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Refugees bring joy to the game

5/14/2017
Refugees bring joy to the game

The season did not begin well. In their first inning of the year, the boys of the Bishop Maginn High School baseball team gave up 22 runs.

The Griffins lost that day and were walloped in many of the games that followed. But for this team, wins and losses are almost an afterthought. Its purpose is bigger than baseball.

Eight of the team’s 13 players are members of the Karen ethnic minority ravaged by genocide in Myanmar. Before this spring, most of the refugees had never swung a bat or worn a glove. Baseball, like many things in their adopted country, was as foreign as the moon.

Their games can seem like farce. Pop-ups drop untouched. Pitches crash into the backstop. Runners circle the bases as throws sail over infielders’ heads. In one particularly forgettable game, the Griffins lost 26-0 — and didn’t get a hit.

Still, the Karen players have revived a fading baseball program that had struggled to field players. Likewise, they and other refugees have given Bishop Maginn, an Albany school run by the Roman Catholic Diocese, renewed vitality and purpose. Teens from Myanmar and other countries account for about aquarter of the school’s 130 students.

“These kids are such great human beings, so generous and happy,” said Chris Signor, the Bishop Maginn principal. “They give so much spirit to the school, and so much joy.”

Everyone at the school seems to share that opinion. They talk about the refugees’ kindness, peace, gentleness and patience. They say the newcomers are giving as much to Bishop Maginn as the school gives them.

But imagine the task that confronted first-year baseball coach Austin Matteo when he gathered his squad for its first practice. While other coaches in the Central Hudson Valley League could begin teaching the game’s finer points, many of Matteo’s players didn’t yet know many of the rules, and they spoke little English.

The scene would have been difficult to imagine when Matteo, 22, graduated from Bishop Maginn. That was before the school, slimmed by years of declining enrollment, traded its Slinger-land Street campus for a smaller building near the governor’s mansion.

That was before John Harden, a Bishop Mag-inn graduate who heads a nonprofit that teaches refugees to write, suggested that the school enroll 35 Karen students who were floundering in the city district. The teens, Harden believed, would do better in a more protective environment. Signor readily agreed to the suggestion.

“This is what the Catholic educational system was built on,” Signor said. “It traditionally served one wave of immigrants after another.”

Albany has a growing Karen population — families who fled Myanmar, formerly Burma, for massive refugee centers in Thailand before being selected to come to the United States. The Karen students at Bishop Maginn share a tragedy, but their stories vary.

Some were born and raised in the deprivation of the camps, while others were chased to them at gunpoint. Some had family members raped or killed. Many do not live with their biological parents.

Their families could never afford the full cost of Catholic school tuition. So at Bishop Maginn, what the refugees pay is aided by fundraisers and church donations. (Many of the Karen refugees are deeply religious Christians or Buddhists, but none are Catholic.)

“We’re a mission school, and this is part of our mission — to make these kids happy and give them the best possible life they can have,” said Sue Silverstein-Gilligan, the school’s community service director.

The teens have thrown themselves into the life of their new school. So it wasn’t especially surprising when eight decided to join the baseball team. The game is another pathway to belonging and assimilation. Plus, they deserve some fun.

In interviews, the Karen players expressed happiness at simply getting to play, while those who have watched the team say the refugees bring remarkable spirit and humility to the field. The teens let their light shine.

“If they make a mistake, they don’t get upset,” Silverstein-Gilligan said. “If they make a good play, they’re elated.”

The season has provided reasons to smile as the players adapt to a game they never knew.

When Hser We Thoe pitches, he throws only a fastball that isn’t especially fast. Mimicking big leaguers, he shakes off imaginary signs from the catcher.

Behind him on the infield, shortstop Dayh Poh Gah sometimes throws off his hat as he chases pop flies, while the team’s diminutive second baseman, Than Than Aye, is so swamped by his jersey that it continually (and comically) falls out of his pants.

If opposing teams were laughing, they’re doing so less now. As the season winds downs — the team’s last game is 4 p.m. Monday at Bleecker Stadium — the Griffins are rapidly improving. The players’ confidence is growing. The scores aren’t so lopsided.

“We’re going to keep playing,” said June Moo, 16, a third baseman and shortstop. “We just keep getting better.”

On Wednesday, when Bishop Maginn hosted Heatly, something remarkable happened: The Griffins scored 10 runs in the first inning.

The refugees are typically small and fast. On this day, they drew walk after walk, causing the dugout’s Karenic chatter to be interrupted by “good eye!” calls from Hay Htoo and Chi Liu Soe. Once on base, the players were off to the races.

By the top of the fifth, Bishop Maginn was ahead 24-13. As Ywabloo Moo returned to the mound wearing his school’s yellow and blue, the sky cleared to bathe the field in sunlight. In the stands, the team’s small crowd of supporters hoped it was a sign.

In a game in which every out felt like a minor miracle, Moo quickly retired the first two hitters. After the next batter swung and missed at a third strike, the coaches announced a surprise: The game was over. (Matteo later said the teams were essentially out of eligible pitchers.)

The Griffins, at first, looked confused. Then, smiles overtook their faces as they realized what had happened. We won? We won. We won!

When Hollywood inevitably makes a movie about this team, it will surely give the win more tension — a walk-off double will do the trick, with a wild celebration at home plate. But even in a win that lacked drama, it was tempting to find a moral in the victory.

Resilience pays off with unexpected results, perhaps?

But the Karen players don’t need baseball to know that. Their long, difficult and improbable journey to Albany and Bishop Maginn High School is proof and lesson enough.

For them, winning a game is icing on the cake.

• cchurchill@timesunion.com • 518-454-5442 • @ chris_churchill



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