Meet the East Camden Yankees: Camden's next youth baseball success story
The 10u Camden City Yankees just finished their inaugural fall ball season. It was the first season of baseball in East Camden in 13 years.
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It’s a warm Wednesday night towards the end of October when Falio Leyba-Martinez pulls up to the baseball field at the corner of Dudley and Pleasant streets in East Camden.
“Let’s go, we’re late!” he shouts to four uniformed kids playing on the dirt ball field.
In an instant, they stop what they’re doing, gather their equipment bags and quickly make their way to the rented Sprinter van Martinez arrived in.
He exits the van and greets his players and assistant coach, Manny, who gives him the rundown on who’s in and who’s out for tonight’s game against Burlington County.
This is how every away game begins for the Camden City Yankees, a 10-and-under Babe Ruth fall ball team repping East Camden.
After gathering the troops in the van, we take off on our 30-minute trek north to Burlington.
“Sorry we’re a little light on the ride up today,” Martinez tells me, still sporting the pink dress shirt, tie and grey slacks he wore to work that day.
I had interviewed him two weeks prior, highlighting his run for a spot on Camden’s Board of Education (a race he ended up winning).
“Running a campaign, plus my regular work, it’s crazy right now,” he says.
But now, heading with his team to their final away game of the fall ball season, Martinez wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Now I get to go scream my head off for two hours,” he says.
I was, after all, riding with the self-proclaimed “hardest baseball coach in Camden City.”
Martinez’s inspiration for the Yankees in East Camden was the work of one of his friends, Bryan Morton, in North Camden.
In arguably the city’s darkest days, Morton started a little league in North Camden in 2011 to give kids in the neighborhood a positive outlet.
Morton’s strategy was a major hit and in the first year, brought baseball to 100 kids. Now, eight years after its inaugural season, North Camden Little League serves upwards of 600 kids a season.
Before he made inroads, youth baseball hadn’t been played in Camden in at least two decades.
While Morton’s efforts sparked a boon for youth baseball across the city, Martinez says the Yankees are the first team in 13 years for the predominantly Latino East Camden.
The majority Dominican community has embraced the team since its founding.
As a fellow Dominican and Camden native, Martinez said the outpouring wasn’t a surprise.
“It’s our game,” he said.
The team is also predominantly Latino, with a few African-American players in the mix.
Part of Martinez’s mission, beyond giving kids in the neighborhood an outlet, is showcasing the baseball talent present in Camden.
Before its recent resurgence, he said baseball often took a backseat in the city to football and basketball, which have both spawned their fair share of superstar talent over the years.
Martinez himself is a product of that oft-forgotten talent pool.
Before settling down to a job in sales, he chased the dream of becoming a professional baseball player.
It took him across the U.S. and to the Dominican Republic, where he played semi-professionally.
When he thinks of Camden’s youth as a whole, he’s full of praise.
“We have the best kids in the nation,” said Martinez.
That designation extends beyond just talent on the field. In his role as coach, Martinez is also a role model for his young players, who often come from difficult backgrounds.
“A lot of the kids that play for me are being raised by a single mother or they really don’t get to see their dads, or their dads really don’t get to see them play,” he said.
Despite major improvements in the areas of violence and drugs in Camden over the last decade, some of Martinez’s players still deal with those challenges on a daily basis.
These situations aren’t easy, but they instill in his players an unmatched toughness and will to win that inform his “hard” approach to coaching them.
“There’s not somebody that makes them run harder. There’s not somebody who makes them work harder. There’s not somebody who makes them do other things harder than what I make them do,” said Martinez.
“But guess what? They show up to every practice. They show up to every game...these kids want to win every day, and even if we lose, they win because it’s all a learning experience,” he said.
When you ask any of the Yankee players about their coach, there are a few who gripe about his strictness as any 10-year old would — but all admit they wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.
Take Byron for example. The 10 year old is one of the quieter members of the team, but reels in his fair share of game balls with his heater on the mound and big bat at the plate.
To him, Martinez’s approach is necessary if the team wants to see success on the field.
“He’s strict and good coaches are like that and that’s how we win games,” he said.
Before joining the Yankees, Byron played for a team in Cherry Hill, just outside Camden.
Now he plays for his neighborhood team.
“It’s better over here because I don’t have to go as far,” said Byron.
For Ashanti, the Yankees are the first organized baseball team she’s ever played on. Like Byron, she lets her play do the talking — whether flashing the leather while playing in the outfield or speeding around the bases after a hit.
When asked about her experience on the team, Ashanti put it simply.
“It’s fun,” she said.
As we arrived to the field in Burlington County, the team started their warm up with two laps around the field.
After that, the players lined up as Martinez hit them a mixture of fly balls and grounders for them to field and then fire to the assistant coach, Manny.
The opposing Burlington Falcons went through a round of infield before spending the rest of their warm-up in the batting cage behind the field.
In the meantime, the warm October afternoon turned to a chilly autumn night. But that didn’t keep at least 20 parents supporting the away team from making the same trek out Route 130.
They mingled among themselves as the lights came on on the field and it was time to play ball.
Until this game, the Yankees had only lost one game all season.
“The kids don’t plan to lose another one,” Martinez had said in a previous interview.
After jumping out to a five-run lead through the first inning and a half, the team looked poised to keep that a reality. But after an error-filled bottom of the second, the Yankees found themselves only up one run.
A runless top of the third was followed by another run of bad luck in the field in the bottom half of the inning, and the Falcons had sprung out to a four-run lead.
It was a lead they never gave up that night.
But the season wasn’t over, and it wasn’t the last time the Yankees would see the Falcons from Burlington.
That Saturday, the Falcons made the same trip as the Yankees, but down Route 130 to Camden, and met them on their home turf, in the same park Martinez had met his team three days prior.
For the Yankees, it was the second game of a doubleheader on the gray, rainy day.
They jumped out to an early, big lead on the Falcons, but as the Yankee bats went quiet, the Falcons started chipping away.
By the top of the sixth inning, the once massive lead built by the Yankees shrank to just one run. The Falcons subsequently tied it, leaving it up to the Yankee bats to pull through to victory.
After a quick first out, Byron stepped to the plate and stroked a double. He advanced to third on a passed ball.
The next Yankee batter went down swinging.
With two outs, Gennori — a player known more for his mound mastery — entered the batter’s box.
The second pitch to him was another passed ball, allowing Byron to score and sending the Yankees and their fans into pandemonium.
With their second loss avenged, the Yankees ended their season with 15 wins and two losses — the best of any 10u Fall ball team in the area.
Next season, Martinez plans to stick with his team as they go up another age division in Babe Ruth. He also wants to expand the team to include more age groups with additional help from parents.
The whole of Camden may reflect a red hue for the nearby Phillies, but in East Camden, it’s now navy blue.