Charná Maldonado struggled for four years at Hartford Public — with grades, girlfriends, security officers, teachers, himself. Then the fifth-year senior made the Owls baseball team and found his game.
Baseball connected Maldonado to the school, gave him something to feel good about, a reason to stick with his studies and graduate. The varsity rookie started in all 20 games, batted .305, settled into the dust and grit of a 7-13 season that ended with no playoffs and a bus ride home from Chaplin.
Maldonado, 18, will graduate tonight knowing that, for the first time he can remember, he has some direction in his life.
"It came together when I joined baseball," he wrote in his senior essay about attitude. "I wasn't going to be able to have a bad attitude because they have very high expectations for the players. Therefore I got my act together."
After Maldonado (3-1) pitched the Owls to a 11-3 win over Parish Hill-Chaplin in the season's final game, striking out the last batter, baseball coach Joe Lombardo handed him the game ball.
On the bus ride home, Maldonado asked his teammates to sign the ball and thanked Lombardo for sticking with him.
"I love you," Maldonado told the coach. "I care for you."
Both fought back tears.
"I'm a softy," said Lombardo, 50, also an assistant men's basketball coach for the Owls. "There is just something about Charná. This is a kid I really wish I had for one more year. You fall in love with kids, you really do, because it's tough for them."
Every season Maldonado would try out for the Owls until third-quarter grades left him ineligible. Four years straight he did this, and no varsity baseball, only the resignation of another false spring.
Held back as a senior, Maldonado finally turned to a person he feared letting down more than himself.
"This year I'm going to play ball," he promised Lombardo, a school case manager he'd come to trust. "I'm going to change my attitude, keep my grades up. I want to graduate and make you proud."
Baseball showed Maldonado a way out of Hartford Public High School's concrete campus near I-84's raised lanes. But the special needs student first had to travel a long road linking incoming high school freshmen to far-off diplomas.
In the Class of 2006, just three in 10 students in the city's high schools graduated. Only 10 percent of Hartford students go on to four-year colleges. A few years ago, more ninth-graders were reading at the fourth-grade level than the ninth-grade level.
Few Hartford kids enter high school prepared, said Rachel Cabrera-Zayas, a Hartford Public adjustments specialist who started working with Maldonado when he was a freshman. Public has about 1,200 students.
"Charná [char-NAY] needed a lot of guidance in a school this large," Cabrera-Zayas said. "It's easy to get lost. Most of these kids have had a tough life. They all come from difficult social backgrounds, all have a story to tell.
"For special needs kids across the board — whether it's emotional, learning disabled — just knowing that somebody cares about them is important. And you have to have a parent who's involved. Charná's mother was there."
As a freshman in 2003, Maldonado acted more like a dropout candidate than a baseball prospect. He wouldn't sit still in class, had a big mouth. He got suspended for two weeks for fighting with a security guard over a pulled fire alarm.
By junior year, the pudgy Maldonado had grown to a solid 5-foot-5 and discovered girls, finding time to make out in the hallways when he should have been in class.
"This is not going to get you eligible," Lombardo would tell him. "You may feel good with her. Someone is giving you some love. But this won't do it."
Lombardo saw something he liked in Maldonado. He considered him a "wannabe" compared to the hard-core troublemakers and knew his mother, Dorrin, from her frequent visits to pick up her son, usually in tears, after suspensions.
"Charná didn't know which way to go," Lombardo said. "He'd get caught up in stuff. But he was never a bad kid. You could talk to Charná."
Raised in Puerto Rico and Jersey City, N.J., Maldonado moved during middle school to Hartford, where he lives with his mother on Babcock Street. Since he was a toddler, Maldonado has met his father once, about four years ago in New Jersey.
"I burst out crying; I didn't know what to say," Maldonado said of the brief encounter. "He said that men don't cry, but he almost cried. I saw his eyes."
Maldonado was jolted by the news that he would repeat his senior year. Knowing it was his last chance to play baseball, he put more focus on his studies.
He raised his grade in U.S. history from an F to a C-plus. Bobby Abate, a history teacher and Owls baseball fan, would get to school early and notice Maldonado in the field house batting cage working with Lombardo.
Maldonado would wear his No. 13 "HP" uniform jersey from the cage to class, keeping it on all day.
"Baseball turned him around," Abate said. "I don't even care if he's any good in baseball. Sports became his way out. We all wanted the best for this kid and he didn't want it. Then something changed."
Maldonado also proved he could play. When Public won at Bloomfield 3-2 on May 7, he threw 6 1/3 shutout innings in relief, getting out 14 batters in a row at one point.
"I know, I know, stop the bleeding," Maldonado told Lombardo before the coach handed him the ball. It was a message Lombardo had been trying to get across on and off the field, and his pitcher responded.
"I ride him a lot," Lombardo said. "Because he's so competitive, sometimes he forgets, he lets his emotions get to him, he gets upset. But that day, I finally said, you know what, this kid has arrived."
Maldonado also credits substitute teacher David Mongon, 64, who took him to Yankee Stadium and paid for instructions at a local baseball academy.
Maldonado hopes to play Division III baseball at Manchester Community College and study criminal justice. He said Hartford Public showed him the way.
"I guess I just realized that everybody I knew wanted me to do good and graduate," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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