Coach Nicolas Reyes with players
Eugene Corr plans a general release of his cross-cultural youth baseball film to coincide with the spring opening of baseball season.
When filmmaker Eugene Corr illegally headed for Cuba in July 2007, he had no notion of what would come out of it. He had no agenda and no thought that he would stumble onto an idea that would take up the next eight years of his life. He spent 10 days in Havana, wandering its narrow, vibrant streets and enjoying the welcoming friendliness of the Cuban people.
He happened upon a ragtag field, a sandlot close to the old part of the city, where a bunch of Cuban youngsters were playing baseball. The kids, several without shoes, wore mostly hand-me-downs and some red T-shirts with the words Ciudad Habana in white cursive across the front. Corr was intrigued as he watched these kids, most of them between the ages of 4 and 14, play with passion and a certain joie de vivre. Something about the scene struck a deep nerve. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” Corr said. He remembered when he was growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s, his father coached and mentored a lot of kids in similar circumstances.
As he watched the Cuban kids play, an idea began to formulate, particularly when he met the kids’ coach, an aging, grizzled Afro-Cuban man named Nicolas Reyes. “Reyes was a gem, a man of wisdom, and a kind of Messiah to those kids,” Corr said. “I could see he commanded great respect from them. He did not tolerate any nonsense, and just as important, he gave respect back. Reyes told me he had been coaching kids for the past 46 years. His pay for giving those kids a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and esprit de corps is the princely sum in pesos equal to $14 a month. But what really mattered to Reyes was making a difference in the lives of those kids.”
Corr, 68, who lives in Berkeley, began to think there was a film to be made here, a story to be told. As a filmmaker, a career that has encompassed producing, writing, and directing most of his adult life, Corr has extensive credits, including an Academy Award nomination for his American Masters documentary in 1992, Waldo Salt: A Screenwriter’s Journey.
When Corr returned from Cuba, the idea of a film about Reyes and his baseball kids tugged at him. It soon became clear that what he needed to make such a film work was a counterpoint, an American team of kids coming out of similar circumstances. The idea would be to film each team playing in its own milieu and juxtaposing the teams in editing. Oakland meets Havana, sort of.
While talking to a friend over drinks, Corr mentioned his idea and problem of finding a team and coach like Reyes. His friend handed him a copy of that day’s San Francisco Chronicle. And there, in the sports section, was a story about a team of kids from a ghetto area of West Oakland nicknamed Ghost Town. The team, the Royals, was coached by Roscoe Bryant Jr., who was giving hope to young neighborhood kids who were otherwise pretty much disenfranchised. Bryant, 52, began organizing and mentoring neighborhood kids, ages 7 to 15, in 2005 following the shooting of a teenage boy in front of his home. The boy had been in Bryant’s backyard playing with other kids only minutes before and died in Bryant’s arms.
“I got a call one night from this guy Eugene Corr talking about making a film about the two teams,” Bryant recalled. “I had no idea who he was, and it all sounded crazy. So, frankly I balked at the idea at first. But he was very sincere and persuasive. My then-wife Lehi and I talked it over, and I eventually got back to him and told him OK. I was interested but thought that it would be better if my team actually went to Cuba to play Reyes’ team. Primarily because I thought it was really important to get these kids out of their environment, the narrow zone of Ghost Town to some place far off and get a new perspective on the world.”
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Corr said. “But Roscoe kept pushing me to take the kids to Havana, and finally I said, OK, we’ll find a way.”
Corr, and most filmmakers in general, have a universal tenet: Use someone else’s money to finance their films. The returns are typically spotty, though Corr envisioned his film as a nonprofit venture. He wrote 60 proposals and sent them to foundations, private entities offering grants, and individuals. It took more than three years for financing to materialize. It wasn’t enough; Corr took out a line of credit on his house. The final budget was around $450,000.
Just as things were coming together, they fell apart. Bryant and his wife split up after 23 years. Bryant was devastated and lost interest in Cuba but ultimately decided his commitment to the film and the kids was more important than grieving.
“He called me one night and said he had his passport and he was going,” Corr said.