Former Drug Seller Coaches Kids On Baseball, Life

After co-founding a famed local band and serving prison time for drug charges, Derrick McCrae believes he has found his passion. For the past 17 years, McCrae has been coaching Little League baseball in one of Washington D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods. Host Michel Martin speaks with McCrae about what he has learned and how he teaches his players to succeed on and off the baseball diamond.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we pay tribute to one of the great figures in the blues. We'll look back on the life and music of David "Honeyboy" Edwards. He died this week at the age of 96. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today we have a story about new beginnings.

Derrick McCrae once made a living selling drugs on the streets of Washington, D.C., but after prison, he put his life on a different path, one that led him to Little League Baseball. For the past 17 years, McCrae has coached Little League in one of the city's tougher communities, bringing a welcome childhood tradition to kids who sometimes don't get much of a childhood.

And Derrick McCrae is with us now in our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome, thanks for coming by.

DERRICK MCCRAE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, obviously we want to talk about what you're doing now, but we do want to talk a little bit about what you were doing before. Why did you start selling?

MCCRAE: Back in the late '70s, I was managed the Junkyard Band in D.C., and we didn't have much. So I needed more money. So I started selling drugs. Like, my day went like this: worked in the daytime, in the evening practice the band, and then in late-night, then I was doing the dirt.

MARTIN: That must have been tiring.

MCCRAE: Yes, it was.

MARTIN: So did you get Little League on your mind?

MCCRAE: OK, when I got out of jail, I think about 10 months, I started working various jobs. Then I started working pretty steady on this particular job. Then a bad accident, got hurt. While I was recovering, a particular young lady I saw passing out flyers, open house for this after-school program called the Fisher School.

A retired police officer started that in 1990, named Tom Lewis. So me chasing the girl, I go down there and volunteer, you know, help out and come to find out the woman's married.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCRAE: But then I was already committed.

MARTIN: To baseball.

MCCRAE: Yeah - no, it wasn't baseball yet. I mean, I was just committed to helping out at the Fisher School with the kids. So basketball season came around, and Mr. Lewis told me, well, I want you to coach the basketball team. I said OK.

MARTIN: Well, he said, we got a baseball team I want you to coach. I said hold up, man. I know Major League Baseball, but I don't know Little League. He said don't worry about it. Just get on in there with the rest of the guys, and, you know, just learn by doing.

MARTIN: And here you are 17 years later, still coaching Little League. Is it a tough sell, though, in a city where, you know, basketball and football kind of reign supreme, don't they? I mean, particularly among African-American youth, those are the sports that...

MCCRAE: Yeah, it is tough, but the way I made it easy for me is I do have transportation.

MARTIN: The transportation matters why, because parents don't have to worry about getting the kids to practice?

MCCRAE: Right, see if you were going to pick the kids up, that's a big plus. I mean, also you have little incentives like probably once or twice a week you take them and do something different, take them to the museums, take them to the go-cart track. Just don't let it all about baseball because they are kids, and kids got to have fun.

And then occasionally, you know, let them play a little basketball. Let them play a little football. But with me, I let them do that, but I want them dedicated to baseball.

MARTIN: How do you keep them dedicated to baseball? As we said that Washington just got a Major League team, finally, after years, and they're struggling. They're not exactly burning up the track here.

MCCRAE: But the way I teach them is, it's fun. They have a lot of fun, a lots of fun. And then, you know, another thing is when they're out there, you know, you've got to have some sugar for them, you know, chips, cookies, things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCRAE: You get a little sugar in them, they'll run all day.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK, good to know. And you check report cards. I notice that you do check report cards. Why do you do that?

MCCRAE: Well, kids with low grade point average, you spend more time disciplining them than teaching them the game. So I harp on that. You've got to give me a 2.5.

MARTIN: Do you kick kids off the team if their grades drop?

MCCRAE: Yes, yes I do.

MARTIN: Kind of tough.

MCCRAE: Got to be. Playing baseball after school, that's a privilege, and they have to earn that.

MARTIN: We were talking earlier about how hard it is for you to hold on to kids for baseball because, you know, football's so popular, particularly in the black community, and also basketball, of course. And a lot of these AAU teams, Amateur Athletic Union teams, we've reported on this. It can be very competitive, you know, holding onto their players.

So is it hard for you to hold onto your players, even those who are promising ballplayers?

MCCRAE: It's very hard.

MARTIN: Is it the appeal of basketball or is it more the appeal of what, people think that that's going to be their ticket to a scholarship?

MCCRAE: Well, they think it's going to be a ticket to a scholarship. But I don't believe that. A ticket to a scholarship is high school. Go to high school, make those grades, make the team, work hard, free ride any college in America.

MARTIN: Now forgive me for asking this, because I, I don't mean to be hurtful. But do any of the parents have a concern about a person with a record coaching their kids?

MCCRAE: Nuh-uh.

MARTIN: Because?

MCCRAE: Well, back in the '80s everybody did that. And most of the parents that I deal with, they're forgiving parents. They know people can change.

MARTIN: Well, that is, I think that's one of the reasons that your story is meaningful for a lot of people, because there's a lot there. I mean one is obviously the whole story about black kids in baseball. And on the other hand, there is the story of you turning your life around after a difficult start. But I wonder if there's some lessons there. Like what do you think people can learn from your story?

MCCRAE: Don't give up. Do not give up on the kids. I mean kids going to be kids. Some of them are rough. Some of them are real rough. A lot of kids do what they do because they're not being watched. Bottom line. Because if we've got our eyes on them - I mean they're going to do some things but not, not as bad.

MARTIN: You know, you're a part of the D.C. that many people don't see. On the one hand there is official Washington.

MCCRAE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, where all the president and the Congress and all the official buildings and everything attached to that. And then there's the Washington that the tourists see, you know, the museums and this and this. And you're a part of, you know, the people who kind of live here all year round and in a lot of ways have a lot of the same issues that a lot of people in a lot of cities are dealing with. And I just wonder if there's anything that you could tell official Washington, from your part of Washington, what do you think you might want them to know?

MCCRAE: It's a lot of people in this town that's helping out kids which need funding. I mean it's a lot of guys out here that I come in contact with that's in a different league that coach these kids. I mean we work hard, work very hard to help these kids. And there's a lot of people when we're out there fundraising looking at us like oh, it don't cost nothing to do what you're doing. And there's a lot of people that encourage us.

And then that one particular one comes through and say man, God's going to really bless you. Keep on doing what you're doing. Keep on helping them kids. And I get more of that than anything. And that just really just fills my spirit and I just keep on going. Because years ago when I first started working at the Fishing School, this lady named Ms. Neal, I mean I call her - she's a church lady. I mean she loves the Lord. She loves the Lord. And she said this to me because I was feeling kind of down one day, and she say listen, somebody has to suffer for the children and you one of them, and you got to continue to do that through life. And every time I feel down I say that and I think about Ms. Neal. I mean, I mean, wow.

MARTIN: Derrick McCrae is the coach of the Raiders. It's a Little League team here in Washington, D.C. his story is featured in the latest Washington Post Magazine. The piece is titled "The Change-up." If you'd like to read the piece in its entirety - we hope you will - check out our website. Go to npr.org and select TELL ME MORE from the Program page. The piece was written by Annie Chen. And Derrick McCrae was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Derrick, coach, thank you so much for joining us.

MCCRAE: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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