Dillard’s Cleveland Westbrook Jr. would watch baseball games on television with his father every night, mesmerized by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s defensive flair.
Inspired by his trademark acrobatic throw, Westbrook Jr. signed up for tee-ball as a 4-year-old.
He would go on to discover his potential at his favorite player’s position while in coach-pitch.
By the time he turned 10, Westbrook Jr. played for the Wilton Manors travel team. Last season, he was a member of the Florida Pokers. He is currently trying to find a club in Miami.
“I just liked seeing them turn double plays,” said Westbrook, now a junior in high school. “That was my favorite thing to see. I always wanted to be that person to make the double play.”
It helps that athletics run in his genes.
His father, Cleveland, played football, basketball and softball.
His mother, Erma, was a Hall of Fame basketball player at Bethune Cookman.
“He just adapted to it and wanted to play it,” Westbrook Sr. said. “We just backed him up with whatever sport he wanted to do. We told him whatever he wanted to do we would support him.”
Over the years, Westbrook Jr. expanded his versatility by learning various pitches from coaches.
His arsenal now includes a two-seam and four-seam fastball in the low 80s (mph), a circle change, a slider and a curveball.
When Westbrook Jr. made his high school pitching debut as a freshman, he enjoyed the spotlight the position provided.
After calming his nerves, he felt right at home on each pitch.
“It was like I was watching a professional pitcher up there the way he was pitching,” Westbrook Sr. said. “He just blew me away. He played anywhere you put him, but it stuck. And the way he strikes the guys out! I just love watching him play. I can’t explain it because I’m just so proud of how he picked the sport up and started playing.”
Westbrook Jr. decided this past summer to focus solely on baseball instead of splitting his time with the junior varsity football and basketball teams.
It marks a rare occurrence for a school with seven state championships between those two programs. In District 16-5A the goal is to play a seven-inning game, avoiding the mercy rule against programs such as American Heritage with seasoned ballplayers.
The hope is if Westbrook Jr. can go on to play collegiately — becoming the first under coach Daniel Lozinsky — perhaps others will want to follow in his footsteps and play baseball at Dillard.
Yet that remains a work in progress.
Joseph C. Carter Park on Sunrise Boulevard, which is within walking distance of Dillard, took away the little league diamonds for a new football field.
They will be built over the next year two miles away at Osswald Park, hopefully provide a feeder system of talent.
According to its website, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which has been around since 1989, aims to increase interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth in more than 200 cities around the world.
Alumni currently in the majors include Braves outfielder Justin Upton, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. Last May through August, Westbrook Jr. played for the Marlins team.
“We weren’t the only teams that knew baseball and knew it well,” said Westbrook Jr., who traveled with his team to Vero Beach for a tournament. “It was fun to actually watch and see how other high schoolers compete. You get to see how many people just set themselves down for baseball and not just for other sports.”