When Mark Gambardella learned last week that Jericho Scott, one of his PONY league baseball players, had died—that the 16-year-old had been shot two doors down from his family’s home—the coach wept. Then he headed to the Dom Aitro Field in New Haven, Conn. It was Sunday morning, and one of Gambardella’s younger teams had already started to play. He pulled aside the kid who was wearing the number 12, Jericho’s number, and asked for his jersey. Gambardella hung it on the park’s fence, next to the concession stand, and added a cardboard sign: “Jericho Scott, August 27, 1998, to April 19, 2015. God must have needed a pitcher and shortstop.”
Jericho could play all over the field—second, short, outfield, “everywhere but behind the plate,” Gambardella says. “He was too small to catch.” Still, sports fans will remember him, if they do remember him, on the mound. In the summer of 2008, Jericho became an instant celebrity when a New Haven league banned him (and his ostensibly blazing fastball) for being “too good.” Everyone from ESPN to Deadspin covered the story, with most of that coverage seeing Jericho’s exile as the latest proof of our nation in crisis, an America that offered trophies for all and fortitude for none. It was a message made to travel, and Jericho and his parents received feelers from Leno and Letterman and beyond before agreeing to do a segment on CBS’s morning show. It ran the day Jericho turned 10 years old.
I was living in New Haven at the time, and a year later, after the hype subsided, I followed up on Jericho for Deadspin. I found that the media had gotten his story entirely wrong—that the league that had banned him was actually a well-intentioned outfit more concerned with exercise than competitive advantages; that Jericho had joined this league for only a few weeks while his main gig, with Gambardella’s PONY squad, took a break; and that Jericho was no more than Gambardella’s third- or fourth-best pitcher. I spent several days at Dom Aitro Field, watching New Haven’s team fight for a spot in the PONY World Series. Jericho pitched a couple times in relief, relying more on his intelligence and control than on his average arm. What stuck with me from that story—other than Jericho’s shy, dimpled smile—was the behavior of the team that won the tournament, a group from suburban Virginia. Dom Aitro, like a lot of things in New Haven, looks pretty run down, and the visiting parents couldn’t stop sniffing about it. (“This is a horrible field,” one said. “How did they get to host this? I mean, really.”) Those parents, and the teams on the field, underlined some enormous chasms of money and decency and perspective. If you wanted a real American crisis, I thought, that was it.
Mark Gambardella played his first game at Dom Aitro 51 years ago, when he was seven, and he’s been playing or coaching in this community pretty much ever since. But he still remembers those parents and coaches from Virginia. When I called him to ask about Jericho, the coach reminisced about that tournament—about the visitors who freaked out when, near the end, it seemed like a rainstorm might render the field unplayable. So the Virginians slinked over to a local store, bought bags of cat litter, hopped the park’s fence, and spread it all over the infield. “They were so worried about it coming down to a coin flip,” Gambardella says.
All that litter, of course, made it even harder for Gambardella to get Dom Aitro ready for the next year. He’s used to dealing with problems. There’s never enough funding. Lately, a prostitution ring has started operating behind the outfield fence, and Gambardella now makes sure to arrive early in order to pick up any condom wrappers and used needles on the field. Yet this park means a lot to the kids of New Haven. “Jericho started with us when he was six,” Gambardella says, and year after year he would come to Dom Aitro on his bike or a city bus—to practice, to play, to watch, even to volunteer at the concession stand.
Jericho never had the athleticism to pogo out of his neighborhood. (When he threw his best fastball for CBS, on a stretch of Manhattan sidewalk they’d blocked off just for him, he topped out at 47 MPH.) Instead, he returned to his New Haven school, where 75 percent of his classmates qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Jericho did well in class. Just like on the mound, he was smart, observant, and determined; he had the neatest handwriting his teachers had ever seen. But he rarely talked about his burst of fame. In his room at home, where he lived with his parents and four siblings, he kept an autographed shirt sent over by Jimmy Kimmel’s people, along with a few other mementoes. Still, he didn’t bring any of it up with friends or teammates. The one exception came with his teachers. Sometimes, during independent reading, Jericho would ask if he could use the computer—the Scotts didn’t have one at home—and then Google himself and call the teacher over to see the results. It seemed important to him that they knew he’d done something special.
