When Ken Hoffman was asked what he’ll cherish most about his 16- to 18-year-old Liberty Bell Youth Organization baseball team when the season wraps up soon, his answer had nothing to do with wins and losses.
Sure, his squad has won more than it has lost — a lot more, in fact — but Hoffman’s mind doesn’t dart directly toward the 32 wins in 36 games, the recent no-hitter or his stacked roster that resembles a high school all-star team. Rather, it’s watching in awe as the players he’s coached for years develop into mature young men, all while enjoying the game they love with the same joy that brought them to Hoffman as kids in the first place.
“It’s this right here,” Hoffman said as he watched his boys gleefully goof around nearby while the coach chatted with a visiting reporter on the eve of a championship game at Palmer Playground. “That brotherhood and friendship they’ve built with each other sticks out the most. The fun they’re having, watching them play together and seeing them turn on a switch when they hit this field. They love this game, and you can see it. They know they have something special going on here.”
Hoffman, the baseball director at Liberty Bell, is the architect of a team comprised of star players from area high schools that has marched nearly unbridled through two separate summer leagues: The Tri-State Elite League and the Lower Bucks County Senior Babe Ruth League. Liberty Bell has faced some of the best teams in New Jersey in Tri-State, as well as strong suburban Pennsylvania squads in Babe Ruth. Liberty Bell won the Babe Ruth championship game against Tri-Township on Tuesday night, 4-2; a Tri-State League semifinal is scheduled to follow on Friday against the Tigers of Bellmawr, N.J.
The team is a mishmash of different high schools — Ryan, Judge, Washington, Franklin Towne, Swenson, MaST Charter, Rush, Roman and the Haverford School — that consists of neighborhood kids who all live within a few miles of Liberty Bell headquarters at Palmer, at Comly and Thornton roads. Most have been playing under Hoffman since they were tykes (some as long as a decade) and have had success in the past, winning city titles and getting to play twice at Citizens Bank Park.
However, what they’ve all accomplished this year has been different. Much different.
“Heart and hustle is our biggest thing,” said Ryan Conner of MaST, one of the team’s top pitchers who has played for Hoffman for 10 years. “When you play as one, the wins come and come and come.”
“Being able to feel what I’m feeling, I can’t even put it into words,” said Franklin Towne’s Phil Gilchrist, with Liberty Bell for seven years. “We’re playing 11 months out of the year, and we all wake up willingly during the summer to practice on 100-degree days. We give it our all, and that’s how we’ve come away with 32 and 4.”
Team members include Roger Hanson, Ed Tingle and Ishmael Bracy (Washington); Conner and Brian Kaelin (MaST); Gilchrist and Rob Henry (Towne); Ken Hoffman, the coach’s son, and Jim Huston (Judge); Matt Wilson, Nick Centeno, Ryan & Sean Heckmanski (brothers), TJ Hirschbul and Anthony Fratanduono (Ryan); Anthony Moore (Rush); Christian Von Hofen (Roman); and Dan Borine (Haverford). Despite the plethora of teams (some of which are fierce rivals during high school season), countless players tossed around words like “family” and “brotherhood.”
There are no egos; just a bunch of best friends who love to play the game together.
“We play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the back,” said Henry, the team’s youngest player. “I got here as a nobody freshman and found a bunch of guys who took me in. I feel really close to them.”
“We come from different high schools, sure, but we never carry that on to the field with us when we play,” said Nieves, an All-Public League selection the last three seasons at Swenson. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t enjoy being here.”
Or, as Borine simply put it: “We’re more than a team. We’re a band of brothers.”
Many of these players are stars on their high school teams, but so rarely do people examine the origins from whence they came, the playgrounds and youth organization where they developed before winning league titles, as Bracy, Tingle and Hanson did this season at Washington. In fact, of the 19 players on Hoffman’s roster, roughly half have played for him at Liberty Bell for five years or longer. In a day and age when many summer teams stockpile the most talented players from all over the place, there’s something to be said about the squads that stick with the same team where they got their start.
In Liberty Bell’s case, loyalty wins out, because it’s that quality that has built tight team chemistry and ushered in all those wins and championships over the years.
“This season alone has been special because we’ve won so much,” the younger Hoffman said. “But what makes it truly unique is we’ve known each other and been friends for so long. Other teams may have more talent or better players, but none have as strong a chemistry as we do.”
The mutual love the players and head coach have for each other is obvious. Multiple players referred to Hoffman as a second father, and he in turn made it seem like he had 19 sons on this team, instead of just one. That, and not Tingle’s recent playoff no-hitter or the 2.23 staff ERA, is what all of these individuals will take from this spectacular summer experience.
“I’ve been playing for Ken since I was 8, and I wouldn’t be half the player I am today without him,” said Bracy, a rising star at G.W. “I’ve never known another coach outside the high school level. He’s a magician.”
“He puts his time, money and everything he has into us,” echoed Tingle. “And I appreciate that.”
“It’s inspiring and influential to see how much our coach cares,” Moore said. “He’s a role model to all of us.”
Added Conner: “He’ll do anything for us, and that’s what a coach needs to do. He’s the reason we’re all still here. If we didn’t have him, what we’re doing wouldn’t be nearly as special.”
Hoffman is why the Liberty Bell players are pushing themselves to the max during the sweltering summer months, choosing to “work our butts off for him,” as Kaelin said, instead of going down the shore or lazing by the pool. That sentiment is not lost on the coach; and while he’s happy his boys have virtually run the table across two separate leagues, Hoffman is prouder how they’ve developed into commendable young men under his watch.
Baseball, and the wins and championships that have come with it, is entirely secondary.
“The enjoyment I get out of it is watching them grow into good young men,” Hoffman said. “I hope that 10, 15 years from now, they’ll stay in the neighborhood and come back here to coach their own kids. That’s what I feel like I’m doing … giving back. It’s all about the kids. You miss out on a lot of family time when you coach as much as I do, but it’s all because of these boys.
“They can be doing anything in the summertime, but they want to be here. They love this game and want to use it to push themselves to get to college. People say winning cures all ills, but to see these kids having fun and forging lifelong friendships, that’s the fun part. They all play the game the right way. They get it. Are we dysfunctional sometimes? Yeah, but you know what? That’s family.” ••