Commentary

Bronx Bombers root for each other

Making their way in a world that doesn't always welcome them with open arms

Updated: December 12, 2013, 5:01 PM ET
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Bronx BombersJake RabinowtizThe Bronx Bombers are a tight-knit bunch.

The time is Father's Day evening, the place is a field at Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J., and the reason is a tournament for elite 13-and-under baseball teams. On the first-base side of the diamond, players from the Bronx Bombers warm up by playing "flip," a game of dexterity that's hardly played anymore involving a glove and a ball. The kids are laughing, and their families are chirping as they all settle in for a pleasant, post-storm game.

The third-base side tells a different story. The Jersey Boyz from Union County, N.J., are serious and anxious, and some of their parents seem to have smoke coming out of their ears. They are convinced that they are about to play a team filled with ringers. "Look at 'em," one of the fathers said. "Except for the [No.] 9 hitter, none of 'em are the right age."

[+] EnlargeBronx Bombers
Rob Tringali for ESPNPlaying "flip" at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

Dion Vargas, one of the Bronx Bombers' fathers and coaches, gently tries to assure the openly suspicious father that all the players are the proper age, and that they have the documentation to prove it. "You're trying to tell me he's 13?" asks the angry father, pointing to Jose Acevedo. Actually, he's told, Acevedo isn't 13 -- he's 12.

There are infinitely more dividing lines on a baseball field than the one between fair and foul. There are those between winning and losing, hot and due, determination and frustration, dream and reality, sportsmanship and gamesmanship, tolerance and intolerance, home and away …

For the Bronx Bombers, there's another line: David and Goliath.

On the underdog side, the Bombers are an urban team made up mostly, but not exclusively, of Dominican-Americans. Some of the players travel 90 minutes by subway from Brooklyn to practice on a dusty, unkempt field in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. They love baseball, and they love each other, and while they fantasize about playing in the major leagues, they would be happy to settle for the more realistic dream of becoming the first one in their families to go to college.

On the threatening side, the talented Bombers did arrive at the tournament 37-5, and many of them are big for their age. They also come from the same neck of the streets as the Paulino All-Stars, which tried to pass off 14-year-old Danny Almonte as a 12-year-old in the 2001 Little League World Series. As long ago as that was -- Almonte went on to become an assistant baseball coach at James Monroe High in the Bronx -- the stigma remains.

Either way, the Bombers blithely make their way in a youth baseball world that doesn't always welcome them with open arms, a world made up of serious travel squads from suburban communities. They all flock to places like Diamond Nation, an impressive baseball-industrial complex that's built on farmland and the vicarious hopes of parents. And, truth be told, these places are magnets for pro and college scouts, who find it easier to watch 60 teams in a weekend than to go from place to place.

"When I was growing up, summer ball was maybe 20 games," said Al Leiter, the former All-Star pitcher and current Yankees broadcaster whose son Jack plays for the Jersey Boyz. "Now, they play 60 and 70 games. I know it sounds like a lot, like I've become one of those Tiger Dads who believe in 10,000 hours, but it's really what the kids want to do. Jack loves it."

But even Leiter is a little worried about the size of the Bombers, especially in comparison to his own son, who's a second baseman on the small side. "I'm not questioning their ages," Leiter said. "But I'm guessing they're so big because they can attract all the best players in the area, kids drawn by all the trophies they win."

He needn't have worried. The game is tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh (last) inning when Jack Leiter hits a two-run double, and the Boyz hold on for a 3-1 victory. "Happy Father's Day," said a beaming Leiter.

The Bombers shrug their shoulders as they pack up and join their consoling parents. The only sour note is struck by the disgruntled dad, who says, "I still think they're too big."

Bronx BombersRob Tringali for ESPNJimmy Abreu pitches during a game at Heritage Field in the Bronx.

There's another line in baseball, a line that Jackie Robinson supposedly crossed 67 years ago, and you could sense it in the chilling way that man said, "They're." He wasn't talking about the Bombers as a baseball team. He was talking about them as Latinos.

And he's hardly the only yahoo who thinks about them that way. An umpire once told the Bombers they could not speak to each other on the field in Spanish. At a recent tournament at Baseball Heaven in Yaphank, N.Y on Long Island, the fans of an opposing team responded to the Bombers' rhythmic clapping and exuberant Spanish cheers -- "Yo voy a ti" ("I am rooting for you") -- by starting their own chant: "U-S-A, U-S-A."

