Baseball’s bandits

Southwest park league’s Bryant Square Bandits made away with an entire season this year, earning an invitation to the state championship

Undefeated is a big word in the world of sports.

It’s a perfect season, maybe a trophy and no doubt some major bragging rights.

To a Southwest baseball team of 13 9- to 11-year-olds, undefeated was a summer they’ll never forget. The Bryant Square Bandits went 21–0 this summer against fellow Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board teams and was the only city team in its age division to be invited to the Minnesota Youth Athletic Association’s state tournament this year.

The Bandits, who practice at Bryant Square Park in CARAG, lost all three games at the tournament, but the team and its fans were just happy to be there.

“I think it’s nice to see inner-city teams get a chance to do this stuff,” said Holly Lee of Whittier as she watched her son Kenzie Singletary, 11, play for the Bandits in a tournament game against the Andover Rockies.

Jasha Johnston and Martin Cheatham, two friends who played baseball together at Washburn High School and went to state in 1995, coached the Bandits this year.

Head Coach Johnston — whose son Jakob McCabe-Johnston, 10, is on the team — has been coaching the Bryant Square team for several years. He said he never foresaw an undefeated season. Inspired by an RBI Baseball Academy coaching clinic, he said he focused on emphasizing the fundamentals of baseball this year. He also tried to make his players passionate about the game.

“My main goal was to transfer my love of the game onto them and let it take over from there,” he said. “And it did.”

Assistant Coach Cheatham said each member of the team improved significantly from the beginning of the year to the end. He and Johnston never benched anyone and the players were always rotating positions. All of the Bandits are also pretty good buddies, some having played several seasons together.

“We know each other and we can all work together,” said Oscar Malle-Burlow, 10, who broke his right arm sliding to second base during the last game of the city championships.

Wearing a green cast, he cheered on his team from the dugout at the state tournament.

Team members said the Bandits are solid in the field and at bat, but Team Captains Levi Schwartzberg, 11, and Imran Ahmed, 11, said pitching is a strongpoint.

“We’ve got three really superb pitchers and they help us lock down leads and stuff,” said Schwartzberg, who first picked up a baseball when he was eight.

Schwartzberg came up with a chant this year — “Let’s go Bandits, let’s go! Bryant Square! Bryant Square!” — that he said helped his team get through some close games.

“We kind of get into the heads of other teams and it gives our guys confidence,” he said.

Parents have been impressed with the way their children have played together this season. Todd Iverson, father of Elliot Iverson, 11, often helped out at practices and went to every game he could. He said the team’s camaraderie contributed to its many wins.

“They respect each other, they support each other and they’re always congratulating each other, motivating each other,” he said. “And you can’t enforce that. It’s something they have to do themselves.”

With black, white, Native American and Thai players, the Bandits are also a culturally diverse bunch. Some are first generation U.S. citizens, Johnston said.

He said he plans to coach the Bandits next year as well. Many of the team’s players are eligible to return, so he’s hoping for another great season and maybe a second shot at the state tournament, where the team faced older players and unfamiliar high school rules for the first time this year.

Winning is fun, he said, but it’s not why he or any of the players take the field.

“It’s a unique time in your life, little league baseball,” Johnston said. “It’s a time to go out and have fun with your buddies.”

Reach Jake Weyer at [email protected]