In the moments before Monday afternoon’s Public League Division A baseball contest against visiting GAMP, a Frankford player sheepishly approached a visiting reporter while holding some athletic tape in his hands.
Pioneers head coach Juan Namnun witnessed the encounter, and called his player over to help decipher the difference between reporter and trainer.
“Just another sign of our youth,” Namnun said with a laugh.
The moral of the story is that the three-time defending Public League champions are young, so much so that the six graduated seniors from last year’s team have been replaced by a plethora of raw, talented freshmen and sophomores with endless potential. (The roster contains three seniors, one junior, five sophomores and five freshmen, an eye-catching number given how much success Frankford has had recently.)
The Pioneers have won nine league titles since 2000 and four under Namnun (also in 2008), so the school has seen all sorts of different team constructions over the years. However, none quite compare to the 2014 Pioneers, who return exactly zero starters from last season. Namnun (a former Frankford player himself) said is the most unique group he’s ever seen.
“One thing I’m really excited about is we do have a ton of talent,” Namnun said. “But I need to keep reminding myself we literally have 14- and 15-year-olds across the board. This is going to be one of my favorite years of all time, because of our youth. There’s not a pitch I can take off, because I need to prepare them for what’s coming and what’s going to happen. I’m coaching a whole lot more than I ever have, and it’s fun to get back to this level. We’re definitely going to take our lumps, but I wouldn’t want to play us in May.”
Against GAMP, a tightly-contested 3-2 game quickly transitioned into a 9-2 blowout thanks to a six-run Frankford fifth that featured patience in the batters box, timely hitting and the veteran-like ability to take advantage when an opponent offers extra outs (GAMP committed three errors in the inning). Following a hit batsman and three walks to open the bottom of the third, sophomore first baseman Edgardo Bernard broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run single to center; from there, sophomore pitcher Michael Hollinger, in his first varsity appearance on the mound, held GAMP to two runs over six sharp innings until Frankford’s offense awakened in the fifth.
Despite their overall youth and inexperience, the Pioneers played with the poise of a veteran bunch, moving to 3-2 in Division A play and staying within striking distance of the teams in front of them with a ton of baseball to play.
“I believe in my heart that with the talent we have, we can be as good as anyone else once we figure out game management,” Namnun said. “I like our chances the same way I do every year. They know they still have stuff to learn, and that’s refreshing to me to know they have a ways to go. What’s really cool is when you win three in a row, there should be extra pressure and expectation, but there isn’t. This is all new to everyone.
“We’re starting from the ground up, and that’s awesome. There’s a hunger, a drive to get to that next level. I think they’re starting to get a swagger because of the jersey they have on. I tell them to play as if they’re the team to beat. Right now we aren’t, but we’re working on it. At the end of the day we might not end up with the ultimate goal, but I’m really excited about where this is going.”
Namnun admitted he is teaching more than he’s ever had to in the past. Not teaching the players how to play baseball, mind you, because as the coach said, “Most of them were the best players on their little league teams.” But rather, it’s about teaching them to do things the right way … the Frankford way.
A great teaching moment was displayed on Monday after Frankford had blown the game open. When the Pioneers came out for the top of the seventh with a seven-run lead, freshman catcher Joshua Pagan, whose long-term potential Namnun fawns over, threw a weak warm-up toss to second base from his knees. Namnun was on him in an instant, not in a disparaging or discouraging way, but just to indicate the importance of always operating at high intensity.
“A lot of these guys aren’t familiar with the Frankford way yet,” Namnun said. “We like to raise our standards here. The entire core needs to be taught that you can’t waste opportunities, even if it’s just a warm-up play. That’s how you get better. You get one an inning, so don’t waste it by being lazy.”
The Pioneers have responded to their coach’s challenge. It’s not all too surprising either, as another thing that has Namnun giddy is that some of the players on the roster are legacy guys. For instance, Bernard’s older brother is Esteban “Shortie” Meletiche, who Namnun said was “arguably a top-three player in the history of Frankford High School.” Second baseman Emanuel Ramirez’s (the only junior on the team; Carlos Cruz, Samuel Santos and Wydell Compton are seniors, but only Compton played against GAMP) older brother, Carlos, recently graduated, and Isaac Cedeno is the third of three brothers to come through the program.
So while this year’s version is still learning on the fly, they also have an idea of how big an honor it is to put on the uniform. Namnun also sees it come out in other ways.
“These kids don’t want to live in their brothers’ shadows; they want to be better,” Namnun said. “They work extremely hard every day in practice so that they can reach that level. Knowing I have all these guys coming back through, that support system with their families is still there. I know at home the family is reinforcing how things have gone here over the last ten to twelve years, so there’s familiarity with the program.
“The work ethic is going to be there, and it’s fun to watch these guys want to be better than their big brothers when they came through here. There’s a natural competition happening, and it’s really fun to watch. I might have a little bit more gray in my hair, but they’re keeping me young, energized and into every pitch.”
As far as the rest of this season goes, it would probably be foolish to count the Pioneers out no matter how young they are. Case in point: last year, after being ravaged by injuries to key contributors, the Pioneers limped into the playoffs at 5-8 and still managed to win the championship. They have a tendency to play very well once the calendar turns to May, so although Namnun isn’t pegging his team as division favorites — he singled out Prep Charter, Franklin Towne and Lincoln — he also isn’t underestimating how dangerous they can be if things fall into place.
Namnun told a story about how when the team was on a recent trip to Florida, freshman Elvis Rosario was pitching for the first time. His catcher, Pagan, is also a freshman, and when they couldn’t get on the same page, Pagan called time on his own and trotted out to the mound to settle down his pitcher.
“When I see something like that, I’m just giggling,” Namnun said. “Here’s a 14-year-old throwing to another 14-year-old, and Josh has the wherewithal to call time and figure out what they were going to do. I see that and I think, ‘Wow, these kids are still going to be here in three years.’
“This is genuine fun right here. I couldn’t want anything more than a lot of young kids that are talented, energized and ready to go. All I have to do is steer the boat.” ••