Though the result was familiar, everything about this Public League baseball championship seemed different.
Sure, Frankford emerged as champions once again — it was the Pioneers’ third such title in a row, fourth since 2008 and ninth in this century, continuing to steer head coach Juan Namnun’s program into dynasty territory.
But something about last Wednesday’s 9-2 victory over Franklin Towne Charter at Ashburn Field in South Philadelphia felt utterly improbable. Perhaps it was the nine-day layoff between games due to rainy weather, or maybe the fact that a team that finished the regular season at 5-8 has no business going on a run like this one.
However, what made it truly remarkable was that it was dedicated to the memory of Edwin “Tito” Rohena, a 2009 Frankford graduate and two-time first-team All-City outfielder who died in a motorcycle crash on Roosevelt Boulevard the night of May 17, not long after the Pioneers had defeated rival Washington for the Class AAAA title.
On Wednesday morning, Namnun and the Frankford baseball family buried Rohena, then went out and won a title in his honor.
“When this all happened,” Namnun later said, referring to Rohena’s death, “I turned to my wife and told her how blessed I was to have young men come through my life in different stages. We really leaned on each other. My guys helped me through this. I don’t know if we could have gotten through it without each other. I consider it a beautiful blessing, and that fact will never, ever get lost in my mind.”
Following the final out of the game, which wasn’t much of one thanks to a ghastly seven errors committed by Towne, Namnun spoke to his team about its sudden resurrection, which featured five straight postseason victories on the heels of six consecutive losses to end the regular season.
When it was time to pose for pictures afterward, Namnun removed his navy blue Frankford warm-up jacket to reveal Rohena’s No. 19 jersey on his back. Moments later, senior shortstop Kidanny Cumba, who was such a big part of this team’s late success, broke down in tears while embracing the championship trophy in the dugout, managing to eek out the words, “This is for Tito.”
Everything about this group of champions will be memorable for the long haul. From Frankford QB Tim DiGiorgio becoming a stunning contributor in his first varsity season, to first baseman Kevin Montero and pitcher Eduardo “Cheese” Sanchez shearing off the white Fu-Manchu mustache of athletic director Jack Creighton, who had promised to lose his signature facial hair if the Pioneers rebounded to win a title, it was abundantly clear that the stars had aligned perfectly.
“For me, this was the best one,” Montero said after winning his third straight title. “Because this was not a team that everybody looked at and said, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to win.’”
Indeed. In fact, the 2011 and 2012 championship teams went a combined 25-3 in league play. Many stars from those groups, including Hector Cerda, Omar Cruz and dynamite leadoff hitter Augusto “June” Ortega, were on hand in their Frankford baseball jerseys to witness this Pioneers team pull off the impossible.
When the brilliant Sanchez — who struck out 11, including six in a row at one point, while going the distance — recorded the final out on a called third strike, Ortega was so excited that he nearly climbed a 15-foot fence to the right of Frankford’s dugout.
“Magical,” Namnun said when asked to describe Frankford’s postseason run. “We weren’t expected to be competitive by many, and for awhile, we weren’t. It’s an enormous honor to know that out of 45 other Public League baseball teams, we’re the best one. How much better can it get?”
Probably not much for a group that’s been walking on clouds for the last few weeks. DiGiorgio, who helped hold the team above water when Montero, Sanchez and senior Carlos Ramirez were out with injuries, punctuated his fantastic season with three more RBI.
Cumba, who had the unenviable task of filling Ortega’s huge shoes atop the order, set the tone early as he’s proven to do; in fact, the screaming liner he hit to lead off the game was struck so hard that Towne shortstop Stephen Callahan couldn’t get his glove up in time, resulting in a broken nose. Cumba knocked in three and scored two, which is what he seemed to do all season when his team needed it.
“It was very emotional,” Cumba admitted later. “We wanted to do this for old teammates and past Pioneers like June and Tito. Those guys set the trail for us, and it was up to us to continue on that path. We had to do it for our coach, for Tito, for each other.
“What I’ll always remember is how we never gave up on the season or on each other. Even if we were weaker, we played smarter. As a senior, I always tried to push these guys forward, never backward. They all did their part, and I’m so proud of their strength.”
When he addressed his troops after the game, Namnun spoke of the return of the “Frankford swagger” over the last two weeks. Down 3-1 to Edison in the final inning of the opening round, something clicked to suddenly right the ship. Frankford won that game, 4-3, then knocked off Olney, Washington, Prep Charter and Towne in succession.
Frankford’s eight losses are the second most for a league champ (GAMP lost nine in 2002), and were as many as the last five Public winners have had combined. It was an emphatic end to the reign of these Frankford seniors, as well; though some were on the last two title teams, all but Montero had significantly larger roles.
As Cumba would say later, “We won championships my sophomore and junior years, but they weren’t ours. Those belonged to last year’s seniors. Yeah, we helped them win it, but it’s so much more special this time. We had doubts — a lot of them, in fact, but here’s Frankford, on top of everyone again.”
“They’re all very important would be my politically correct answer,” Namnun added in reference to the nine titles he’s won since joining the coaching staff — five as an assistant, four as head coach. “But I honestly caught myself reflecting more on this one. We didn’t know what was possible, but we all liked the challenge, especially after six straight losses, two by double digits. How much would we come back? Will we have enough? At the end of the day we did, and it’s as rewarding a championship as I’ve ever had.” ••