DAVID POUGH was 15 feet inside the gym at the Marian Anderson Rec Center before we knew he was there. Steve Bandura, the rec-center director, looked up, saw him, flinched, and screeched a startled, "Wowwww.";
Pough was home on furlough, surprising his mother on her birthday. He is stationed in Baghdad, fighting a brutal house-to-house war, where he must have learned to move into a room stealthily. His uniform was that new camouflage fabric, a soft mosaic of tans and greys and pale blues. As snug and starched as wallpaper.
Ten years ago, David Pough wore a very different uniform, the navy-blue pinstripes of the Anderson Monarchs. Bandura led a team of 10- and 11-year-olds onto a creaky 1947 bus for a barnstorming trip to honor Jackie Robinson, who had broken major league baseball's insidious color line 50 years earlier.
Pough has returned to Baghdad, but most of the other Monarchs will be at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday, April 15 as major league baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Robinson's first game in a Brooklyn uniform.
So Bandura has seen a version of Boyz II Men up close and personal. "I had those kids from the time they were 5, playing tee ball," he said wistfully. "It's hard for me to think of them as men, but they are. We've had our first college graduate."
The kids stay in touch. Ali Mapp calls Robin Bandura every Mother's Day. Bandura proposed on that trip, kneeling on the mound at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. Duane Wyse recently brought him a baseball keepsake, his first college homer.
"Ali Mapp," Bandura said, running down the roster, "he's at Temple, works for the Phillies. [Another player], he's in jail. That one hurts. He lived with us for a while. I was his guardian. He couldn't resist the pull of the streets.
"Marquis Harris, a sophomore at Central College. D'var Brown, Newman College, playing ball. Dion Williams, Virginia State, playing ball. Duane Wyse, Lincoln, playing ball. Joe O'Shea, graduated from a vocational program and planning to be an auto mechanic.
"Jamaal Harris, at West Virginia, no longer playing ball. Bilal Rogers, community college. David Jennings, he was the bat boy, graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy. Desmond McCall, working. Randy Holman, graduated from Cheyney. Anthony Deadwyler, working. Bill Canady, playing centerfield at Norfolk State. And David Pough, in the Army."
Back in the day, Bandura had them all do a book report on a Jackie Robinson biography. "I wanted them to feel a connection to the sport," he said. "We were going into the Devlin League. I knew we'd be the only black team. Robinson was the perfect role model. I told them, 'We'll face some tough things, but we'll face them together.'
"There are a million role models out there, most of them bad. Jackie Robinson was the right one for these kids. For us, on that trip, it wasn't about winning games. Every restaurant, every hotel, every ballgame was a test. We were out to break stereotypes, to be the opposite of what people expected."
He taught them about Robinson, about the abuse he faced, how he turned the other cheek that first year. He stressed discipline, stressed focus, stressed winning graciously and losing the same way, stressed teamwork. Will he be able to see the results when the team gathers on Sunday? "The real test," Bandura says firmly, "will come when they have kids of their own."
Pough wanted to go to college, but things went sour. That left him easy prey for the recruiter's siren call. He breezed through basic training, physically fit, mentally tough. "First sergeant came to me," Pough said, "and he said, 'You know where we're going?' And I said, 'Roger.' "
He has been in Baghdad for 6 months. He has at least 6 months to go. Does he use a Magic Marker to X out each day on a barracks calendar?
"No," he said softly. "I wake up each morning, do what I'm told to do, and then go to sleep each night. I'm assigned to supply, but we're shorthanded and I've been called to go out on missions. Did a 72-hour mission recently, came back, slept 6 hours, went out on a 24-hour mission, came back . . . "
And what does Pough remember about that barnstorming trip 10 years ago? "I remember playing baseball," he said. "I remember meeting Ozzie Smith in St. Louis. I remember losing a game in Chicago by one run. I remember how mad I was, some guy from the other team trash-talking.
"I remember visiting Jackie Robinson's grave. That was touching. I remember how quiet it was on the bus going up there. And then each of us wrote a message on a baseball that we left there."
Mapp will work in the Phillies' video department this season after a couple of years as a bat boy. What was that like? "I was 16, dealing with grown men," he said with a smile. "You try not to be too starstruck. Jimmy Rollins was great. Had Thanksgiving dinner with his family one year.
"I remember the first stop on that trip was Harlem. Parents came up for that first game and we won. I had some Air Jordan sneakers and I thought I'd lost them. I'm crying, boo-hooing like a baby. We found them later, but I'd started out on a down note.
"I remember the Negro League Museum, the Field of Dreams in Iowa, the Louisville Slugger factory. And I remember how emotional that visit to Jackie Robinson's gravesite was. We had so much respect for him.
"We'd read about what he went through, racial slurs, people throwing stuff, verbally attacking him. He held strong. And I'm glad he did because it paved the way for other African-Americans."
Wyse is a middle infielder at Lincoln. "We set a school record last year, 14 wins," he said proudly. "I try to use my speed, I try to distract the pitcher. He throws one in the dirt, it gets past the catcher, I'm gone. I understand that Jackie Robinson played that way.
"When I first joined the Monarchs, Steve opened our minds to who Jackie Robinson was. I cannot imagine taking the abuse he took. He was a much stronger person than I am. That trip was great, experiencing life on the road.
"If we lost, it was because we beat ourselves. Next game, come out, do better. We stayed focused, didn't let anything bother us. And that's the approach I take today, stay focused.
"Surprises in the way guys have turned out? A few. David in the Army, that's a surprise."
David Pough gets the last, firm word. "When this is over," he growls, his chest swelling inside that creaseless uniform. "I am going to college. I am going to play ball again." *
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