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Swinging for the fences: ‘The Base’ uses sports to push student athletes to excellence on the field and in the classroom

Martin Desmarais
Swinging for the fences: ‘The Base’ uses sports to push student athletes to excellence on the field and in the classroom
Robert Lewis Jr. founder of the Boston Astros baseball program is looking to build off the success of the 35-year old team in launching The Base. The Roxbury-based nonprofit program will serve student athletes in Boston and provide baseball training as well as educational support. Lewis says that all Boston Astros players will be required to take part in the academic component of The Base. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Astros)

The Base will require all members of the Boston Astros baseball teams to take part in the nonprofit organization’s educational support programs, such as tutoring and SAT prep, according to founder Robert Lewis Jr.

Robert Lewis Jr. believes in the power of sports to help boys succeed not just on the field, but in life.

He has proven that over the past three decades with his Boston Astros baseball program and he is looking to prove it even more with the launch of The Base, a nonprofit organization that pairs baseball training with educational support.

More than anything, though, Lewis, the former Boston Foundation vice-president, believes in the players.

“It is about belief, hope and opportunity,” Lewis says. “I don’t look at our kids in a deficit mode. If you look at our name it is The Base — which is foundation — and our theme is ‘Success Lives Here.’”

The foundation for The Base is the Boston Astros baseball program — a 35-year old baseball organization started by Lewis and John Ruiz in the 1970s. It has served 8,000 players and more than 600 teams. It now has over 400 players, mostly black and Latino teenagers from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

The Boston Astros home field park is Jim Rice Field on Washington St. in Roxbury. Its teams have won two national championships, one in 2010 and one this summer. The Boston Astros were also named the “Triple Crown Sports’ 2012 Team of the Year.”

There are about 30 former Boston Astros players attending college and playing baseball. And three former players are playing in Major League Baseball: Manny Delcarmen of the Boston Red Sox, Juan Carlos Portes of the Minnesota Twins and Nelfi Zapata of the New York Mets.

“What I have shown over the years is that I can take the same kids that others say are not successful, and win national titles,” Lewis says.

The Base, which is headquartered in Roxbury and will serve players in neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Mattapan, is an extension of what Lewis has done with the Boston Astros.

The big difference now is that the education component will be required. And on this point, Lewis is very clear: If players do not keep up with the educational requirements of The Base, they will not be able to play baseball for the Boston Astros.

According to Lewis, The Base will focus on several approaches to help its players succeed. One is baseball training, condition and competition. Another is college readiness and after-school tutoring for academic achievement. A third is job training, skill development and learning. Finally, The Base will provide individual counseling, knowledge and resources.

“The bottom line for me,” Lewis explains, “is I want very active engaged citizens that are equipped and resourced for the 21st century jobs that exist and are out there.”

The Boston Astros work with many groups and organizations to support its inner-city baseball teams, including the Boston Red Sox. Boston Astros players and coaches are shown during a visit to Fenway Park.

While the specifics are still being worked out, Lewis says that for every hour of playing baseball the athletes will have an hour of education-related prep work or life skills training. His hope is to provide to each player about 250 hours of off-the-field support a year.

To support this, the organization will have coaches, trainers, educators, social workers and administrators all on staff. The Base has also partnered with 13 area colleges and universities, including Harvard University, Northeastern University, Brandeis University, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Endicott College, Emerson College and Simmons College.

“If I can make academics a mandatory aspect to play in my program, we have something,” Lewis says. “I want to give our kids all the tools that they need to be successful.”

But with The Base, Lewis acknowledges that just winning on the ball field is not enough.

“Now what I need to do is up their GPA in school,” Lewis says. “I need to let them know that those great skills and talents they have need to be applied. I need them to know that the three Ps — preparation, practice and performance — is not just on the field.”

Lewis’ overall goals for The Base are focused on the issues plaguing black and Latino males, such as the 55 percent and 51 percent four-year public high school graduation rates. He has pledged that the graduation rate for his organization’s athletes will be 90 percent by 2017.

He also has the goal of sending at least 80 percent of its athletes to college or job-certification programs. Further, he says that at least 60 percent of The Base’s student athletes will graduate from two- or four-year colleges.

Lewis launched The Base at the start of this year after spending several months working on his plans for the organization. He has very ambitious fund-raising goals for the nonprofit – $12 million dollars in the next five years. He already has the backing of Grand Circle Travel owner and Chairman Alan Lewis, who pledged $2 million.

He also has the support of an impressive list of individuals and organizations, including Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree Jr., the Whittier Street Health Center, College Bound Dorchester, uAspire, the Latino Professional Network, The Boston Foundation, former CEO of Timberland Jeff Swartz, Ron Walker, II, of Next Street Financial, National Black College Alliance, and WilmerHale LLP.

In addition to baseball, Lewis has worked in the civic, community and nonprofit fields. He has served as executive director of the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, president and executive of the National Conference for Community and Justice, senior vice president of City Year’s national operations and executive director of City Year Boston, director of community initiatives for the Boston Housing Authority and founder and first director of the Streetworkers Program for the Boston Community Centers. 

Lewis was most recently vice president for programs at the Boston Foundation, where he oversaw $16 million in grant money. During his time with the Boston Foundation, he helped launched two major initiatives.

Robert Lewis Jr. founded the Boston Astros baseball program 35 years ago to provide an outlet for inner-city kids to play baseball. Earlier this year, he started The Base, a Roxbury-based nonprofit program that will provide baseball training as well as educational support.

The first was StreetSafe Boston which has a mission of dramatically reducing gun violence in the city by working directly with known offenders in the neighborhoods most affected by street-level violence.

The second was CHAMPS Boston, which promotes positive youth development through sports by training coaches, providing donated sports equipment and uniforms, refurbishing fields and investing in youth sports programs throughout the city.

Since he launched The Base, Lewis says he has had many people ask him why he gave up a great job at the Boston Foundation. Lewis says he doesn’t look at it that way. “I feel like this is the promotion,” he says. “I feel privileged.”

“My biggest goal is I want to revive and revitalize urban baseball in America,” he explains. “I want urban baseball to be a vehicle that is going to shift the trajectory of all of our kids. Every kid deserves to be educated, safe, healthy and warm. Period. That is the moral basic standard.”