Hmmm. What could be more "U-S-A" than a baseball team, and a team named after the New York Yankees, at that? How do you not root for Xbox-playing, fun-loving, hard-working sons and grandsons of immigrants who are embracing a dream? What's more central to the ethos of this country than parents wanting their children to lead even better lives than they have?

Another uniquely American aspect of the Bombers is their backstory, which mixes passion with compassion to level the playing field. Both the U13 and U16 teams are sponsored by Bronx Baseball Dreams, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit started by Eric Semler, a former New York Times reporter who now runs TCS Capital Management.

Semler and his wife, Tracy, a former CBS News producer, live in Riverdale in the Bronx, and they felt that their two sons, Drew and Zack, had outgrown the baseball competition in their local little league. So the Ivy-educated Semlers put their sons in a more competitive, Dominican-dominated league in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and made friends with the families there.

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Rob Tringali for ESPNXavier Vargas cheers his team during the at the South Shore Babe Ruth League Field on Staten Island.

As the children grew and bonded, one thing led to another, and the Bombers were born with the dual purpose of winning ballgames and creating educational opportunities for the kids.

Coaches have to be paid, and equipment and field time bought, so elite travel teams charge in the neighborhood of $2,500 per player per season -- travel expenses not included. That kind of fee would be prohibitive for most of the Bomber families, so the organization does rely on the beneficence of the Semlers.

But they're not just patrons. "I'm fortunate to have the money to help out, but it's more than just a charity," Eric said. "This is a hands-on way to help these kids, and I don't fund it all myself. We have 20 different sponsors, and we ask the families to pay transportation costs and give what they're comfortable giving."

While Eric runs the Bombers' on-field operations (coaches, game schedules, player selections) with the same kind of frenetic energy he devotes to his hedge fund, Tracy helps with the complicated logistics of uniforms and itineraries. Because Drew is on the older team and Zack is on the U13 team, father and mother are often in two places at the same time, following one son in person and the other by phone. "It really is one very big family," said Tracy. "And one very interesting adventure. But we've gotten so much out of this, including a recipe for mangu."

Mangu is a Dominican breakfast made from mashed plantains, and it's an easily acquired taste. So is the syncopated clapping that rolls out of the Bombers dugout at rally time, and the poetic plea, "Palo pa la matica." Line drive to the trees.

But some opponents and umpires don't appreciate it. "We were at Field of Dreams near Cooperstown last year," Eric recalled. "One coach from Texas heard our chants in Spanish, and started making fun of us, shouting nonsensical Spanish words. Finally, I had enough and told him he was being a bigot. Not a pleasant scene."

Most games pass without incident, and many end in mutual admiration. But every once in a while, something happens that should make us all wonder, "Who are we?"

At a July U16 tournament in leafy Rye, N.Y., a Bombers batter hit a line drive that knocked the opposing pitcher to the ground. Demanding to see the Bombers' birth certificates, the coach from Full Count, an organization based in Middlesex, N.J., snarled, "No 16-year-old can hit a ball that hard." One of the Full Count parents shouted: "At least our kids are going to go to college." Nice.

Then there was the time one of the U13 Bombers pitchers hit an opposing batter in the left shoulder. Semler went over to the stricken batter to offer an ice bag, but the batter's father threatened to punch him if he got any closer. When the pitcher went over to apologize, the man said, "Get that n----- away from my son, or I will punch him too."

U-S-A, U-S-A.

Bronx Bombers Rob Tringali for ESPNThe Bombers were once told they could not speak to one another in Spanish on the field.

Ray Coyne, the director of parks and recreation in Riverhead, N.Y., invited the younger Bronx Bombers to a tournament sponsored by Cablevision last November. "You know who they reminded me of?" Coyne said. "The real Yankees. Best team of that age I ever saw. Very classy operation, great coaches, great kids. All their papers were in order.

"But wouldn't you know it, one of the opposing coaches protested because he thought they were too big. So we had to stop the game in order to show him all the birth certificates."

