By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Baseball season is in play and Seattle baseball came to represent, as Baseball Beyond Borders (BBB), a Seattle-based Baseball club, represented the Pacific Northwest in RBI Baseball’s World Series.
Founded by Bookie Gates, a proud product of Seattle’s Central District, BBB provides an opportunity for young African Americans to learn and play the game of baseball at a competitively high level.
Gates, a former professional baseball player and standout at both Garfield High School and Washington State University, birthed BBB out of necessity or out of what he calls “pain, passion and purpose.”
According to Gates, for young African American boys in Seattle, baseball, unlike other sports, was not readily available nor was the opportunity to grow as a baseball player. Most baseball opportunities were relegated to mostly White neighborhoods leaving Black talent looking and searching for quality teams because teams within their own neighborhoods were very limited. Gates remembers his own experiences leaving friends to venture to the Eastside of Puget Sound to play and perfect his game.
“Obviously growing up in the Central District of Seattle there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for summer or select baseball to explore potential so, I ended up having to be removed or displaced from my community to go play on the Eastside,” says Gates. “And that really brought pain to my eyes because my peers didn’t have the same opportunity nor did my family get the ability to travel and watch me play, so that gave me the need.”
“When I got back from playing minor league ball, I saw the gap still remained and that then fueled the passion to provide training and opportunity for kids of color to experience baseball at various levels,” added Gates.
Founded in 2008, BBB started with just 40 kids and today the program is working with up to 150 ballers between the ages of 10 to 18 annually.
With a large coaching staff of past professional baseball players and homegrown talent, BBB has positioned itself to be one of the premier baseball clubs in the region. Coach and longtime friend EC Parker believes in the importance of representation so that Black kids can see and identify with men and women of the same color and know that anything is possible regardless of your race.
“Programs like this are critical in my opinion, particularly in baseball,” says Parker. “I am a firm believer in representation matters and seeing people that look like you can help impact and drive your interest in certain industries and activities.”
During the Central District heyday, when the population was predominantly Black, seeing all-Black teams and Black coaches was an everyday occurrence. Unlike today where the Central District has been depleted of Black residents due to redlining and gentrification finding teams to fit the identity of Black children especially in baseball is far and few between.
“When I was growing up [in the 80s], the CD, at that time was 80 percent Black,” says Parker. “So, it was nothing to have a whole little league full of Black kids, all Black coaches and all Black kids. That wasn’t a surprise or that wasn’t anything strange at least to me back then.”
“But now when we show up for tournaments, we are the only all-Black coaching staff pretty much,” added Parker. “Here in the Northwest very, very rarely will you see an all-Black coaching staff or team. So yes, representation matters to me.”
Baseball Beyond Boarder cannot emphasize enough the importance of young Black players having an opportunity to fulfill their potential in a sport they love. Damico Parker, Jr., the nephew of coach EC Parker and a member of this year’s World Series team, agrees and says that its encouraging to see Black coaches, Black mentors and other Black teams.
“I think this experience is actually very important,” says Parker Jr. “Because there are a lot of kids out there that might love the game but might not know what teams to be on, that might not have the encouragement or people around them to tell them that you can do this and go all the way and give it your all. Or they may not have the right teacher or coach that knows something about the game.”
“Playing against teams from Atlanta with all-Black teams just showed that there are all Black teams out there that love to play baseball just as we do,” continued Parker. “Especially the coaches all have good vibes and showed love for the game and it showed that we can play baseball to and we can play as good as anybody and possess the same passion for the game.”
The Impact Of Baseball Beyond Boarder
At the RBI Baseball World Series this year, BBB found themselves facing one of their own. Nelson Cooper, who was born and raised in Seattle, was one of the first kids to join Chaffey Innercity – the original name of BBB in 2008 before it morphed into Baseball Beyond Boarder in 2014. Cooper was one of the first kids from the program to graduate from college at North Carolina Central University, where he graduated Magnum Cum Laude.
Moving to Pittsburg after college, Cooper found the same scenario in Pittsburg that Gates found in Seattle –where there was a lack of baseball programs for Black kids. So, Cooper instituted what he learned and experienced at BBB and started a program of his own. As fate would have it, during the 2021 Worlds Series, Cooper found himself face-to-face with his mentor, Bookie Gates, as their teams faced off on a back-and-forth contest with BBB being victorious in a come from behind victory.
It was a full circle moment for Gates, not only because one of his own, in Cooper, had started his own program, was his adversary for the day, but also because of the historic role that Cooper played in the history of BBB.
“Nelson Cooper was born and raised here in Seattle and he was one of our first kids,” says Gates. “He was one of those kids that said, ‘I don’t have anywhere to play’ so he joined and that’s when he threw out the first pitch for Chaffey Innercity now Baseball Beyond Boarders.”
“He (Cooper) had a very similar experience as I did with ‘pain, passion and purpose,’” says Gates. “He got to Pittsburg and discovered there was no baseball and took a similar model and concept that we offered him and ended up making baseball available for kids in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and we ended up playing him in the first game of the RBI World Series.”
Gates is a true believer and follower of baseball. He firmly believes that baseball is one of the only entities in the country that Black people owned outright and that is the Negro National League. In 1920, under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster along with several other Midwestern team owners who joined together to form the Negro National League.
According to Gates, this is important because it offers young Black people the opportunity to be a part of something reflecting ownership and economic empowerment and it is important to Gates that the community is aware of the significance of this league, and the role baseball can play in the lives of young Black boys and girls when it comes to sports in general and the impact it can have on a community.
“Try baseball is the hashtag we are putting out,” says Gates. “Don’t limit the ability of what a sport can do for your student athlete, right? Especially a sport that we owned.”
“[Baseball is] the only major sports entity that we ever had ownership rights to,” says Gates “The Negro League that is the cultural preservation that we strive toward. And it is beyond just the field of play, we really want people to recognize that our organization, while yes, we want to continue to produce talent on the field, we also want to create productive citizen and community members off the field.”