Sports weren’t really their thing a little over two years ago, when Gwendolyn and Gricelda Castro of Dorchester first started coming to the BASE, a sports and education center in Roxbury founded by Robert Lewis, Jr. in 2013.
Now, Gwendolyn, 15, plays catcher and second base in softball, while Gricelda, 14, plays shortstop, third and pitcher. The BASE in Roxbury is where they, like many other Boston kids, found not only a team, but a second home.
So after Boston Public Schools closed in March, they thought that would mean more time there.
“We just assumed the BASE was gonna stay open," Gwendolyn recalled. "So we were like, ‘Oh, yay, vacation. We can just go to the BASE every single day.’”
Instead, for over three months, they couldn’t return to the BASE, which went dark. But it reopened last month and has been slowly returning to form since then.
As the country gets back to sports during a period of reckoning over social justice and a pandemic that directly impacted Robert Lewis, Jr., it's possible that the mission of the BASE has never been more important.
Michael Suncar, now 18, has been going to the BASE since he was 13. But when his senior baseball season at Norwood High School was canceled, he suddenly had nowhere to go.
“I was practicing on my own, in my backyard," Suncar said. "Literally, I bought a tee, I bought like a little screen, and I was just hitting there and working out there.”
Since its reopening, the teams at the BASE have slowly gotten back to competition. But there are no more overnight trips to games. This year, there's no National Urban Classic, where the BASE brings in teams from across the country to play and get access to a college career fair.
This summer, BASE teams travel to those games and back again in one day.
"Every year, we’d always have like a good trip. And we’d all look forward to that. We would like bond together, like our team, and just have fun and win some baseball games," Suncar said. "But this year, it’s like, we’re still playing, thank God we’re still playing, we still have baseball, but it’s not the same, you feel me?”
But during a summer when nothing is in its proper place, any chance to ball can feel like a blessing.
For the Castro sisters, it's been an oasis.
“If the BASE didn’t exist, I don’t know what we would be doing right now," Gwendolyn said. "Like, we’d probably just be stuck upstairs in our house.”
At a time when many people’s pockets are too thin to hold money for new cleats and fresh gloves, Robert Lewis, Jr., knows a place like the BASE, which has free programming, is giving these kids a chance they may not get somewhere they would have to pay to play.
“That is one of my biggest concerns, is what’s going to happen with sports, especially in urban cities in America" Lewis said. "Because there is an expense, there’s a cost.”
About two weeks ago, Lewis threw out the first pitch of the Boston Red Sox season opener alongside Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh.
That’s when he announced he had survived COVID-19. For anyone watching the game, it may have been touching to see Lewis at Fenway. But for the kids at the BASE, his story brought the pandemic into a stark light.
"I just started crying," Gwendolyn said. "I was like, if we lose Robert ... he's just such a big light for us and he literally is the one that we first met when we came here. It was really devastating to find out that he had COVID-19. And I remember I would just like pray every single day, pray that he’d get cured. Pray that he’d be fine, you know, he’d be healthy again.”
“‘Cause it’s one thing to hear about COVID-19 on the news," Gricelda said. "Like, ‘Oh, there’s so many people getting it.' It's like, 'Oh, that’s crazy.’ Then when it’s someone you know, it’s like a reality check, you know?”
"That was really sad," Suncar said. "That hit everybody hard. We was just praying. And thank God everything came out well.”
Seeing Lewis now, you would never know he'd been sick — he’s his old self, chatting with parents of players at a recent practice and flashing that winning smile.
He doesn’t want to focus too much on his battle with COVID-19. He’s focused on creating access to better opportunities through sports. But when he hears about the kids who were praying for him and thinking about him, he can’t help but choke up a bit.
“We say at the BASE, ‘123 BASE, 456 FAMILY,’ right? And to get that love from your family members … it meant a lot," Lewis said, "that they were thinking about me.”
One thing the BASE tries to teach is resiliency. As the sun slowly set on an August practice of some of the younger baseball players, Lewis spoke about how the center has been able to stay rooted in Roxbury and its people, and that resiliency was on full display.
“This is exactly what it’s all about. And I tell folks, don’t tell me that communities can’t be anchors of social change," Lewis said. "Matter of fact, they are, and they have been for years. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”
The games and schedules may be different, and the world around it may feel like it's crashing. But for Lewis and everyone at the BASE, there’s only ever been one direction to go: forward.