In many ways, senior Denzel Jones represents the best of Howard baseball. The first-year player had never played organized baseball before trying out for the team this winter, and knew very little about the sport when he made the Hustlin’ Tigers roster. While his mother, Ada-Princess Jones, was a prolific softball player back in the day, Denzel had much to learn about baseball, and spent most of the season on the bench. But even though Denzel rarely got into games, he always exuded positivity in the dugout and never stopped working hard in practice.
“As a ballplayer, a lot of students don’t take well to not getting a lot of playing time,” Ms. Jones says. “But I’ve never seen Denzel complaining on this field. I’ve never seen him pout or be sluggish. He’s been a leader out here, even if he’s not been able to play as much as he would like to play.”
In a mid-April blowout against Chattanooga Central, Coach Jonathan Johnson decided to try something new. Even though Jones usually set up at first base or right field, Johnson handed the senior the ball, told him to go up to the Howard pitcher’s mound, and let Jones throw strikes.
For a team that has won only one game this season, moments like that are the reason Johnson and his staff continue to plug on almost five years after rebuilding the program after the 2016 season. On a team that has won 12 games in five seasons (one shortened by COVID-19), Johnson says there are more ways to measure success than just wins and losses.
“Obviously you measure by wins, because that’s why we keep score,” Johnson says. “But you also have to measure success holistically as the child grows and develops and matures. Because one day the scoreboard goes away, but the maturity remains. I’m looking at their academics, their character, their ability to be on time.”
Baseball might be “America’s Pastime,” but in the inner city around The Howard School, the sport was an afterthought before Johnson took over. The first group of boys didn’t even have a field to play on, something they literally took into their own hands. Johnson and his team spent that first year completely rebuilding the school’s field, doing everything from resodding the field to building out the fence.
“Those first few teams were here every weekend, in the rain and the heat and the blistering cold. It was backbreaking work, but the boys were here and they were getting it done,” says assistant coach Hugh Crawford, who arrived at Howard a year before Johnson. “We did everything we could do without bringing in contractors, but there were other companies that pitched in too.”
As players were being drilled on game situations in the field behind him, Crawford spoke about the importance of fundamentals, and their conspicuous absence during the actual games. In a sport where quick decision-making needs to be almost automatic in order to turn a single into a double-play, Howard’s players are behind many of their peers.
Unlike many players at Soddy Daisy or Cleveland, where their athletes have been drilled on how to hit the cutoff man since they were in kindergarten, most of the Hustlin’ Tigers hadn’t picked up a baseball until they entered high school. So while their opponents instinctively know where to throw the ball with men on the corners with only one out, Howard’s players are still learning how to play a fly ball to left field.
“They’re incredible athletes, but they don’t have a ton of baseball experience and IQ yet,” assistant coach Nick Bosco says. “I tell them all the time, if you make a good decision in the field and save us a run, that’s just as valuable as hitting the ball over the fence.”
One of their most-promising players is junior Chris Vines, who has been deemed by some teammates as the funniest player on the team. But on the field, Vines is as serious as they come, one of the few players on the team who played baseball before joining Johnson’s group.
“My grandmama was a crowd extra in the movie ‘42’, and after that I just wanted to play baseball,” Vines says. “So I started when I was eight and I played at the East Ridge Rec Center. I fell in love with it. I like being the center of attention when I’m doing well and everyone is going crazy. I love that. I love pitching.”
He credits his coach for helping him mature as a person, saying that he used to have an “attitude problem” as a freshman. He, other players, and the coaching staff all emphasized how Johnson places equal importance on developing character alongside crafting stronger baseball players.
“My freshman year, nobody really wanted to play around here, but I knew I wanted to play baseball,” Vines says. “I feel like I’ve matured and gotten more mentally stronger. I used to get mad and start walking guys, but now I just keep throwing strikes.”
“I want to win and we’re going to put it on them, but it’s really hard to pick up a baseball when you’re 14 and be competitive,” Johnson says. “For me, I’m looking at this saying we want to be competitive, but I need to make sure I’m instilling these things that are going to be eternally impacting principles that will help them when they’re 35 or 40 or 50 or 60 and that they’ll teach their children.”
