There was a brief time, probably somewhere around the evening of April 19, when Juan Namnun thought his Frankford baseball team might be doomed.
Down three veteran starters on a team already rife with inexperience and spiraling down the Public League Division A standings, it appeared Frankford’s reign at the top was coming to an end.
After a humiliating 16-0 loss to Prep Charter at home that April afternoon, the two-time defending league champions looked finished, an absolute shell of the crisp, fundamentally sound teams Namnun was used to fielding.
“We’ve never really had scores like that at Frankford as long as I’ve been involved, and certainly in my career here we’ve never been 15-run ruled,” said Namnun, a former Pioneer player who came on board as an assistant to longtime coach Bob Peffle in 2000. “It was the most humbling, awakening moment you can have.”
The loss to Prep Charter was Frankford’s fourth in the division, and the Pioneers would go on to lose four more before the regular season concluded. Those eight defeats were five more than the Pioneers had lost in the last two seasons combined.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, something funny happened.
This Frankford team, the one with the All-League quarterback in his first year of varsity baseball who refused to let the ship sink, found second life. If Namnun ever thought his team was dead in the water, he never let on to them, and his Pioneers rewarded him with a startling late-season renaissance.
All at once, they welcomed back key injured players Kevin Montero (first base), Carlos Ramirez (pitcher) and Eduardo Sanchez (catcher). Then, entering the AAAA playoffs limping but still standing, the Pioneers nipped Edison, 4-3. Two days later in the second round, they got by Olney, who had done Frankford a favor by knocking off Central in the previous game.
Suddenly, the Pioneers were facing a titanic AAAA championship showdown with fierce rival Washington, the regular season Division A champs. The winner would advance to the “Tourney of Champions,” the league’s version of the Final Four, with an overall championship up for grabs.
But Frankford? This middle-of-the-pack, injury-decimated team? No shot, right?
“Listen, we took a lot of lumps, and we were missing three top players for a month,” Namnun said. “But it was after that Prep Charter loss when I heard one of our guys say, ‘Do you realize how many times we’ve done this to other teams? Let’s learn from this. When we get to the playoffs, it will be different.’ That’s when I kind of said to myself, ‘You know, maybe we’ll be OK.’”
No matter how down they were and no matter how gutted his starting lineup was by last year’s graduation, the fact remained that nobody in the league had more big-game experience than Namnun, who has won seven league titles since he joined Frankford’s staff, including three of the last five as head coach.
That would come in handy in Friday’s game at Washington. The Eagles hung a 4-spot on Ramirez in the bottom of the third, and Frankford entered the fifth inning still trailing, 4-2. However, RBI singles off the bats of Sanchez and second baseman Josiah Cedeno knotted the score, setting the stage for a thrilling finish.
When Ramirez got into a jam on the mound to start the sixth, Namnun summoned Tim DiGiorgio from center field. DiGiorgio, who passed for over 4,000 yards and more than 40 touchdowns in two seasons as Frankford’s QB, never played varsity baseball before this season, but here was Namnun (also the football team’s defensive coordinator) calling on him in a desperate attempt to keep the season alive.
“Tim DiGiorgio is the definition of a gamer,” Namnun said. “He came to me that morning in school and told me, ‘Coach, if you need me, I will give you everything I have.’ He may lack the baseball experience, but he makes up for it with a huge amount of guts and grit.”
The guts and grit were on full display for the final nine outs against Washington, as DiGiorgio whiffed six and didn’t allow a hit. With the score tied in the top of the sixth and shortstop Kidanny Cumba standing 90 feet away, DiGiorgio delivered the go-ahead sacrifice fly to center field in a game Frankford ultimately won, 7-4.
The victory set the stage for a Monday semifinal match-up with familiar foe Prep Charter. This time around, the third time was the charm for Frankford against P.C. (Prep Charter also won, 6-5, on April 1) as Ramirez tossed a complete-game five-hitter in the Pioneers’ 3-2 win.
Now, stunningly, Namnun’s group will somehow be competing for its third consecutive Public League championship on Thursday against Franklin Towne Charter.
“Over the course of the season, we’ve learned how to lose and how to win after being down,” Namnun said. “When we got down 4-1 in the third (against Washington), in no way was it an end-of-the-world attitude.”
Namnun maintains that he never gave up on his team reaching this point, though he did admit some doubt crept in when Frankford was ravaged by injuries. He said, “I never called it a year, but I knew it would be tough.”
As a result, Namnun could very well be on the cusp of what would be his most remarkable title yet. His previous three title teams were loaded with veteran talent that was expected to win. This one?
“I spent a lot of time telling these younger kids that teams will be gunning for them simply because of the name on the front of their jersey,” Namnun said. “We were at 3-6 or 3-7 in the league, but these guys all still showed up to practice the next day, busting their humps to get better.”
There were many standouts in Friday’s win, from DiGiorgio to Cumba (3-for-3, three runs scored) to Montero, who is seeking his own third straight title before his journey to become a professional ballplayer begins.
Regardless of how it ends this week in the Public League title game, these Pioneers will play on. By beating Washington and winning the AAAA championship, Frankford qualified for the state playoffs. This is certainly a nice accomplishment, but, as he’s want to do, Namnun is thinking bigger, for the rest of this season and beyond.
“I want to be the best public school in this city,” he said. “But regardless of where we end up, I’ll have two distinct memories of the 2013 season. One, the amazing growth of the young guys and how they always stayed positive; two, I’m extremely proud of my seniors. They knew it was an uphill battle, one people didn’t think they were up for. We were supposed to be rebuilding, but here we are.”
In the moments following the come-from-behind win over Washington, Namnun shook a reporter’s hand and exclaimed, “Who would have thought?!”
“Winning breeds winning,” he said. “Even with the youth on this team, I always thought that if I can get them a little bit of playoff experience, then they can learn to win at this level.
“They’ve already made believers out of me with the character they possess. I’ll remember this group fondly for a long time.” ••