It was well below freezing when an 'Army of the Interested' pressed hard into the whipping winds swirling about the Schuylkill in January. While the immediate goal of reaching a new practice field was a mere two miles away, their true destination was waiting patiently four months down the road in the form of a division championship and playoff berth. That initial group, numbering over fifty on the daily, commanded the attention of tourists who had simply come for a pic of the famous Rocky Statue after running the steps in pseudo-mocking fashion. While they would get their picture after struggling up and down the steps in designer boots, they would also leave the Museum witnessing some dedicated, never-say-die young "Rocks" in the making.
As was expected, the "interested" dwindled when the sessions increased in intensity and frequency. However, those who kept coming back for more formed the core of a dominating "Army of One" set to do battle from beginning to end. While their heroes and role models worked out in the golden sun of Florida and Arizona, this Army did so in defiance of the elements. When both started their respective seasons on April 1st, it was as if the roles had been reversed and the professionals paled in comparison to the amateurs.
"There were three main goals when we started out this season", said SLA Varsity Baseball Coach Doug Herman before the team took the field vs. Sankofa in their final regular season game. "We set out to establish a J.V. squad to expand our program, finally secure a home field, and we looked to command our own destiny with solid, fundamental performances to earn the right to move up in the Varsity ranks. We obviously achieved the first two, thanks to the addition of Coach Dan Winterstein, but a solid win today will help us accomplish all three." While having the Umpires officially deem the field unplayable on the final day of the Regular Season was not how this team wanted to earn a trip to C, they'll take it.
That Army, formed through the dark days of painful practices in swirling winds and bone-cold temps behind the ominous towers of Lee Park, never took their eyes off the prize. That Army, which would become known simply as "The Rocket", would weather all sorts of storms and suffer through hours of daily public transit to attend practices. That Army, which never let anything ruffle their feathers, had something to prove and constantly put their all on display. It was clear to anyone who glimpsed at the standings or box scores during this 2013 Season that this Army walked the talk and clobbered most who they faced.
From the very first game, when King's most Dedicated forgot he wasn't coaching football, and chose to incessantly bark his orders instead of sending signs, to the very end when Sankofa's coach didn't lift a finger to prepare their field for battle, "The Rocket" maintained composure and completed a near-perfect season, finishing 11-1. But these warriors were gentlemen too. They dominated but never forgot where they came from. Remembering what it was like to be on the receiving end of mismatched beat downs, they moved toward their goal with class and earned the respect of everyone along the way.
"Started from the bottom, now the whole team here."
If all things were fair and equitable "The Rocket" would not yet be the material for an end-of-season article such as this. For in no sport, on any level, does a team with only 1 loss over an entire season NOT make the playoffs. Outside of their own circle of fans and divisional opponents the "The Rocket" will merely serve as a poster-child for what happens when your best IS good enough but it still doesn't get you to "The Show". So exactly how does a team that goes 11-1, leads the league in Runs Scored, and establishes the best overall Run Differential NOT make the playoffs?
The answer is surprisingly rooted in an attempt to ensure all things were fair and equitable. Somehow this best laid plan has led to massive inequity, inconsistency and the continuation of smaller inner-city schools being further stripped of opportunities to fairly compete. In theory, the structure of the Public League for High School Baseball- four Divisions based off skill and four Classifications based off of school population- is supposed to ensure fair competition takes place. But the functional reality of this structure unfolds more like a Caste System with extremely limited upward mobility and consistent obstacles imposed upon under-funded and under-supported programs across the city.
SLA, classified as a "AA" school based off the number of eligible boys in their student body, has been in the D-Division since joining the Public League in 2010. After fighting through a rough start (notching zero wins in its first eight games is certainly rough), "The Rocket" has surged with 29 wins for an overall program record of 29-17. During this stretch they made the playoffs twice and yet remained in D since the only way out was to win the Division. The system, which works a little bit like the English Premiere Football League, only promotes 1 and demotes another each season to ensure competition in each Division is "fair and equitable".
While this seems to make sense, the reality is that regardless of Classification a team literally needs to be perfect to get out of D. Teams who make just one mistake along the way, like SLA this season, are doomed to dwell in D forever and suffer as a result. Fields are not maintained, if they exist at all, permanently installed equipment is regularly stolen, major transportation issues are a daily reality, many games are only afforded one umpire instead of at least two, and the level of competition is inconsistent at best.