Jericho Scott, 2008. Photo via AP
Perhaps because he got a glimpse of the world beyond New Haven, or perhaps because he was just a sharp kid living in tough circumstances, Jericho thought a lot about what it meant to be normal. “He asked me one time, ‘Do you live in a really nice house?’” one of his favorite middle school teachers recalls. “I just said, ‘Oh I live in an average house, nothing fancy.’” A few weeks later, the teacher showed the class a Christmas card she’d made—a picture in her dining room with her, her husband, and their hound dog. The kids loved it and laughed at the goofy Christmas sweaters. But Jericho keyed in on the room. “His reaction to it was, ‘You said you didn’t live in a nice house. If that’s not a nice house, then what is my house?’” He wasn’t angry, but he was confused. “He really wrestled with some bigger questions that kids his age don’t always think about,” the teacher says. “I think he realized that he was sort of screwed.”
In the eighth grade and, even more, in high school, Jericho seemed to change. He skipped classes and collected a few suspensions. He could be both charming and exasperating—often at the same time, one of his high school teachers remembers. But that sounds like a lot of teenagers, and it certainly didn’t make it less shocking when, just after midnight on Sunday morning, Jericho was shot while sitting in a car parked on his street. Two other men were shot, as well, each a couple years older than Jericho, each involved in a previous shooting. While they survived their injuries, Jericho did not. He was pronounced dead at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Later that day, Gambardella went to the Scotts’ home. “We just started hugging, crying,” he says. “I mean, what do you say? His mother just kept asking why. And there’s no answer to that.”
There’s one more thing to know about Jericho Scott. He spent the last few years making himself into what the world had briefly and mistakenly celebrated him for being: a very good baseball player. Jericho grew to 5-foot-7 and filled out with wiry muscle. His fastball velocity climbed to 75 MPH, Gambardella says, “not phenomenal but very good.” Even better, Jericho started mixing in a curveball and a change, shaking off his catchers and trusting in his cerebral approach. New Haven’s best sports high school hinted that Jericho should transfer in. “I would have bet on him to make it to if not Division I, at least Division II,” Gambardella says. “And he had the smarts for college.”
It all came together for Jericho last summer—not just for him, but for Gambardella’s whole team. In August, they made it to the final tournament before the PONY World Series, the first time they’d gone that far since I watched them back in 2009. This time, the New Haven kids had to travel, so Gambardella rented two vans and hauled them to North Carolina. “It was a beautiful field,” he says. There was a lush and forested setting, a grounds crew from the town’s parks department, even a cluster of batting cages. Gambardella let everyone explore for a bit, then pointed them to the cages for some BP. “I unfolded the mat at the batting cage,” he remembers, “and 20 frogs and toads came hopping out from under the mat.” Most of the players had never left New Haven, other than for baseball; many had never even been to one of the city’s nicer parks. They’d never seen a live frog before. “You had 20 kids running and screaming, ‘Do they bite? Do they bite?’” Gambardella says. “I was laughing so hard I was rolling on the ground.”
Once the games started, though, the players turned all business. It was what they’d done all year. They beat two teams from North Carolina and one from Maryland until they reached the final, where they faced a team from, of all places, Virginia, a team coached by one of the same adults who’d slummed it at Dom Aitro so long ago. Gambardella gave Jericho the ball. “He pitched his heart out,” the coach says. “The way he pitched, we really should have won.” But New Haven lost, mostly because their defense made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. Jericho stayed focused, stayed out on the mound for all seven innings. When the game was over, after the handshakes, after the New Haveners remained on the field for the trophy presentations, Jericho and Gambardella met for a hug and some tears. Though neither one knew it, this would be the last game Jericho would ever pitch.
“His first comments were, ‘I’m sorry coach, I let the team down.’” Gambardella says. “But that wasn’t the case at all. I was very proud of him. Very proud.”
You con donate to help cover the costs of Jericho Scott’s burial and memorial service here.
Craig Fehrman is finishing up a book on presidents and their books for Simon & Schuster. He lives in Indiana.
Photos via Youtube.