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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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).

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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