Lucky number 3

Three’s com­pany: Frank­ford head coach Juan Namnun (left) watches his team’s 9-2 vic­tory, earn­ing the Pi­on­eers a third con­sec­ut­ive Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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.” ••

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