Every team that has escaped the dungeon of D- Boys Latin ('10), Ben Franklin ('11), Del-Val Charter ('12) and now University City ('13)- have all accomplished the necessary feat of perfection. This leaves younger teams like SLA on the outside looking in when a C-Division team drops down and then goes undefeated. This was the case with Ben Franklin and Del Val in previous seasons. While SLA had their eyes squarely and legitimately set on a Divisional Championship this season, their coach knew that an early season loss to University City would come back to haunt them. In response, he started wearing number 11 on his jersey to signify the number of wins they would NEED to have for a legitimate shot at the top spot. SLA won their final 9 games, and over that stretch remained perfect at home, tossed 2 "no-hitters" (Nick Manton and Jeff Schwartz), outscored their opponents 97-13, and further clarified they belonged in a higher Division all along.
The unfortunate reality is that D is a "one-and-done" league. Unlike the higher Divisions, where teams can actually make mistakes, lose games and still make the playoffs, D-teams MUST be perfect to move up. This unfortunately motivates coaches to abuse their best and brightest players in their attempts at perfection. On more than one occasion this season SLA opponents had their best starters throw well over 100 pitches in a single game. In three cases they hurled over 200. Coaches were inclined to repeatedly throw their best starter in every game instead of develop a full rotation of pitchers. Seeing the potential for long-term injury, many are talking about implementing pitch count limits on players as they do for International Little League World Series players.
Aside from their offensive prowess, SLA impressed by consistently using multiple pitchers, none ever throwing over 100, which ensured all were legally available for every game and healthy enough to do so. It also opened up more opportunities for everyone to contribute to the team's success. While the results speak for themselves it was uncertain what would happen by the end of the season. In hindsight, SLA wishes it had all their starters for that game vs. University City. Perhaps they are the ones who end up undefeated, but the point here is that one loss shouldn't have been the death knell for a shot at post-season play. SLA was forced to remain perfect and hope for Univ. City to slip up and they almost did. But with come-from-behind-wins against Sankofa, West Philly and Randolph U.C. pulled it off to finish undefeated, win the Division, face Nueva Esperanza in the AA Classification Playoffs, and give the school something to be proud of in its final season of operation.
But what about SLA? Shouldn't finishing just 1 game behind an undefeated team get them to "The Show"? The answer is yes. Well, that is if it was still 2012.
However, this year an out-of-nowhere and unexplained new development unfairly snapped SLA's streak of consecutive playoff berths at a time when they clearly had built a team to go deep in the Tournament. Only 1 AA team would qualify for the Tournament so that a school- Mast Charter- that doesn't even play in District XII could compete. As a result, SLA which beat everyone but U.C. doesn't get in at 11-1. No clarification for this decision was ever provided, but it should have been seen on the horizon since District XII leadership has slowly but surely been limiting the number of D-Division teams that qualify for the tournament.
In 2010 and '11 three teams from AA got in, in 2012 just 2 made it, and now only 1 would earn a berth. The rationale behind the shift was that it had been a long time since a D-Division team won a playoff game. According to the current League leadership a D team has never beaten an A or B-Division school and the latter automatically make the tournament regardless of record. With the focus squarely put on the Public League having the best possible team to represent the City in State competitions, no mind was paid to any of the Little Engines That Might-Could compete on that level. But anyone paying attention to the growth and performance of specific AA-Class D-Division programs, while higher class-programs dropped significantly in quality, would have seen this coming well before the first pitch on Opening Day. So the result is as follows: A-Class (Rush 6-5), which lost to SLA 12-1 gets in. AAA-Class (King 6-6), which blew a 4-0 lead to SLA and lost 8-5, gets in. And AAAA-Class Bartram (9-3), which blatantly ducked SLA in the final week to ensure they had their best pitcher available for the playoffs, gets in. This leaves SLA on the outside looking in on account of that one loss to U.C. which represents AA-Class.
While SLA's near perfect season isn't for naught- they will move up to C since Univ. City is closing- a plan is in the works for a D-Division Tournament of Champions at SLA's home field at Mt. Airy Park. Invitations will be sent out to the top 4 teams in D in an effort to provide these forgotten programs with some high-stakes games. For Seniors, this will be all they get in terms of meaningful games as their High School Baseball careers come to a close. SLA would be the #2 Seed, right behind undefeated University City, and would face the squad from Bartram that ducked them. Univ. City would face Randolph (9-3). The winners would play for the Championship and the losers in a Consolation game. The Tournament is expected to take place after the official PIAA Playoff brackets unfold prior to Memorial Day Weekend.
As the sun starts to set on a magical season, and SLA Varsity Baseball says farewell to Nick Manton, Abe Musselman, Jordan McLaughlin, Mike Sanders and Matt Rinaldi, at least they stayed true to their mascot. Much like an actual rocket engine, which thrusts forward by rapidly throwing back its exhaust, "The Rocket" will continue to surge with the contributions of all who weather the storm to be a part of this "Army of One".