A UB professor’s documentary about a city tournament gets to the heart of the game.
Julie Simon, associate professor in the School of Communications Design in UB’s Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences, receives an email much like many that arrive in her inbox, asking for pro bono student assistance in filming something or other in Baltimore. She ignores it. “I feel our students should be paid for their work,” she says 16 months later. “We have very good students here at UB who really know what they’re doing. They don’t need something for their resume; they need practical, supervised experience.” She goes about her day, forgetting the email that she’s since deleted.
But not much later, she learns that Stephanie Gibson, the school’s executive director, has received the same email—and what’s more, she’s set up a meeting with Simon and the sender, Ben Hyman, a 24-year-old bright-eyed go-getter (“future world/planet ruler” is the technical term Simon uses), at the time a special assistant in the office of Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. And Hyman, in all his enthusiasm for the subject matter of the proposed film, manages to sweep Simon’s cynicism away. He needs someone to document a Baltimore baseball tournament, the President’s Cup, that he’s dreamt up and brought to life on behalf of Young’s Productive Lives, Active Youth (P.L.A.Y.) campaign, which aims to develop leadership skills and self-confidence among the city’s young citizens.
But this isn’t just any tournament; revving up for its second year, it’s like no competition that Baltimore has seen since the 1980s, when the city’s sole high school baseball league divided along public-private lines: It brings 16 teams together, teams that never typically play each other, over three rounds, culminating in a championship game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. “Somebody told [Hyman] that if this ever goes long term, you need to have some videotape of the early stuff, and that’s what he was going for,” Simon says.
What he eventually gets is significantly more than just videotape. “I said that if I were going to do it, I’d need complete ownership and complete editorial control,” Simon continues. “If I was going to do a documentary, I was going to do a documentary, and I was going to take it where it [eventually] went.”
It’s the earliest days of the spring semester, when pitch black rolls in even before 5:30 p.m. classes start. Simon, who spent 10 years in commercial television as a producer and executive producer prior to starting at UB 24 years ago, preps students in her PBDS 639: Video Aesthetics & Technique class on the yeoman task that lies ahead. Despite her early trepidation, she’s realized the teaching and learning potential of this documentary project; it is exactly the kind she likes students to sink their teeth into.
“I really feel that students learn best by doing something real: experiential learning,” she says. “And I believe that students should do something for people that need it. I thought it was a really good opportunity for them to get out there and work with a real director and a real situation, having to work on a deadline and having to turn out work that is professional quality.”
Soon, each of Simon’s students is assigned to one of the public or private high schools participating in the 2012 tourney, and preproduction—the research and development phase—is in full swing. “They went out without a camera, without anything; they went out and talked to the [student athletes],” Simon explains. “They found out who on the team had interesting stories.”
By the end of February, they’re out in the field, quite literally, shooting hours upon hours of games and practices, interviewing students and coaches. When the tournament starts March 31, 2012, they’re at the playoffs, following their teams with cameras and boom mics. By the time the championship game at Camden Yards rolls around on April 21, 2012, the students have produced three-minute segments complete with music, featuring interviews with the students they’ve chosen. And they debut in the biggest way possible: on the Yards’ jumbo screen between innings.
“[The students] walked out with a solid three-minute piece that they had conceived of, they wrote, they edited, they produced,” Simon says. “I like being able to give my students experiences that will help them grow. … I think they work harder when they know that it’s not just an exercise in futility, that we’re actually working on something that’s going to help somebody or inform somebody.”
The semester has finished, but Simon’s work on the documentary has just begun. She begins logging and transcribing the 48 hours of footage that she and the students have captured. It takes her all summer into September. Then she begins writing the script, weaving the stories the students have collected into a 51-minute documentary. The students, in essence, have served as Simon’s crew and are credited in the final piece.
Simon’s favorite story of the lot, she says, surrounds the public Digital Harbor High School, a magnet school in Federal Hill with no property other than the immediate land on which the school sits; that means no athletic fields, an obvious disadvantage. Still, the team had fought hard throughout the tournament the previous spring, and they made it three rounds to the semifinals, where the private Gilman School—led by former Baltimore Orioles Larry Sheets and Cal Ripken Jr., coach and assistant coach, respectively—walked away victorious.
“They were kids that liked to play baseball and somehow came together despite horrible, horrible conditions,” Simon says of the Digital Harbor team. “They practice on the pool deck; it’s like 95 degrees on the pool deck, and they’re in their uniforms, hitting balls into a net by the pool—like the swimming pool.”
And when the team needs a field, they head to public Swann Park, more than a mile away. “So they literally did their running—instead of around their big, beautiful field—down the streets of Baltimore in Federal Hill to get to the park, because they don’t have transportation to get the team to the park,” Simon says. But still, they had persevered in the tournament, beating public charter school MATHS, the Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences, and The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, a storied private school.
“They were the most real kids out there,” Simon says. “They were a team because they wanted to be a team, not because they knew that they should be a team, not because their coaches would’ve killed them if they weren’t a team, but they were friends, and you could tell they were friends.”
Simon puts the finishing touches on the documentary, aptly titled The President’s Cup, having pulled together narration by former Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller, who covered the team from 1982 to 1996, and music by David “David Zee” Zinzeleta, B.S. ’88, a graduate of the former B.S. in Corporate Communication program. On April 2, in conjunction with Young’s office, she premieres the film at UB. While she hopes to release the film nationally, the achievement, she says, lies in what the documentary represents.
“Even if [the student athletes] just played ball with each other, they got to see one another,” Simon says. “And what they were seeing is another baseball team who was playing baseball just like they were—that these people they didn’t know who go to this public school or these people they didn’t know that go to this private school were just like them.”
Simon’s own school days were influenced, if not defined, by her native city of Denver, Colo.’s attempts in the early 1970s to integrate public schools divided along racial and ethnic lines based on neighborhood demographics.
“Through mandatory integration, my peers and I learned that we were more or less the same, despite the turbulent time,” she says. “What’s important is that kids see that kids are kids across the board. And if they do it over a baseball game or in an academic competition, or if they do it on the street, they need to know each other.”