For college baseball’s boys of summer, whose rites of passage are drenched in the warmth of heat and humidity in June and July, a frosty March weekend at the Washington National Baseball Academy helps the DC Grays fulfill its mission to embrace HBCU baseball.

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Despite freezing temperatures Coppin State represents the MEAC and HBCU Baseball in the first Collegiate Baseball Challenge at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in SE D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Coppin State faced Lafayette and Harvard in the inaugural Head First Honor Roll Collegiate Challenge, which was sponsored by the DC Grays, on March 3, 4 and 5. The Grays, who compete in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, play their summer league home games at a venue built to revive baseball in southeast DC.  This was the first time they hosted a Division I tournament at their local stadium bringing a major college event into the heart of their urban community.

“Our mission is to have quality baseball in the community,” Chris Spera, vice president of operations for the DC Grays, told the AFRO.  “It’s important for young kids to see players they can relate to.”

Coppin State is the closest “partner” to the DC Grays, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing baseball to the inner city of Washington, D.C., which made them the perfect HBCU representative to compete in the first year of the challenge. Players from as far south as Grambling and as far west as Brigham Young University have served previously as social ambassadors through America’s national pastime.

“We have ongoing relationships with several HBCUs though all our players don’t play at Black colleges,” said Spera.  “It’s a two way relationship to find athletes who fill a need of our team and fit the Grays mission”.

For Coppin State the weekend was a marketing tool and a history lesson for players to understand the legacy of Negro League Baseball that the host organization represents.  The DC Grays honor the Homestead Grays that were founded in 1935 and became a dominant team in the Negro National League.  The original Grays played 38 years while winning three world championships in a five year stretch from 1938 – 1943, playing between Washington and Pittsburgh, with legends such as “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard.

“Many young players think you have to travel south to play college baseball,” Coppin State Coach Sherman Reed, told the AFRO.  “We just wanted to expose the fact that there is a chance to play Division I college baseball 30 miles north of D.C.”

Facing Lafayette of the Patriot League and Harvard of the Ivy was the perfect early season measuring stick for the Coppin State Eagles. However, Mother Nature was not in a cooperative mood wreaking havoc on the three day schedule.  The competition’s format was for one team to play a doubleheader each day with games scheduled in the late afternoon and early Friday and Saturday evening so each team to play through an early season two game day.  The challenges of preseason inclement weather worked to Coppin’s advantage by preparing them for scenarios that arise during their pre-MEAC schedule.

“Pitchers were still able to get their innings and the position players still got nine to 14 at bats so it was a good benchmark for us to find where we stand heading into our conference schedule where early season weather can be a challenge”.

The DC Grays commitment to advancing the HBCU brand continues with the collegiate challenge tournament.  The organization plans to make it an annual event but non-conference schedules are made two years in advance so it may not resume until 2019.

Of the four games played, Coppin State won one and lost three.

“Anytime we stage the tournament we’ll feature an HBCU team since it fits into the DC Grays mission,” said Spera.

“The more we can market baseball so close by playing in urban America it brings to the surface what might be if we get a facility built in west Baltimore,” said Reed.