Practice starts with seven boys, not quite enough to field a baseball team, but that's why they are here, to prepare for a Little League all-star tournament no one expects them to win.
About 30 minutes late, two more youngsters ride in on bikes with an excuse: They went to the wrong practice site. Then two more arrive, and finally a coach finds the star outfielder on a basketball court and hauls him to the baseball diamond.
FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption accompanying a Page 1 article Sunday about Little League baseball incorrectly stated that a player pictured was upset over a remark by a player on the opposing team. The remark came from one of his teammates.
The Sun regrets the error.
Such is life for James Mosher Baseball, a youth program with a 44-year history of trying to save lives in West Baltimore's tough streets by teaching boys a game.
So, if the age 11-to-12 Mosher all-stars showed up a little late for a practice last week - maybe even a lot late - it was important to coaches Michael Singletary, Allen Meacham Jr. and Terry Dean that the boys just showed up at all.
"You can't get too down on them," said Singletary, who is also the Mosher league's president. "These kids need this. They need something positive they can turn to in their lives, and many of them don't have anything."
After more than a decade of lean team rosters and waning financial support, the Mosher league is in the midst of a rebirth of sorts, with more than 300 players, four age divisions and new funding.
At their field behind James Mosher Elementary School, there are now three baseball diamonds and new bleachers. A shed secures the league's baseball equipment and lawn mower. The city owns the land, but the league maintains it.
And for the second year, Mosher baseball is participating in the Cal Ripken Little League international tournament. Tournament officials picked Mosher to serve as host of the district playoffs yesterday, in front of a couple dozen fans.
"That's a big deal for us," said Singletary, who worried that an inner-city league such as his would never get to be host to teams from nicer areas of the city or suburban communities.
They earned it, Cal Ripken league officials say.
"Mosher baseball, as far as what I've seen, they have their stuff wrapped together tight," said John Humphrey, district commissioner for Cal Ripken Little League.
"They have lots of volunteers, lots of participation and a lot of help," Humphrey said. "I've seen a lot of programs, even those with a lot money, that are not run right. And you usually don't see it in [the] inner city, but Mosher is run right."
A summer activity
The league took its name from the school field where it formed in 1959, when Eddie Watson and Archie Lewis, two area residents, wanted to organize a summer activity for the boys playing on the playgrounds. In its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the league had dozens of teams and hundreds of fans for afternoon games.
Many of those first organizers and coaches are still around. They talk about the league as if they are speaking of a favorite uncle. Some still come to watch games; a few are still coaching.
Clifton Turner, 85, of Lafayette Avenue, keeps old registration cards and scrapbooks of memorabilia. People call him "Mr. Mosher."
"Back then, it was so much bad stuff going on ... we decided to do a Little League," Turner said. "But it wasn't to get them to become major league ballplayers, but to teach them something about life. How to be respectful and have good sportsmanship. To win with honor and lose with grace."
The league's shift from older to younger leadership has taken place in just the past five years and has not always been easy. Singletary, 38, says the older league members hang around to make sure the younger ones don't mess up what they started. He's only half-joking.
But the principles on which the league was founded, Singletary said, are still the same. So is the fact that for many of the players, the league remains a refuge from sinister surroundings during the dead of summer, when school is closed and there is little else for the kids to do.
That outfielder who arrived late to practice, 12-year-old Deione Thomas, had stitches over his left eye after getting caught in a brick-throwing cross fire a few days earlier. A group of youngsters in the area had been tossing bricks, like kids throwing snowballs in the winter.
Some players have parents who are incarcerated or on drugs, league officials said. Most are from single-parent families. Many boys come alone to practice and play their games with no one in the bleachers to support them.
Mosher baseball charges a $20 registration fee, but for many players the charge is waived because their families can't afford it.
Their field is in the shadows of the forbidding Warwick Arms Apartments. It's neat, but just outside the fence, the curbs are littered with candy wrappers and smashed beer cans. In eyeshot of the field are boarded-up houses on Riggs Avenue. Been that way for years, one resident said.
But Mosher baseball is reaching these boys.
"I think they care about us," said Deione, a child of few words, but who can bring loud approval from his coaches with the way he runs to get under fly balls.