“What can I do to make them better husbands, better fathers, and whatever. One day they might run a business or work for a business, and how are they going to handle disappointment when that happens? How can I instill those values of integrity and discipline in them when they’re 16, 17, and 18?”
For the Tigers’ head coach, the way his team practices and plays is far more important than the final score. Freshmen like Jkwon McKevie have oodles of talent but still need to be refined, and so every time he makes the right throw or lays off a questionable pitch, Johnson sees that as great progress. The team’s unofficial motto is “on to the next play,” which encapsulates the coach’s philosophy in four words.
“He’s a great coach. He motivates us,” McKevie says. “If I miss a ball I might get mad and want to walk off the field. He’ll tell me to just move on to the next play, stuff like that.”
There has been tangible progress on the field as well, such as Jacobi Dixson’s home run in April. It was the first homer in the history of Howard’s ‘new’ baseball program, and with each story, the blast seems to go a little higher and a tad bit farther each time.
“They threw him a good pitch, and he hit it and the ball went straight up into the sky, and next thing you know it went over the fence,” McKevie says. Meanwhile, Vines says “Jacobi went stupid for real. It was crazy because we haven’t seen anything like that (before).”
Plays like that may become more common in the next few years, since Johnson and the coaching staff are planning on creating an inner-city little league this summer. While this would produce more fundamentally-sound players in the future, the coaches want it to be about more than just baseball.
“We’re going to have 50 kids from the Emma Wheeler Homes and Alton Park, and we’re going to bus them in to play baseball,” Johnson says. “We’re going to have two practices a week, then a game on Saturday.”
He says his players like Chris and Jkwon will be paid to be umpires during these games, giving them a bona fide summer job. While only 50 or so kids will participate in this summer’s program, the coaches hope there will be a day where 100s of kids from Chattanooga’s inner city will compete in an expansive little league system.
Alan Carmichael is an assistant coach who is hoping to bring his pro baseball experience to this planned little league. The Baylor alum and six year veteran of the New York Mets system in the 1980s is also involved in helping coach Howard’s kids whenever he has time, and echoed many of the sentiments expressed by the other coaches.
“They’ve built an amazing environment and they have great kids, and we want to continue to encourage them and let them know they can be successful in life and enjoy the game of baseball,” coach Carmichael says. “They’ve just got such a great support system set up there for the kids, and to be just a small part of that is a great honor for me.”
As Howard’s program slowly but surely grows, Johnson hopes some of his players, both current and future, follow in Deuntee Sales’ footsteps. The Howard alum was part of coach Johnson’s first team, and briefly played collegiately for Tennessee Wesleyan’s JV squad. While Sales dropped baseball after his freshman year, the young man had a great reason for doing so.
“He said he didn’t want to do that anymore because he wants to focus on his engineering degree. He’s going there, and then he’ll go to UT-Knoxville and finish his engineering degree up there,” Johnson says. “And then maybe he’ll come back here and work at TVA or another company and make a difference in the lives of people here.”
Sales may be the first player in Howard’s ‘modern’ program to play collegiately, but he will probably not be the last. Willie Owens is a good player who will play college football after high school, and shortstop De’Orlean Elder consistently flashes a quick bat and even quicker reflexes in the field. The gregarious Vines believes he can play NCAA baseball if he continues to improve, and McKevie is looking to play summer baseball in order to improve his game.
“I want to go on to college and keep playing baseball in the NCAA,” Vines says. “I want to keep going up and up and see how far I can go. Maybe I can go to the MLB and take care of my mom.”
Back on the mound, Denzel Jones threw 19 pitches in his first relief appearance of the season, 13 for strikes. The senior has been described as a leader by teammates, where his work ethic shines through the hard practices and the lopsided games. Off the field, Jones is already has big plans for his future, which will start at the nearby community college. While some of his other teammates have dreams of playing college baseball, Jones has another path in mind.
“I want to be a barber, so I’m gonna go to Chattanooga State for college and see where it takes me. I don’t want to work for anyone and I want to work on my own time,” Jones says. “I want to work for myself.”
But that is the future. In the present, Jones and the Howard team are just about to finish up their 2021 season. Their team may not put up dozens of runs or pitch shutouts, but Howard’s team is still a special collection of talented players who one day may be the foundation of a truly great baseball program.
“We’re a good team,” Jones says. “You should come out and watch us. You’ll like it.”