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Baseball League Creates 'Islands' Of Refuge For Camden Kids

At a small park in Pyne Poynt on the north side of Camden, N.J., kids take practice cuts on the infield dirt and adjust their hats. A small but enthusiastic crowd shouts words of encouragement, but the cheering parents and playful bench-side scuffles only momentarily disguise the troubles in the city. Baggies, vials and hypodermic needles litter the same field where practice is being held.

"Each day, our kids walk past drug sets and open air drug use," says Bryan Morton, the North Camden Little League president.

Angel Ramos (left), coach for two of the boys teams, and Bryan Morton (center), president of the league, give a pep talk during a game in Chester, Pa.
/ Gabe Dinsmoor for NPR
Gabe Dinsmoor for NPR
Angel Ramos (left), coach for two of the boys teams, and Bryan Morton (center), president of the league, give a pep talk during a game in Chester, Pa.

And Morton would know. He used to sell drugs on these same streets. After a stint in prison, Morton is armed now with a master's degree in public policy. And he's here to revitalize youth baseball in Camden.

"What we were trying to do in the league is create these islands where kids can still be kids," Morton says. "So that our kids just aren't visioning or seeing, you know, 'my next opportunity is to be a drug dealer.' "

The sandlot at Pyne Poynt faces the Philadelphia skyline, a painful reminder of what Camden used to be: a center of industry with a flourishing social scene.

But after recently securing $3.5 million for the rehabilitation of Pyne Poynt, Morton is hoping Camden can reclaim some its former glory. And he thinks baseball might have something to do with it.

While the kids circle up for stretches, threats from outside are never far away. Soon enough, four junkies, screaming and bloodied, emerge from the nearby woods, not 50 feet from the sandlot. One grips a knife, and Morton herds his kids to safety toward the other end of the field, while phoning the police.

"If that had happened in your community, everything [would have] stopped," he says. "This says two things about these kids: One, they're resilient, because we're back to baseball. But two, some part of them is numb. And so we're going to try and use baseball to unnumb that."

As the kids collect themselves, Morton is on and off the phone planning a cleanup for the recently christened Dominick Andujar Park. The park is named for one of Morton's T-ball players, who was slain last year defending his sister from an intruder high on PCP.

Dominick's mother, Debbie Burgos, still supports the league and thinks it's a good idea. "Baseball kept him occupied," she says, "and it kept him focused on the good things that you can do in Camden."

Wearing a shirt emblazoned with Dominick's photograph, Burgos watches the field guardedly as her surviving daughters play softball.

Coach Maria Reyes says some parents don't want to come to the area because of the drugs.

"There's either the junkies in there shooting up or the marijuana smokers smoking their blunts," she says.

But Reyes also remembers a time before the drugs.

"Now Pyne Poynt, Pyne Poynt was so beautiful," she says. "I can remember when I was little, the city used to bring bands, Spanish bands and English bands, to Pyne Poynt Park. And people used to come and have fun and enjoy themselves."

While Reyes is "Coach" to many, she is also "Mom" for three of her grandchildren. Their real mother struggles with addiction. Their father is in jail. Her eldest grandchild, Joey, plays ball in the 16- to 18-year-old league.

"A couple people on my team, they used to hustle," Joey says. "But ... they like baseball, so they just came to play baseball, and stopped doin' what they doin'. And now half of 'em got a job."

The kids stuff their gloves in their bags as practice winds down.

A.J. Ramos bounds across the flooded infield to retrieve a ground ball.
/ Gabe Dinsmoor for NPR
Gabe Dinsmoor for NPR
A.J. Ramos bounds across the flooded infield to retrieve a ground ball.

Most walk down the Sixth Street corridor, known as "Heroin Highway."

Morton looks on as two of his players, Heny and Victor, make their way toward the corridor, their cleats clacking against the hot asphalt. To deter any possible repercussions, we've withheld their last names.

"I think the positive thing about here is it makes people wanna progress. We don't wanna see this no more. I know I don't. I wanna get out of here," says Heny.

Victor chimes in: "Miami or probably Florida."

And while Morton hopes Heny and Victor do escape, he plans to stay around in Camden, doing everything he can to make sure the next generation won't have to.

"When you come out and you hear these kids laughing and you hear the sound of baseball replacing the sound of gunshots," he says, "you'll know what we mean."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Ercolani