In this Camden league, lessons of community hit home

James Henderson, 6, covers first base where his sister Jacilla is the runner on base.
James Henderson, 6, covers first base where his sister Jacilla is the runner on base.
Posted: September 29, 2011

One afternoon, the North Camden Little League players arrived at a rain-soaked sandlot with puddles between third base and home plate - no condition to play baseball. Still, with their coaches, they lugged a blue tub of fresh dirt from a pile, scraped mud off the third-base line, and heaped fresh soil atop it.

After an hour and a half of doing that, they played until dark. Ground balls stuck in the mud down the third-base line were automatic singles.

In the brief life of this league, "Mud Day" in August symbolized what baseball has come to mean for these youngsters.

"Mud Day told me that everything I hoped for this summer had been accomplished. Bringing baseball back to the neighborhood, getting kids excited about playing, reclaiming an abandoned field," said Bryan Morton, 40, league founder and North Camden native.

The shoestring league got rolling in June with more than 100 youths, and equipment and uniforms donated by the Phillies and others. Players wore their Phillies practice uniforms so often off the field that shirts and pants faded and shrank after washes.

Some children had never played baseball and didn't know how to throw a ball. Hitting was marginally better. A handful wanted to quit.

Still, they came to practice - even after rainy days. On the mound, sibling rivalries were tempered.

"It brought some unity to the community," said Estelle Miller-Rogers, whose son Cedric Boswell Jr., 7, played on a T-ball team. "Parents who didn't interact on a regular basis, we got a chance to meet . . . to encourage each other's children."

The league wrapped up inter-squad play a month ago after repeatedly trying to reschedule rained-out games.

An awards ceremony is planned for October.

Residents near the field at Point and Erie Streets, on a block where landlords make money renting rooms, grew fond of the league. Gang members agreed to curtail activities for practice. Residents offered the team ice at practice and old bats from their basements.

For a $15 registration fee, the coed league catered to children 5 to 12.

It is part of the Phillies Jr. RBI League, an effort to encourage baseball in inner cities, according to Jon Joaquin, manager of fan development programs for the Phillies.

Baseball isn't new to Camden. The Cramer Hill Little League has been around for two decades.

In North Camden, residents struggle to shield young children from violence as they pass by drug sets on the way to school. The league is a structured activity in a protected space, parents said.

Mud Day also represented a personal triumph for Morton. He has worked to move beyond a past of drug addiction, violence, and prison.

He grew up around the corner from the sandlot and lives there now. Like the block, his story isn't neat and tidy. By 21, he was a drug addict, a dealer, homeless, and shunned by family.

In 1995, he was sentenced to 20 years on charges of robbery, assault, and drug possession. He spent more than six years in prison and a halfway house before he was released in 2001.

In 2007, he was arrested on drug possession charges and pleaded guilty in May 2008. He received five years probation, records show, which was reduced to three years, he said. He said the drugs were in a car in which he was a passenger, and he was innocent.

In 2010, he graduated from Rutgers-Camden with his bachelor's degree in urban studies.

"We've all been through a lot in our past," said Glenn Roberts, a parent of a player. "This is a new day."

Morton is a project coordinator for Opportunity Reconnect, a reentry center run by the Sen. Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs, and is seeking a master's degree in public administration at Rutgers.

"What he did in his past is his past," said Joaquin. "He is obviously very passionate about helping the kids."

The forgotten city field at Point and Erie was so overgrown with weeds, you couldn't tell where the infield began. Volunteers from Comcast and the Camden Riversharks replaced dilapidated bleachers with wooden ones, pulled weeds, and planted azaleas.

The Phillies donated dozens of baseballs, uniforms, and equipment. The Riversharks gave Twins, Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox game-day uniforms.

The Berlin Little League donated dozens of cleats, more equipment, and $500. An additional $2,500 trickled in through a Facebook cause page.

Players mostly hailed from North Camden, and many were related. Six alone were part of Morton's family - his son, nephews, and nieces, and a second cousin from South Camden whom he met for the first time during league play.

Roberts and his 12-year-old son, Glenn Shertz, walked nearly a mile to practice. Glenn was just happy to be a part of the team.

"There's not too many 11- and 12-year-old kids that would walk three-quarters of a mile faithfully," his father said.


Contact staff writer Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or @darransimon on Twitter.

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