Hoover-Foster, commonly referred to as Ghost Town, is a neighborhood in West Oakland that spans across six blocks and is within five miles of cities like Berkeley and Emeryville. The neighborhood initially seemed appealing when Roscoe Lynell Bryant Jr., now known as Coach Roscoe by all the kids of his baseball teams, was looking for a new neighborhood for his family. He noticed that across from the home he wanted to purchase was a good school with a huge play yard. These features suggested to Coach Roscoe a good neighborhood in which he and his wife could raise their kids.
Shortly after moving into his new home in Ghost Town, Coach Roscoe realized that the community wasn’t exactly what he had expected. After the school near his home was torn down, Coach Roscoe started to discover the harsh reality of this neighborhood. Violence is in every neighborhood so Coach Roscoe didn’t pay too much attention to crimes in Ghost Town until the crime rate began to rise. Homicides were common. One night there was a shooter outside of Coach Roscoe’s house who shot into Coach Roscoe’s son’s room. The bullet luckily didn’t hurt anyone but the mattress his son slept on, just a couple of inches below where his son lay down every night, had a new hole from the bullet.
This dangerous shooting that hit so close to home that made Coach Roscoe realize he wanted to make a change in the community. He thought of baseball — and created the Oakland Royals team. Coach Roscoe at the time didn’t know much about baseball, but his ex-wife, Lehi Bryant, told him “You already have a handful of kids in your backyard playing. Those kids can be on your team!” The new coach went to the library to study the basics of baseball. Coach Roscoe became what is considered a volunteer youth coach. He worked his normal job around 20 hours a week. Everyday after work he met his team at the baseball diamond and held baseball practice.
In the beginning the team had no equipment whatsoever: no gloves, uniforms, helmets, or any of the bare necessities. But Coach Roscoe and the kids were not deterred. The team was not about fancy gear, but about providing life lessons to kids. After a short trip to GoodWill Roscoe was able to get his hands on baseball bats and gloves. “I got some white tee shirts. I got some iron-on transfers. That was our uniform. Tee-shirt with iron-on. We called ourselves the Royals. Why the Royals? I kept seeing these kids as our future kings and queens,” Coach Roscoe states. Just a few weeks after Coach Roscoe started the team, he was able to gather nearly enough kids for a whole team and they began practicing with their new gear.
Coach Roscoe’s main goal isn’t to train what he calls the “superstar” players, but to help the average player who might only play baseball for the next few years. His goal is to give various kids a chance to enjoy the game, although in fact a few have turned out to be outstanding. Roscoe explains “most of these players aren’t going to get scholarships in baseball. Really very few will. But I just want them to know that there are other things out there and that there are other ways of doing it. That there is life outside of Ghost Town.”
Coach Roscoe didn’t just want to give his kids something positive and safe to do in the afternoon. He also wanted to teach them skills — persistence, and collaboration as well as how they needed to be both athletes and scholars. In addition, Roscoe wanted his kids to know about life outside of ghost Town. He frequently took his kids on trips across the bridge. The idea of life outside of Ghost Town is exactly why Coach Roscoe got involved with Eugene Corr’s film Ghost Town to Havana. Prior to meeting Coach Roscoe, Corr was looking for an American coach to be a subject in his film along with Coach Nicolas of Havana, Cuba. “I knew I wanted my film to be able inner city mentors, the men in tough neighborhoods who show you where center field is at, who show you possibilities in life kids don’t have any other way to see. I told some friensds in a bar I was looking for the equivalent of Coach Nicolas in Richmond or Oakland. That is when one of my friends handed me an article about Coach Roscoe in the San Francisco Chronicle. I called Roscoe that day,” Corr explains. Coach Roscoe and Coach Nicolas met through videos footage that Corr delivered back and forth. It was during these videos that Coach Roscoe was inspired by Coach Nicolas and promised that one day he would take his team to Havana for a game of baseball.
But until Coach Roscoe found sufficient funds for their trip to Havana, the Royals trained in Oakland. Coach Roscoe doesn’t only focus on a player’s life on the pitch, but also other things that may be happening in their day to day life and school. For example, Eddie Heard Jr. is a phenomenal 16 year old baseball player on the Oakland Royals. While he does have athletic talent, he struggles with controlling his anger both on the field and in his daily life. Christopher Fletcher is a 13 year old on the Oakland Royals and struggles with the loss of his two fathers to violence. Roscoe focuses on personal stories of the players in addition to their baseball ability and strives to teach them life long skills to help with their situations. Roscoe recognizes how at times Oakland can be considered an unforgiving community and it could be a dangerous place for some of these players if they can’t learn to control their emotions.
When asked what motivates him to work with kids on the pitch for hours after his work shift, he says, “I believe in this idea of karma. Although I had a mother and a father, my father was a truck driver and he was on the road a lot. So there were a lot of other men who mentored me. So what I’m doing now is exactly what I saw others doing 40 years ago. This is me returning the favor, continuing this chain. It’s karma. You put out positive energy and it always comes back. For me it comes back when I see the kids doing positive things.”
Coach Roscoe’s dedication to the players he coaches and his drive inspires players like Justin Robinson ’16, now a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School. Coach Roscoe refers to Robinson as “Mr. Utility”, a player who is extremely well rounded, talented, focused, untiring and can help anywhere on the pitch. Roscoe recalls Robinson working hard on the pitch and then sitting in the stands during breaks to complete his homework. Coach Roscoe is one of those who supported Robinson in his journey to hone his skills as a powerful student and athlete — and a caring leader. In the fall of 2016, Robinson will be a freshman student at San Jose State University and a member of SJSU’s division I baseball team.
Nine years ago, Coach Roscoe and the Royals finally flew to Cuba.
When the Royals first arrived the players were a bit hesitant. They weren’t used to the new culture and didn’t necessarily see why Coach Roscoe was so excited for this trip. The Havana neighborhood they visited, unlike Ghost Town, was an extremely close knit community. Nearly everybody knew each other and there was so much love for the kids. Coach Roscoe describes, “It is as if each of these kids in here have multiple mothers and families.” At first it was hard for the Royals to immerse themselves in this environment, but after meeting Coach Nicolas and his team, they slowly began to enjoy themselves more. The game of baseball allowed these two teams, from completely different environments, to finally merge. All in all the trip included good baseball, good shared food, and good friends.
Throughout the week in Havana the boys had a blast with each other on and off the pitch. They played baseball, danced, and teased each other; more importantly they taught each other valuable lessons.
When the week came to a close, it was difficult for the Royals to head back home. The friendships the players and coaches made with each other were so strong. An unforgettable trip. Havana allowed the Royals to see how their futures have the potential to transform .
Although it has been nine years since the team returned from Havana, the experiences from the trip have been shared with all the new players growing up in the Royals. Now with the Royals expanding into more teams, Roscoe continues his journey to shape the youth of Oakland by exposing them to the opportunities they have as long as they put work and effort into what they do. Roscoe explains, “Most of the kids do get to see the movie. I also let them know, around every five years we will do a trip kind of like Cuba. We’re trying to do more small trips so they know there are those opportunities.” As the Royals family constantly grows bigger, Coach Roscoe continues and hopes to pass down the idea of sharing forward the karma and mentorship both he and his players have experienced.
All photos courtesy of Ghost Town to Havana film