By Sasha Aronson
On the surface, New Orleans high school baseball is a thriving sport that has achieved national recognition and has touched several communities within the city. Nearly every charter and private school has a baseball team that participates in competitive leagues and most state champion sports teams in Louisiana hail from the city. However, not all baseball programs are the same–disparities in funding give competitive advantages to certain teams. The baseball games themselves reveal stark differences in how and what high school athletics provide to students and their communities.
The Jesuit Nola Blue Jays, a private high school, has multiple nationally recognized athletic teams, but this is no surprise. Its longstanding tradition in New Orleans has built the school into a respected academic and athletic institution. Many former MLB players have graduated from Jesuit Nola and their home stadium certainly reflects the school’s history. John Ryan Stadium feels more like it should belong to a minor league team instead of a high school in New Orleans. The Blue Jays’ impressive home field has a center field wall 400 feet from home plate, the same distance as many professional stadiums. The Jesuit Nola facilities and staff also add to the professional feel with music and sound effects during the innings along with hot food and snacks in between innings. The school has worked hard to make Jesuit Nola baseball an event that is a draw for locals and not just parents. John, a Jesuit Alum and a 56-year-old Metairie local, described the atmosphere of the stadium as “electric” and the music in between innings as a “wonderful part of the games that reminds me of going to college baseball games with my Dad as a kid.”
The Jesuit Nola crowd is not a shy bunch. Parents and fans constantly shout instructions at the coaches. Most Jesuit fans seem to think they are just as much a part of the team as the coaches themselves, and in many ways they now are. Each inning a new chant from the Jesuit crowd breaks out, consistently keeping the energy of the crowd up even during seemingly boring games. Krista, Jesuit’s ticket manager, said she has been blown away by the local support for Jesuit Nola baseball, “We want the public take pride in their local sports…John Ryan empty has an eerie feeling to it… I just think it’s good for everyone when our kids can play in front of people. It adds a whole other element to the game.” The active nature of the Jesuit fans helps to make the John Ryan Stadium experience akin to college and professional baseball games.
Fans and parents are not the only ones noticing Jesuit Nola baseball. Krista mentioned that their press box has been filled every game of the season with reporters from multiple local publications in New Orleans. Professional photographers and journalists flock to Jesuit games to capture the success of a local team. Large cameras line up behind home plate and make it very clear to the Jesuit players and their opponents that a larger audience is watching. Jack, a senior at Jesuit, explained excitedly that, “We are on the right track…people are noticing us.” In a year where sporting events are only now slowly coming back to normal, Jesuit Nola has succeeded in putting together a baseball season that is a draw for locals and the media. Jesuit Nola baseball’s story this year is far different than many of the charter schools in the New Orleans area.
Neither Lusher nor McMain High Schools have their own baseball field. On April 19th, the two schools competed in the, “rivalry of Nashville Ave,” and both teams were forced to bus out to Alfred T. Bonnabel High School in Kenner. The field does not compare in magnitude to John Ryan Stadium, but do not tell Lusher fans that.
The first inning of Lusher and McMain’s April 19th showdown took more than an hour. While the bleachers were not filled as they would be at a Jesuit Nola game, the Lusher parents could be heard from the parking lot. With one out already recorded in the inning, the umpire seemed to forget the strike and ball count. However, he did not have to worry as the dads of Lusher baseball were on his case. Shouts of, “the count is 2-2” rained down on the umpire and it soon became clear that the umpire was relying on Lusher parents to make his job easier. Lusher parents subsequently serve two roles, cheering for their sons, and more importantly, becoming an integral part of the game itself. It was clear that the umpire and some of the parents knew each other outside of baseball, and this preexisting relationship made arguments about the count an almost friendly exchange. Even as their team went up by ten runs in one inning, the Lusher parents continued to coach the umpire, and their sons from the bleachers.
While Lusher does not have reporters flocking to their games like Jesuit Nola, one parent, Mark, attempts to bring the media to Lusher games. With his high-quality camera at his side, Mark can be seen throughout most Lusher games traversing the field trying to get quality pictures of the team in action. “I want our kids to know that their efforts this year are appreciated…it is truly a pleasure to photograph my son and his friends playing a game they all love. I try to get at least one shot of each player every game so that they can see themselves change throughout the year.” The parents of Lusher clearly have the ability to take time out of the week for their son’s baseball games, and this show of support is an indication of the privilege that many of these parents live with.
The McMain baseball team does not have the same luxury of a highly active and present fanbase. The April 19th game was at 4:00 on a Wednesday, and while Lusher parents made their presence known, the McMain side of the bleachers was largely empty for most of the game. Arguments with the umpire were met with no resistance from McMain parents because for most of the game there were only two there. Jadan, McMain’s starting pitcher against Lusher, had to use his new balance sneakers instead of cleats because his mom, Denise, had to buy him some and could not make it to the game until around 5:30. Denise, a nurse at Ochsner Medical Center explained that, “I want to go to Jadan’s games but I normally don’t get off work until around 5 and games are normally at 4. I want Jadan and his friends to know that we still support them and that’s why I try to make it to every game right after work.” Denise and the two other parents for McMain took pictures with their iPhones, just wanting to capture their children. While Mark uses his high-quality camera to snap professional-looking images of all the Lusher players, Denise was just trying to capture one moment of her son’s youth as a memento.
The divide between the two charter schools was palpable as the predominantly white families of Lusher clearly had the time to come to baseball games while the predominantly black families of McMain were unable to watch their sons play. The differences in the school’s funding are clear even in the team’s uniforms as the Lusher team has full professional-style button down jerseys and matching pants while McMain uses a t-shirt made online as their uniform. However, as Jadan (Denise’s son and McMain’s pitcher) explained, “I just wanna play. It sucks we keep losing but I am just so happy to have a baseball season…I was worried we might not this year.” When it became clear that Lusher was going to win the game, the McMain coach began cycling pitchers, giving all of his players the chance to try out pitching. While this is certainly not how he or his players wanted the game to go, it was a good chance for the McMain team to try new positions in a sport they do not traditionally do well at. Coach Darren Riley of McMain argued that, “Playing is always better than not playing. I know losing hurts for our guys, but I think this is an important experience for all of them.” Coach Riley’s positive attitude is an optimistic sign for a high school that clearly has not had the ability to invest much into their baseball program.
High school baseball is always about more than just baseball. It can serve as a staple of a community but also reveal what makes schools distinct from one another. The sounds of high school baseball shines a light on what types of families attend each school. Jesuit Nola and Lusher parents are highly present and audible at their son’s games and this is a reflection of their economic ability to not need to work in the afternoons of weekdays. For parents of McMain students, and presumably of students at similar schools, the afternoon is still a part of the work week and coming to baseball presents a real challenge. McMain does not have a parent like Mark that has the freedom to come to each game and photograph the team. Small parts of the baseball experience like photographs, uniforms and fans show that baseball is not equal in all schools. High school baseball in New Orleans can be seen as a deep reflection of the communities that they serve and the funding behind the school itself. Jesuit’s place as a top academic and athletic school is unsurprising as it has decades of history and funding behind it to support its teams. However, Lusher and McMain are within a mile of each other and yet the differences between their baseball teams shows both a disparity in funding and in the economic freedom of the student’s parents. The success of a high school baseball program in New Orleans is more than often a reflection of the school itself rather than just the players and their abilities. As the city climbs out of the grips of a pandemic, high school baseball teams show there are ways to bring communities together but also reveal underlying inequities within New Orleans.