Before Franklin Towne Charter’s home baseball game against Nueva Esperanza on Friday, the American Legion field at Devereaux and Hegerman streets more closely resembled a dance floor.
The umpire crew was late, but instead of getting anxious and antsy over the delay, this Towne team was as loose as a goose, singing and dancing together near the bench to tunes such as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s Good Vibrations and the Notorious B.I.G.’s Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems. This team, which finished as the Public League runner-up in 2013, is hungry for another championship run and their dancing — like most other things — is done together as one unit.
Given how far this team (and program) has come in just a few short years, it’s no surprise to see these players trust each other unconditionally. Before last year’s playoff run, the current Towne seniors posted consecutive records of 2-12 and 3-10 as freshmen and sophomores. Now, things are a wee bit different.
Towne currently sits at 10-1-1, with the only blemishes to their flawless record being a 12-12 tie to division foe Prep Charter on April 4 and a 10-0 non-league loss to Father Judge the day after Friday’s emotionally draining 9-7 win over a feisty Esperanza team that wouldn’t quit. The Coyotes are unbeaten in Public League Division A play at 9-0, a game-and-a-half ahead of Washington when the Times went to press. They haven’t lost a division game since Frankford prevailed 9-2 over a sloppy Towne team in 2013’s championship game.
“Despite our perfect record, at Franklin Towne, we feel like we don’t get much respect,” said pitcher/outfielder/unquestioned junior leader Steve Callahan following the win over Esperanza. “I think after last year, we knew we were capable of something special. We made a promise to the seniors who left last year. I know that I’m on a mission, and I’m bringing all of these guys along with me.”
This Towne team has won every way possible, from early-season blowouts to recent tightly-contested wins over some of the division’s top teams (its last four division victories have come by a combined six runs). They are deep and talented, with Callahan and seniors Chris Hammerstein (catcher) and Brian Bradley (third base) being solid both on the field as players and off it as leaders. Not only that, but Towne is young, too. Against Esperanza, the team started several underclassmen: sophomore Zack Beltran at first base and batting cleanup, freshmen Rob Henry (shortstop) and Jason Santiago (second base) up the middle and another ninth-grader, Eric Sanchez, on the mound.
After jumping out to a 6-0 lead over Esperanza in the first inning, Sanchez and company had to hold on for dear life as the opposition responded with five of its own in the top of the second. When Towne added a three-spot in the third, they buckled down and withstood Esperanza’s final rally in the final two innings, and Bradley punctuated the win by diving into the third base bag for a game-ending force out.
“We know we’re undefeated, and we know there’s more of a target on our backs these days,” said Callahan, who went 1-for-2 with two walks and three RBI on Friday. “We know every team is coming in and throwing their best at us, coming at us with the underdog mentality. But a team full of best friends is known not to lose, and that’s what we are. Coming out here and playing or practicing together … we love it, man. We get out here and we work hard and have fun, which is what you saw today.”
The reason for Towne’s easygoing nature as a team is no accident. Callahan admitted he approached last year’s title game (the program’s first championship appearance) with some added tension, and he and the team committed seven errors as a result. Now that they have the experience under their belts, they discovered if they treat each game like the one that came before it, then they’ll probably win a lot of them.
“We’ve been out here in the cold, the pouring rain … no matter what conditions, we’re always out here trying to get better,” said Hammerstein, one of six seniors on the roster. “We want to be the best team in this division, and that’s what it’s going to take. We’re trying to earn everybody’s respect.”
This season has been anything but ordinary for Towne. In addition to playing the role of favorite (even Frankford head coach Juan Namnun, who has won the last three league titles, singled out Towne as a team to watch), Kyle Riley, the only baseball coach the school has ever had, stepped down on March 27 for personal reasons. His assistant coach, Chris Lauber (also the school’s boys basketball coach), stepped into the role of head coach and has ensured that the ship has stayed righted.
In a postgame conversation, Callahan and Hammerstein both used words and phrases such as “focused” and “doing the little things right” on multiple occasions. While some may treat the “one game at a time adage” as a tired sports cliche, it’s worked for this group.
“We have a lot of young guys on this team, guys who don’t know what it’s like to lose,” Callahan said. “That’s my biggest fear. Come playoff time, it’s one-and-done, so I do my best to keep them focused on doing those little things right. I’m a big yeller, so I yell at them a lot, only because I’ve been there and I want to be there again. I know what it’s like and what it takes. We have to finish the job.”
Towne is also an incredibly close group. When Santiago, the freshman second baseman, was removed from the game following a late error, there was always a teammate by his side to help console the young man and reassure him that in this game, mistakes are an inevitability. They have each other’s backs just like they always have, just as they did when they arrived to the promised land following years of struggle and strife.
The school, which is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things (Towne opened in 2000), has been riding a wave of athletics success. The girls soccer program has won three straight league titles, while the softball team captured its first in 2013. Both basketball programs have gone from bottom-dwellers to playoff contenders. The baseball players see their peers celebrating, making them want that championship hardware even more.
“There would be a lot more respect for the program,” Hammerstein said. “Everyone always talks about girls soccer, and softball pulled one off last year. Baseball has been kind of off in the distance. We’ve been quiet for a couple of years now. It wasn’t that long ago where we only won one game in our division. It’d be real nice to be able to get back to that championship game and be able to redo the mistakes we made.”
Callahan, who the former coach Riley called “a born leader,” said he has lots of friends who play Catholic League baseball and that he too had opportunities to follow suit. But the lure of being able to accomplish something his school has never done was too strong.
“It’s a huge accomplishment what we’re doing, but we can’t get a big head,” Callahan aid. “The greatest thing about this season is you can see the progress and respect factor developing before you. We’re winning games, sure, but it doesn’t stop here.” ••