Whenever the Semlers get upset about these incidents, a Bombers coach or parent or player will invariably tell them, "Don't worry, we're all used to this." Valencia Pineda, the mother of Jason Pineda, one of the best and biggest players on the team, carries a special New York State identification card for Jason with her. "It looks just like a driver's license, doesn't it?" she said as she handed it to me. "Makes people think twice. They're like, 'You mean he can drive?'"

One of the things the players do to amuse themselves is play the circle game -- the object is to get a person to look at the circle made by your fingers out of the normal line of sight. It's a silly game, in which the only reward is a punch in the shoulder of the loser, but it's actually good practice for keeping your eyes on your true objective: Try not to get distracted by your opponent.

I first caught up with the Bombers on that Father's Day, and for the next few weeks, I went to some practices in Van Cortlandt Park and saw them in three different tournaments. As they played for two different sets of coaches, Nick Carbone and Ray Quinones, then Chuck Gutierrez and Ramon Taveras, I saw preternaturally skilled players who could hit the cover off the ball, field when they concentrated and pitch with both stuff and savvy.

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Rob Tringali for ESPNCoach Eric Semler fills out a lineup card.

But the talent wasn't quite as remarkable as the spirit. On a brutally hot day in Van Cortlandt Park, Coach Quinones and six players, one of whom came all the way up from Brooklyn, warmed up with a half-hour flip session -- you swat the ball with your glove from one player to another until you miss and get eliminated. Then they took turns hitting line drives to distant trees.

During games, they might get mad at themselves, but never at each other. And little by little, they revealed themselves. Jason Pineda was clearly and comfortably the star. The two kids at the top of the order, George Duran and Freddy Rojas, kept everybody loose. Chris Moreno caught almost every game without complaint. Xavier Vargas anchored first base and the heart of the order the way Prince Fielder does. Jonathan Fonseca provided fire on the mound, and Jimmy Abreu brought the ice. Mark Maestri, who traveled all the way from Somers, 40 miles away from the Bronx, played multiple positions, all with grace. Hefty Brooklynites Jose Acevedo and Angel de la Cruz came to every game, even though they knew they might not start.

Then there were Brian Sanders and Zack Semler, inseparable in the dugout and on the road, if not by circumstance. The versatile Brian is immensely proud that he is from La Ceiba, Honduras, a country that has produced exactly two major leaguers (Gerald Young and Chito Martinez), and he would like to be the third. Zack does his best to avoid any hint of privilege, preferring to blend in with his bat (No. 3 hitter) and glove (second base). Besides, he was born to play baseball -- his middle name is Campanella.

At one point this summer, the kids filled out some questionnaires, and under the question, "What would you like people to know about you?" George Duran wrote, "I have the most amazing mother."

The devotion runs both ways. "I am so happy for George, and so proud of him," says Diana Duran, who gave birth to George in high school and is now studying to be a nutritionist.

The people who profile the Bombers as Goliaths, or ringers, or foreigners, need to sit on the other side for a while, to listen to Diana's commentary, most of which begins with "Oh my God." Or to see Suyapa Sanders, a licensed phlebotomist, read a book between games, or discover that Emanuel Vargas, Xavi's older brother, knows more about baseball than they do, or to marvel at the piercing whistle Lourdes Abreu unleashes before shouting, "Bola, bola, bola." They need to see that families like the Fonsecas -- mother, father and sister -- never miss one of "T's" games. (The T stands for the terror that Jonathan once was.)

They should talk to Sofia Moreno, who follows Chris everywhere, even though she has to use a cane because of an accident, or to Valencia Pineda, a housekeeper at a Brooklyn hospital, who echoes the way the parents feel. "All of them are our sons," says Pineda.

Bronx BombersRob Tringali for ESPN Danny Shpigler and Brian Adonis Sanders at a game at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

The Bombers had every intention of winning their local and regional Babe Ruth tournaments to qualify for the 2013 World Series in Williston, N.D. But as good as the Bombers are, they are also 13-year-olds prone to lapses in concentration, so they never got beyond the Babe Ruth tournament in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

The silver lining, though, was that they were one of 28 U13 teams invited to the Elite World Series at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in early August. And for this tournament, they borrowed the U16 coaches, Chuck Gutierrez, who also coaches All Hallows High in the Bronx, and Ramon Tavares, who used to pitch in the Dodgers' system.

