On base for competition

Young South Philly baseball players dream about one day starting for their high-school teams, earning All-Public or All-Catholic honors and helping their squads win championships. At age 14, they aren’t quite ready to play among varsity-level talent.

Instead of waiting their turn, the serious players take the field during the hot summer months in hopes of impressing their high-school coaches. The South Philadelphia Sabres comprise one of the local organizations trying to help the young athletes by entering their all-star teams in local tournaments to see where they stand among the area’s best competition.

The Sabres’ 14-year-old all-star team hosted their own four-team tournament last week at Seventh Street and Packer Avenue, but didn’t fare so well at 0-4. Teams from Wayne, Upper Darby and Roxborough provided the competition.

Local coach Rich Blum didn’t approach the tournament with a must-win attitude, however, as the visiting teams were far more experienced.

"They’ve been playing together for years and have a bigger advantage," he said. "We are trying to build for the future. If we stay together, we’ll be stronger."

Second baseman Max Blum, a St. John Neumann High freshman, said the regular season was a lot easier.

"We are not used to this level of competition," he noted. "We kept up with the best team [Wayne]."

The team of 11 all-stars lost that game 6-1. Coaches selected the 14-year-old all-star team from a pool of about 85 players. The coaches originally selected 14 players for this year’s all-star team, but three dropped out.

"The important thing is I got 11 kids who want to play baseball," coach Blum said. "It’s difficult to find children who want to play."

Playing in the all-star tournament is the highlight of the summer for catcher Guido Vizzachero, who doesn’t play during the school year. He attends Philadelphia Electrical Tech, which doesn’t have a baseball team. Baseball is the catcher’s main focus during the hot summer months.

"I take a lot of pride in this," he said. "It’s a nice way to end the season and improve my skills and become a better player."

Teammate Andrew Lucas, first base, was looking forward to helping the Sabres finish the season on a high note in last Thursday’s final against Upper Darby. But he ended up watching the game from the bench after getting hit on the lip by a ball during warm-ups.

"I wanted to play, but bad luck happens sometimes," Lucas said.

With Lucas on the bench, Blum had to move his athletes around, playing some out of position. And the home team managed to get only three hits in Thursday’s 9-2 loss.

Even after finishing the tournament 0-4, Blum remains positive about the future.

"We are not giving up," he said. "We’ll be back next year."

If the Sabres organization was affiliated with Babe Ruth or Little League baseball, it would be eligible to compete in bigger regional tournaments, such as the Little League World Series. But the local program remains independent, which allows it to pick its own tournaments, like those in Glendora, N.J., and Drexel Hill, as well as South Philly.

The 8 and 10-year-old all-stars played in Glendora, while the 12-year-old team went to Drexel Hill. Anthony Turchi, director of operations for the Sabres, said the postseason tournaments allow the athletes to play baseball from March until August.

"More or less we want to reward them for having a good season," Turchi said. "We want to keep them playing baseball as long as possible."

The Sabres’ 8 and 10-year-old teams made the best showing, as they both finished third in their respective tournaments. The strong finish was a big accomplishment for the 8-year-old team, which didn’t win a game in last year’s double-elimination tournament.

With the same players returning, the coaching staff told the team to forget about last year. They also spent more time preparing for this year’s tournament with intense practice and scrimmages against teams from Sewell, N.J., and Drexel Hill. When the tournament started July 1, coach Tom LaFauci still had some doubts about where his team stood against the tougher South Jersey competition.

"I really didn’t expect them to get that far," he said, adding the success came as a team effort. But the Sabres have made themselves known to South Jersey teams and thus are looking forward to an even stronger finish next summer.

"It’s a real nice tournament, but it’s a shame we didn’t win," LaFauci said. "Next year the whole team is going to move up to the 10-year-old tournament and we are going to win."

This year’s 10-year-old team earned its own respect by finishing third out of 17 squads. The team’s two losses came against first-place Waterford and second-place Glendora. The South Philly squad had an 8-2 lead against Waterford but ended up losing 12-9 to the South Jersey squad.

Coach Anthony "Blue" Cianfrani has coached teams in the Glendora Tournament for the last six years, and said it provides some of the best competition around. He said Washington Township was the strongest team in the tournament, as it defeated most of its competition by 10 runs or more.

Luckily, the Sabres were able to bypass the strong South Jersey squad, which ended up getting eliminated after forfeiting a game. The coach said Washington Township has a big advantage in numbers over South Philly.

"Washington Township has 400-500 kids to pick from; we have between 50 and 60," Cianfrani said. "We have competition from four leagues."

The 12-year-old team, on the other hand, has some work to do, as it failed to win a game at the Drexel Hill Tournament from July 20-28. Both times, the team lost via the 10-run mercy rule. This year’s squad was very young with four 10-year-olds and the rest being 11.

"It was definitely a tough tournament," coach David Kahana said. "We were overmatched. We’ll probably be back next year and be more prepared."

Win or lose, these young athletes will have an edge over other South Philly athletes who take the summer off from playing baseball. Anthony Turchi, who played outfield for Neumann’s freshman team last season, is hoping his experience will earn him some playing time on the junior-varsity or varsity squad next season.

"[Playing summer baseball] helps me improve my game in every area," he said.