The old adage states that the only two guarantees in life are death and taxes. If there was room to add a third proclamation, it might state, “Death, taxes and, come early June, the Public League will lose its first and only Carpenter Cup contest.”
On Sunday afternoon at FDR Park’s Richie Ashburn Field, the Public League suited up for the 29th annual Carpenter Cup Classic, an all-star baseball showcase tournament featuring 16 teams from Eastern Pennsylvania, South and Central New Jersey and Delaware that’s sponsored by the Phillies (the semifinals and title game are played at Citizens Bank Park). Other local teams participating included a Catholic League team, an Inter-Ac squad and another from Delaware County, which eliminated the Public League on Sunday by a score of 9-3, with the Public League scoring all of its runs in the last half of the ninth inning.
The score was a more respectable showing, but the result was the same. In year 29 of this event, the Public League has won exactly once, dating back to 1990, which translates to a 24-year losing streak. The games haven’t been close, either, with the opposition outscoring the Public League 277-82 since the event’s inception.
So the burning question remains: Why? In a league full of talented student-athletes, why has the first-round matchup with the Public League become an automatic win for whichever team draws them? While there may be no clear-cut answer, there are certainly contributing factors to the streak of unfathomably bad misfortune.
“The first underlying issue is the socioeconomic aspect of athletics in our area,” said Frankford head coach Juan Namnun, who coached the Public League for the fifth time in the Carpenter Cup on Sunday. “We definitely have kids with great home lives and great support, but a large portion of kids are unfortunately not doing great on that end of things. Financially, they can’t go to a gym, they can’t hire a hitting instructor or play for elite travel teams that get them the facilities they need. Without question, the main issue is something as simple as economics. That has a huge impact on student-athletes.”
While the Public League certainly has a plethora of talented baseball players — and student-athletes in general — odds are when they arrive at an event like the Carpenter Cup, they’re already at a tremendous disadvantage. Simply put, the competition has had more exposure to the necessities of athletic development, which gives the kids on the other teams a great head start.
“I definitely saw improvement,” Namnun said. “The ultimate goal is to win the game, and on Sunday we just about made every play. Our pitchers threw fairly well, and we picked it pretty clean. 9-3 is a pretty good score, but Delco is a real good team.”
As Namnun pointed out, any young person is a product of his or her environment. At home, it starts out with eating the right food, as nutrition is vital in the development of young people; however, Namnun said it’s not that easy in some households, and he and his coaching staff have had to pay out of their own pocket in some instances to ensure the players have something in their bellies before and after a game. Players over the years have had to miss practice to go to an afterschool job to help pay the rent.
Some schools are blessed with the luxury of having top-of-the-line weight rooms; Namnun knows this, as he’s also a football assistant at Delran High School in South Jersey.
“The work ethic of these kids in the weight room is unlike anything I’ve seen before,” he said. “It will be 8 a.m. in the summertime, and there will be 60 kids in a weight room that’s equivalent to any collegiate one in the area. These facilities make such a difference at the state level. By no stretch am I saying these are better athletes, but at the end of the day, when a kid is stronger in the fourth quarter or seventh inning, it will result in more success. Better food and workout equipment makes a huge difference. Training the right way … that’s a big deal.”
In the Public League, the student-athletes make due with what they have, which is not a lot. But on the flip side, most of the kids appreciate the little they do have, which is certainly reflective of the intensity and urgency levels they play at.
“One thing college coaches talk to me about when they’re recruiting our kids is they have a fire they don’t see in other places,” Namnun said. “The Public League has this unbelievable grit and resolve. Our kids might not be faster or stronger, but they have a fire inside them, enough to close that gap and make it a competitive game. It’s an intensity you might not see in other places.”
The Carpenter Cup may as well be considered an amalgam of the Public League competing in city title games and state playoffs, which come after class and league title contests on the calendar. The Public League may play with fire and passion in their bellies, but the fact remains that its players are usually overmatched for all of the aforementioned reasons.
“It’s a tough lesson to teach the kids,” Namnun said. “Because you can work really hard and win in the Public League, but there’s a good chance the last game you ever play will end up being a loss. Where’s the success, when everybody already knows the chips are stacked against us?”
Perhaps the most frustrating part for Namnun and his peers is that there is no clear-cut answer to solve the problem. The Public League contains 45 high schools that field baseball teams, meaning that all of the talent is stretched thin across city limits. Conversely, the Catholic League had just 14 teams this season and the Inter-Ac has six, with most of these schools featuring top-of-the-line facilities, weight rooms and deeper coaching staffs.
It’s not an indictment on any school, public, Catholic or private … it’s just the facts and the way things are and probably the way they’ll stay, which doesn’t say much for the Public League’s chances of competing in future city title games, the state playoffs and events such as the Carpenter Cup.
“Right now, the Public League is unfortunately just a step behind everyone else,” Namnun said. “It’s so large. When you take those large pockets of talent and force them to spread out, it’s tougher to compete at the city and state level. You get that at the Carpenter Cup, too. It’s hard, because you want to represent your league and city as best you can.”
Namnun said he briefly addresses the Public League’s lack of success to his Carpenter Cup team, but tries not to dwell on it. After all, it’s an event featuring elevated quality of baseball with a plethora of college scouts on hand, which can be fun and eye-opening to the kids not accustomed to that kind of exposure.
“At the end of the day, if you look at schools like Northeast, Central, Lincoln and Washington, you’ll find kids working very hard doing everything they can do to compete,” Namnun said. “They practice their hearts out, which is great, but sometimes it’s not enough when equipment, eating right and the facilities aren’t on par. These little obstacles add up to a pretty big wall. But we really do work hard to keep the kids in the right state of mind.”
In the 2013 city title football game, St. Joseph’s Prep prevailed over Frankford in a 10-7 nailbiter for the ages. The margin of victory for the Prep was so small that it shocked nearly everybody in attendance, which speaks volumes about how the two leagues are perceived as a whole when stacked next to one another.
“All of these things, they trickle down into performance,” Namnun said. “You feel bad inside for the kids. Athletically, I think we’re 100 percent just as good as other leagues, but it’s just where we are. Kids have to deal with issues so far greater, sadder and worse than wins and losses.” ••