Seeded No. 21, they lost a couple of games early, but a three-hit shutout by Jonathan Fonseca on his 14th birthday qualified the Bombers for the next round, which was double-elimination. Their first opponent was the No. 7 seed Elite Waves from Grand Rapids, Mich., and because of an afternoon thunderstorm, the start time on one of the outer fields was delayed until 10:30 p.m. That guaranteed not only a long night for the kids, but also the transformation of the Wide World of Sports Complex into the Wide World of Frogs -- the amphibians were everywhere.

Gutierrez, whom I had met at an earlier tournament, greeted me with, "So what do you think of A-Rod?" As I was about to expound on my true thoughts, he laughed and said, "Before you say anything more, I should tell you that he is the godfather of one of my sons."

That they are friends is probably A-Rod's best defense yet. Gutierrez, who played at Kansas State, has a gentle, no-nonsense demeanor that's ideal for teaching the kids about the game. He's also willing to listen. With the team running low on pitching, he picked up on Zack's suggestion that they start the youngest, and also biggest and hardest-throwing player on the team, Jose Acevedo.

Jose struggled with his control at first, but as the night wore on, and the frogs got louder, he found a groove, and the Bomber bats came alive. A six-run fifth put the game away at 14-2. By the time the players got back to the van, it was 1 a.m.

The Michigan fans took the loss in stride, without complaint. In fact, the only time the Bombers encountered any resistance at the tournament was at the batting cage, when some opposing coaches noted that they were awfully big for U13. Eric Semler started to object, but Gutierrez and Taveras calmed him down. With their biorhythms thrown off, the Bombers lost 15-7 to the No. 2 seed, Dig In of Gaithersburg, Md. That meant they would have to play and beat the No. 1 seed, Team MVP of Miami Lakes, Fla., the next morning, and Dig In again in the afternoon. Not only did Team MVP have a 59-0 record coming into the tournament, but it also had a No. 13 named Alex Rodriguez. When his name was announced in the starting lineup, Diana Duran exclaimed from the third base stands, "Oh my God, he got demoted!"

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Rob Tringali for ESPNJonathan Fonseca supports his teammate.

The team from Miami Lakes took an early 2-0 lead off Jimmy Abreu that might've been more had left fielder Brian Sanders not made a sensational catch in the second that resulted in a double play. After striking out six times in the first two innings, the Bombers rallied in the third to take a 3-2 lead on Freddy Rojas' two-RBI single. Team MVP tied it up in the third at 3, and that's where the score stayed until the top of the seventh.

Team MVP got a quick run in the top of the seventh, and it should have been only one run after Abreu picked off the runner on first for what looked like the third out. But the home plate umpire called him safe, and the next batter tripled; the next thing anyone knew, the Bombers were trailing 7-3 and Chuck Gutierrez was getting thrown out of the game for telling the umpire that he was responsible. The Bombers' dugout and the stands on the third-base side fell silent.

At that point, Lourdes Abreu walked over to the dugout, called for her son, whispered something in Jimmy's ear, then blew him a kiss. At the same time came word that Brian was in agony from back pain, so several of the mothers took him over to the on-site training staff.

They missed what happened next, so it took some explaining.

With one out, T singled and Chris walked. With two outs, Jose singled in a run and George tripled in two more with what he later described as "the longest ball I've ever hit." Freddy walked and Zack singled in the tying run.

"Jason, yo voy a ti!"

Jason hit a bouncer to second and raced the throw to first -- which got past the first baseman, bringing home Freddy with the winning run.

As the team celebrated wildly in the middle of the diamond, the two Bombers unable to walk onto the field shared in the joy.

"I like this ending better than mine," said Gutierrez.

"Did you see the catch I made?" asked Brian.

What had Lourdes said to Jimmy?

"Oh," she said, "I just told him to have faith."

Unfortunately, the second game against Dig In didn't go any differently from their first meeting, and the Bombers were eliminated. But they'll always have that incredible comeback against the No. 1 seed, and they'll always have the trip to Disney, and they'll always have each other.

At dinner one night during that week, the coaches looked over at the long table filled with players and marveled at how happy they were.

"You know what I see?" said Dion Vargas. "I see the future."

U-S-A, U-S-A.

Bronx BombersRob Tringali for ESPN Players shake hands after a game.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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