It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center, and the Mission High School Bears trudge onto the baseball diamond—stomping on dandelions and anthills, avoiding the dog that wanders through the outfield—and take fielding practice.
Coach Dan Grossman and his assistants hit fly balls to the outfielders and grounders to the infielders, instructing them to make throws to first base.
There’s only one problem.
“Coach,” senior Ryan Mullaney calls to Grossman. “There is no first base.”
Welcome to the Bears’ baseball field—bases not included.
Some of Mission’s opponents—schools from the East Bay and elsewhere in the state—play their home games on campus, but all of San Francisco’s public schools play in parks assigned by the Department of Parks & Recreation. Many of the city’s schools consistently play at fields that are within easy walking distance, but Mission is a team constantly on the move. The Bears—currently tied with Marshall for first place in the San Francisco Section’s B Division—split their time between Potrero Hill and Jackson Field, both of which are more than a mile away from the school.
Many teams in Mission’s league must travel by car or bus to games and practices. Lowell High School, which has one of the city’s strongest athletic programs, must ride nearly four miles to its home games at Big Rec’s Graham Field. But more Lowell students have access to cars than do Mission students, Grossman says. For Mission’s players, public transit is almost always their mode of transportation. The Bears only charter buses when playing outside the city.
And for Mission High, it’s not just a matter of playing off-campus. While schools in more affluent San Francisco neighborhoods rarely worry about equipment and uniforms, the Bears are on a tight budget. Lowell and some other schools have booster clubs, specially organized to raise money for athletics. Some schools in higher-income areas bring in more money through Parent Teacher Association funding, which allows them to charter buses and provide uniforms and equipment for two teams, varsity and junior varsity, that may have as many as 25 players apiece.
At Mission, only about 15 players try out for the team each year, and a couple inevitably quit, leaving the school with just enough players to field only a varsity team. In this case, student apathy actually helps. Fewer players mean less money to be spent on uniforms and equipment.
“This is just part of the reality of being at an inner-city school,” says Athletic Director Scott Kennedy, who adds that he has learned not to complain about budgeting issues. “We’re just not going to have the resources that schools in other parts of the city and the area have. We’ve just had to find a system and make it work.”
At Mission, that system boils down to maintaining strict accountability with players and coaches. If you lose a uniform or a piece of school-owned equipment, you pay for it. The school won’t let you graduate until you do. Kennedy says the program has had its struggles during his eight years of coaching, but now, this system of stinginess helps them maintain a surplus.
But does it affect the players to see other teams arriving on chartered buses, wearing newly styled uniforms and swinging shining new bats?
“Yeah, we notice it, sure,” says senior shortstop Mark Bradford, who commutes 45 minutes by public transit to some practices. “But we can’t let that affect us. We can still play just like they can.”
At this Tuesday practice, the team makes do. They have portable bases, and Mullaney trots one out, approximates where he thinks it should go, drops it down and resumes practice.
Today, the Bears’ biggest challenge is arriving to practice on time. This is their path: Hop on the Muni 33 bus that snakes its way from the corner of Dolores and 18th streets to the intersection of 16th and Shotwell. Then transfer to the 53 that will take the team out of the Mission and up Potrero Hill. They get off at Wisconsin and Madera, and walk quickly past any drug dealers who have wandered up from their hub a block away on 23rd Street.
They hop over the fence—it’s a little beaten down, so it’s easy to manage—and hurry up to change in broad daylight—no locker room here—into their practice gear.
Coach Grossman is waiting.
“Why aren’t we ready?” Grossman yells to a couple stragglers. “How many times do you have to come to practice to know that you need to be ready when you get here?”
But Grossman understands why his players may be late.
“It takes so much for them to get over here, and then, just look at this,” he says, gesturing at the diamond. “This isn’t a baseball field.”
He’s right. Potrero Hill field is a gauntlet of ankle-high grass, weeds, hills, and even the rare gopher hole. Bumps and craters are scattered throughout the infield, ready to deflect the trajectory of any ground ball that comes their way.
“The ball bounces funny,” says Prithu Joshi, a junior in only his second year playing organized baseball. “You never know where it’s going to go.”
But for now, it’s the only field available. John Cosmos of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which assigns schools a home field, says Mission High is farther away from a field than other San Francisco schools.
“Potrero Hill is not a good field,” Cosmos says, acknowledging the Bears’ disadvantage. “Basically, we just need more baseball fields.”
None have been built in the last 15 years, and no immediate plans are in place to add new ones.
But Mission’s team still makes the trek to Potrero Hill once or twice a week. For other practices and games, the Bears go to Jackson Field, a 2-mile ride east on the 22 bus. There, they enjoy better-maintained grass and a flatter field, but the park is designed for softball, with a mound that’s lower and dimensions that are smaller than most baseball fields.
And once the Bears arrive, their classmates rarely join them.
“They don’t even know where the field is,” Grossman says of Mission students, “so how are they supposed to come?”
At a recent game against John O’Connell, fewer than 10 students showed up to watch. Of those, several were merely dropping by, before heading somewhere else.
“There isn’t as much support for baseball as there is for other sports,” says Mark Bradford, the senior shortstop who commutes 45 minutes from Visitation Valley to practice. “People from school just don’t really come to our games.”
“No room for complainers here,” Kennedy says. “Shut your mouth and get it done. If you perform well, that speaks for itself.”
As gloves pop and hardballs fly, the Bears make the most of their time atop Potrero Hill. The players stay focused on preparing to face the league’s top teams—wherever they play.
“If we can play here,” Bradford says, “we can play anywhere.”