Ethiopian turns into Kennewick Cal Ripken ace

By Annie Fowler, Tri-City Herald staff July 20, 2011 

KENNEWICK -- When Mel Crowley takes the mound, he means business.

Armed with a fastball and a curveball aptly named 'Mr. Nasty,' the right-handed pitcher has his Kennewick National team in the Pacific Northwest Cal Ripken Major 70-foot Regional Tournament that begins Thursday in Kennewick.

"He is an incredible pitcher and he's an exceptional athlete," KN assistant coach Jeff Daniels said. "In the state semifinals, he struck out 14 (in a 2-0 victory against Lewis County). He threw it past people. He's something to watch."

A native of Ethiopia, Mel didn't even know what baseball was when Katherine Crowley adopted him and his sister Mekdes nearly four years ago.

Mel, 12, and Mekdes, 14, barely spoke English. But Mel, who has a heart-warming smile, was quick to make friends and his KN team has been like a second family since his mom, sisters Mekdes and Holly, 14, and brother Dutton, 14, moved to Port Townsend a couple of months ago, where Katherine is a chemical engineer.

Mel, who also plays center field, has been staying with the Daniels and teammate Blake Marboe's family, but once the baseball season is over, Mel will join his family.

"The team knew we got to keep Mel as long as we kept winning," Daniels said. "We won state and now we are going to regionals. If we can win regionals, we will go to the World Series. They are truly motivated."

Mel and Mekdes grew up in the village of Wolaita, located in the southern part of Ethiopia about 223 miles south from the capital of Addis Ababa.

They were living with their elderly grandmother when Katherine Crowley adopted them with the help of Christian World Adoption.

"They sent me a list of waiting children," Katherine said. "We (along with Holly and Dutton) looked over their list. We pointed and we just knew it when we saw them."

Katherine said Mel and Mekdes' grandmother was getting too old to care for the children and that the adoption papers note that their biological parents were dead.

"I never did meet her, but I'm sure it was pretty emotional for her," Katherine said of the kids' grandmother. "They didn't know the language and they didn't know me, but they are truly very happy. They have always been very grateful."

Mel said life in the United States is different from that in Ethiopia, what with air conditioning, refrigerators, clean water and shoes.

"I never had shoes before, but I like shoes now," Mel said. "I don't know if life here is better, it's just different. I enjoy living here and playing baseball, but I miss Africa. I miss my friends, my cousins and my grandma."

Katherine said she will be taking the kids to Ethiopia next year.

"Mel is very vocal in missing Ethiopia," she said. "I made a promise to take them back. He misses the food and the smells."

Katherine can buy Ethiopian food in Spokane and Seattle, and has tried her hand at making injera -- a sour flatbread that is used to scoop up stews and other dishes -- which is a main staple in Ethiopia.

"It's easier to buy it," Katherine said. "Ethiopian food has very hot spices -- a lot of onion, garlic and hot peppers."

The Wolaita are simple people who live in rural areas. They are some of the poorest people in Ethiopia as well as in the entire world. Their livelihoods are based on agriculture and livestock. It is common for the Wolaitas to keep their livestock in their homes at night.

"You have to keep them safe from the hyenas and thieves," Mel said.

Mel attended school in Ethiopia, which was about a 4-mile walk from the village.

"It didn't seem that far," Mel said. "We would run and play. It was a lot of fun."

Though baseball and basketball were new to him in the states, Mel did play soccer in Africa.

To make a ball, they would take a sock, stuff it with hair or anything else they could find, tie up the end, sew it together and decorate it. It's smaller than a regular soccer ball, but the children didn't mind.

"We just played for fun," Mel said.

When Katherine brought Mel and Mekdes home, Jeff and Colette Daniels and their son Dawson lived just around the corner.

"They asked if I could come and meet him," Dawson said. "He was nervous."

The two became fast friends. Dawson helped Mel with his English and showed him how to play basketball and baseball.

"It was kind of hard at first," Dawson said. "He didn't understand what you told him -- you had to show him. He has taught me a lot. He's taught me words in his language and I can count to 20. He said there was a lot of fighting from where he was from and that he's blessed there isn't that here. I would like to go there (Ethiopia) some day."

The Daniels house became a hangout for Mel and Mekdes.

"When they first came, we had a 100-foot Slip 'N Slide and they loved it," Colette Daniels said. "What surprised me most, was the politeness they came with. Always 'please' and 'thank you' and picking up after themselves."

For Mel, the biggest adjustment in moving to the states was school.

"That was difficult," he said. "I started crying in the bathroom the first day. I didn't understand anything."

After double doses of English and math for four years, Mel is catching up with his classmates in reading and he's very good at math.

"They have adapted awesome," Katherine said. "The Kennewick school system has given them a lot of help. School was an overwhelming struggle, but the teachers have been wonderful."

While it took time to catch on at school, it didn't take near as long for Mel to learn the game of baseball.

In the spring of 2008, Mel was given his first baseball glove by Daniels. His reply: "Coach, which hand?"

"I didn't know anything," Mel said. "Jeff taught me to pitch, to hit and everything."

And Mel has paid it forward.

"He has helped me a lot with pitching," Marboe said. "He taught me a knuckle curve. We've been great friends since he came here and I'm devastated he has to leave. Someday I would like to go and see where he lived."

That's all fine and dandy, but for now, Mel and 'Mr. Nasty' have have a little work to do.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service