Northeast Times

Public struggle

The Public League’s misfortunes in the Carpenter Cup continued on Sunday, dropping its 24th straight decision. The league’s only win came in 1990.

  • There was a heavy Northeast influence at the Carpenter Cup, with Frankford and Public League head coach Juan Namnun (center) flanked by assistants Ken Geiser (left, George Washington) and John Larsen (Lincoln).

  • A dynamic duo: Frankford head coach Juan Namnun (right) leans on son Jared for support in the dugout of Sunday’s 9-3 loss to Delaware County. It was Namnun’s fifth time coaching the Public League team, all defeats.

  • All hands on deck: Despite upbeat attitudes across the board, members of the Carpenter Cup Classic’s Public League team fell to 1-28 all time in the event. Coached by Frankford’s Juan Namnun, the Public League lost 9-3 to Delaware County. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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.” ••

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