CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - Anthony Player crossed Erie Street, holding his 5-year-old son’s hand as the baseball diamonds at North Camden’s Pyne Poynt Park came into view. Giovanni was starting to wilt after walking more than a mile from Camden’s City Hall under the hot midday sun, but he perked up at the sight of the field.
“You be proud of yourself,” Player, 33, urged Giovanni as they walked together amid a sea of children dressed in the brightly colored uniforms of the North Camden Little League for last weekend’s opening-day parade. “You did it! You put in the effort. Now the fun starts.”
Not long ago, before the county cleaned up the land, before Player brought his son there for T-ball, Player was one of the dealers who sold drugs in Pyne Poynt Park.
Player grew up in North Camden with addicts for parents. The images he saw on television, of fathers taking their children to sports practice, seemed to happen in a far-off world. Player was on the streets by 13, and has spent most of his adult years in prison for drug offenses.
“At one point I pictured my whole life behind bars,” Player, who was released from his last prison stint in early 2014, told The Philadelphia Inquirer (https://bit.ly/1d9gznt ). “I never pictured walking these streets with my son, taking him to baseball.”
Powered by donations, volunteers, and tireless promotion, the North Camden Little League has become one of the city’s most celebrated success stories. This summer almost 450 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 19 will play for 30 teams.
It began in 2011 with Bryan Morton, a North Camden native who returned home after serving prison time for drugs and armed robbery, went back to college, and became one of the city’s most prominent community organizers.
Morton, a 44-year-old father of three, wanted to target the children who are lured to join gangs, as he was, and recruit them for baseball instead. He wanted to do it in North Camden, historically one of the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods.
That first summer, Morton got 100 players. The next year, he got twice that. Morton hopes the total will approach 500 by this season’s end. Each year he recruits more coaches- he has 60 now -as well as families who sit and watch from the sidelines most summer afternoons and nights.
Gradually, the baseball crowd started outnumbering the junkies and dealers who once ran Pyne Poynt Park.
Morton, who coaches two teams, sees himself as part of a battle for not only the children, but also their parents, some of whom who struggle with addiction, unemployment, or crime. He said he tries not to push people for more than they can give.
“If someone tells me, ‘Hey, Bryan, I want to do a cookout for my team once a week,’ it’s my job to say, How can I support that and make that happen?” he said. “It’s not my job to say everyone’s got to do cookouts. Especially in this community, where people have been told what to do for so long.”
The league receives donations from the Phillies and sponsorships from institutions that include Cooper University Hospital, as well as money from a wealthy donor who prefers anonymity. In 2014, the county completed a $4 million upgrade of the park, including lights, bleachers, and a concession stand. In August there are playoffs and championship games, and an awards banquet in the fall. A documentary about the league is expected to be released this summer.
Much of the league’s success can be attributed to the relationships Morton has cultivated with leaders such as Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, the county freeholders, and Sister Helen Cole, a neighborhood mainstay for almost 20 years.
Morton was once a critic of the city’s leaders, and his recent willingness to work with them has led some residents to call him a sellout. His wife works in the police human relations department and is a school board member. After Morton took a job as head of Parents for Great Camden Schools, a nonprofit funded by a pro-charter-school group, some characterized him as a politician who had been co-opted by the corruption he once railed against.
Morton said he realized he could get results by treating political leaders the way he treats coaches and parents: by respecting what they can and can’t do, and working within those limitations.
“I learned that yelling in public doesn’t get you the answers and the solutions that yelling in private does,” he said.
Camden is one of the nation’s poorest and most dangerous places, with an unemployment rate three times the national average. But a state- and county-led focus on improving schools and public safety, and the use of tax incentives to attract businesses, has led some politicians- prematurely, many residents complain -to declare the city on a path to permanent change.
There are baseball teams in Whitman Park and Cramer Hill, but North Camden is the biggest league in town. The opening-day celebration had face-painting, bounce houses, music, and hours of baseball under a cloudless sky. After sunset, families watched a fireworks show from blankets spread on the outfield.
Anthony Player, the father who walked with his son in the parade, watched Giovanni pose for team pictures that afternoon in his bright-yellow Pirates uniform. Player had been teaching him at home, showing him the basics of the game.
“An emotional bond like this didn’t happen for me,” Player said. “I’m trying to do it different.”
Like Morton, Player was a criminal and a father as a teenager. He started using the drugs he was selling, became an addict, and served about 12 years altogether.
“Mentally I never felt like a criminal,” Player said. “It was that I didn’t have clothes, I didn’t have enough food. I was never trying to get rich. I was just trying to survive.”
His older son will graduate from high school next year. He was raised by his mother, Player’s ex. Player is working on their relationship, but his son is angry with him for not being around when he was younger.
“I think he’s afraid of getting too close, thinks I’ll get locked up again,” the father said. “I just have to keep trying.”
Player said he got clean when Giovanni was born, but missed his son’s early years when he returned to jail three years ago. He lives in downtown Camden with Giovanni and his fiancée, a nurse assistant at Cooper Hospital, and her 14-year-old daughter. He works in the stockroom at the Price Rite supermarket, a job he considers himself lucky to have.
When Player got out of prison last year, North Camden seemed different. The streets were quiet, he said. Children were playing baseball outside. By then, the city’s police force had been replaced with the Camden County Metro Police.
Some residents say that peace comes at the cost of their dignity. Player said he had been stopped four times by police, for reasons that included riding his bicycle on a sidewalk or jaywalking.
But he supports the force. “What they have done is working,” he said.
As the light faded last Saturday over the fields, parents came and went, some taking kids home to change out of uniforms and back to the park to enjoy the evening. Morton had volunteers signed up to pick up paper cups and litter from the grass, but they never showed, so he recruited a couple of men from the neighborhood for the job. With the last game over, coaches began packing bases, rakes, balls, and other equipment into three rusting storage units in a lot across from the park.
None of the local addicts disturb the lockers.
“You get caught trying to sell some baseball stuff in North Camden,” Morton said, “you’re going to have some real problems.”
Player got his son a cup of water ice before leaving for home, and they walked off, talking about the summer ahead.
Last Tuesday, at Giovanni’s first game, he got a few hits and rounded the bases. Player cheered him on as he crossed home plate three times.
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com
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