Caring coaches, young Camden ball players find joy and respite from fear on field

Camden Yankees baseball coach Argenis Calderon

Camden Yankees baseball coach Argenis Calderon

After five years of growth, a youth sports league in Camden is spreading to include other parts of the city.

It’s an impressive feat. The Camden Neighborhood Baseball and Softball Association is eight times larger than when it started in North Camden. The expansion is thanks to the hard work of some devoted coaches who are making sure kids in this tough city have a chance to take the field.

Much of the action happens at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden.

On a recent afternoon just before practice, the weather was absolutely perfect with a slight breeze and bright warm sunshine. The well-tended grass was just waiting for some young baseball players to take the field.

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Standing at the edge of the field, Argenis Calderon was dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, with a gold chain hanging around his neck.

“Baseball was my way out, so I guess I’m giving back to the sport that gave me so much,” he said.

Calderon coaches a team of 13- to 15-year-olds called the Yankees. The young coach calls them, “his family, his boys,” a clear sign that his dedication is about more than just athletics.

“I love working with the youth and helping them see, there’s always a way out,” he said.

Calderon gives the teens guidance on life — when they ask — and some tough love when they’re slacking in school or on the field. This sage source of advice is only 20, and his mom dropped him off in the family minivan for the interview.

For Calderon, the age gap can help him connect with the kids. He sees himself filling the role of a father figure or older brother for many of the young men.

Looking out over the well-manicured field, Calderon talked about his own path to this point. Given how much time he spends with this sport, it’s surprising to hear that when he started playing baseball around the age of 11, he hated it.

“I was so bad at the sport that I remember at one practice I was doing so bad, I cried in the middle of the practice and I left. And I said, ‘I quit, I’m not playing baseball ever again. Never.’

‘My mom pulled me to the side and said, ‘Look, I paid for you to play baseball, you’re going to play baseball.'”

So, Calderon kept playing.

“Eventually during high school I think I was top 25 my junior year in South Jersey, batting.”

It’s a great personal success story that Calderon tells to motivate his own players.

An expanding dream

This, is exactly what Bryan Morton hoped would happen. He founded the North Camden Little League in 2011. It was a big deal in one of the most dangerous parts of one of the nation’s most dangerous cities. There were stray bullets and fears of getting caught in the crossfire. Morton knew all that, but he pushed forward anyway.

And now, “my hope is that the magic in a bottle is not just confined to North Camden and that, by summer’s end, seven neighborhoods will collectively be working toward changing the city,” Morton said. “So kids have an opportunity to just be kids.”

The season strategically starts in June, when school ends, to keep players occupied with a positive activity.

And Morton said  Calderon is a true role model for the players.

“It’s teenaged boys that are being recruited and being targeted by the gangs. So to have a young man such as Argenis leading our major league baseball program is awesome.”

Morton points out that the young coach is a Rutgers-Camden student who is staying engaged in his community. Often, college students from Camden distance themselves from their neighborhood. “Socially you’re not hanging around and professionally you’re looking for opportunities outside of the city.”

Softball as sisterhood

A few minutes’ drive away, the field on 10th Street is not quite as fancy. Two soccer goals with no nets are pushed to the far end, and a building with peeling paint sits on the other side.

Softball coach Shirley Irizzary was just arriving for practice with a bucket full of balls. This dedicated and determined woman coaches not one, but two teams, the Lady Flames and the Liberty Bells.

Irizzary, who has two daughters, started coaching a few years ago even though she knew nothing about softball. Since then, s since learned the fundamentals and how to run a practice.

Her commitment is daily. During the week, she runs straight home from work at the school district, changes, and hits the field.

“It’s very hectic and busy,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Irizzary said she hopes softball will help these young women raise their self-esteem. She also wants them to learn useful life skills such as how to be disciplined and how to be part of a team.

“We’re really big about building sisterhood, even though we’re on opposite teams, we try to keep the community feeling, the sisterhood feeling,”Irizarry said. “And that’s because we just want better for them, and we want them to become involved in their community.”

In Camden, danger is never far from mind. The field the girls play on is named after an 11-year-old softball player who was killed by a stray bullet at a birthday party.

That young victim could have been any one of her players, Irizarry said.

“We’ve had coaches who’ve lost family members to the violence, we’ve had family members lose brothers, sisters to the violence, some of our coaches have lost their parents due to violence,” she said. “And it’s just too much of a common theme for us not to bring attention to it.”

This league has become a support system for the players, coaches and families. It helps all of them cope with the setbacks life deals as it offers a chance to celebrate moments of pure joy.

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