built on an old bus turnaround – taking their cuts.
“This means, for me, a better chance to have my family be successful in life. I don’t want to struggle in life,” Menefee said. “Like everyone in the world, I want to live with a good financial payment and do all the things I want to do and have a good retirement after. Baseball’s my ticket there.”