Passaic teens playing together for 2 months vie for national baseball title – NorthJersey.com
PASSAIC — The 42,319-seat Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, on the banks of the Ohio River, has hosted hundreds of Reds games, a presidential campaign rally and performances by Beyoncé and Paul McCartney.
Taking the field there this week are a group of teenagers from the city of Passaic in their new, neatly pressed white uniforms, eager to seize their chance under the spotlight to impress scouts, earn a college scholarship and secure for themselves – and their families – better opportunities.
Passaic is one of the smallest cities sending a team to Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities World Series, an annual summer tournament that draws youths from across the country and the Dominican Republic. The RBI program, founded in 1989 in South Central Los Angeles and started in more than 200 cities, aims to connect young people in urban areas with opportunities to play baseball and softball.
Passaic’s team, the Indians, formed just two months ago, won the northeast regionals on July 17 in Rhode Island to qualify for the tournament’s senior baseball division, which is for 16- to 18-year-olds.
In the Cincinnati competition, Passaic, a city of 70,000, is up against the likes of Houston, population 2.2 million, and Phoenix, population 1.5 million.
“To think that we in little Passaic have done that because of you is an amazing statement,” Passaic Council President Gary Schaer, also an assemblyman, told 15 players on Sunday at a rally hosted by city leaders.
This year was Passaic’s first time participating in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.
Most of the players on the Passaic team are Hispanic, many Dominican-born, and have played for Passaic High School. Some dropped out of school. One just fathered a son. Some are headed to college to play baseball.
“Being a coach here is being more than just a coach,” said head coach Kervin Rivera. “We try to be their support system.”
Part of his coaching philosophy is drilling into his players lessons applicable off the diamond. “They now understand [the importance of] hard work and sacrifice, and maybe not hanging out with some of their friends on the streets and doing things that are not beneficial to their future,” Rivera said.
Every afternoon for the past two months, the team trained for three hours at Boverini Stadium on River Drive, enduring the oppressive heat and the relentless demands of the coaches. Not even the Fourth of July earned them a day off.
“The practices have been hard, but they were something the team needed,” said Victor Rodriguez, 18. He dropped out of school a year and a half ago but plans to return to Passaic High next month to finish senior year.
Not even Nilo Rijo’s very good excuse that he wanted to relieve his mother of a long shift at the bodega got him out of practice. Rijo, 17, a native of the Dominican Republic, played this spring for Rowan College at Gloucester County in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division III World Series. He said he hoped his talent in baseball could help his family.
The day after graduation, which is typically followed by a night of exuberant celebration, the players were told to show up at 6 a.m. sharp for a 3-mile run, Rivera’s way of making sure they went to bed early. He warned them, “Anyone who shows up at 6:01 is automatically cut.” Everyone made it on time.
The team wasn’t the most talented at the regional qualifiers and won’t be the most talented in Cincinnati, Rivera said. “We didn’t take the 15 best athletes from Passaic,” he said. It’s their chemistry and their willingness to “sacrifice for the greater good of the team” that stand out, he said.
“I’m not being objective,” he added, “but I coach the best team in the world.”
The games are scheduled from Friday to Monday, and will be played throughout the Cincinnati area, including at Xavier University, the P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy and Great American Ball Park.
There also are divisions for 13- to 15-year-old boys and a softball league for women and girls 19 and under. Hoboken’s softball team is making its seventh consecutive appearance in the competition.
To qualify for the World Series, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities leagues from the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and South America competed in June in eight regional qualifying tournaments. Passaic emerged from the Northeast Regional Tournament in Pawtucket, R.I., after besting Paterson, Newark and Jersey City in a sectional tournament.
In addition to the baseball, the Cincinnati trip will include workouts, banquets, community service and a Reds game.
Rivera said the time the players spend in Cincinnati – staying at the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center — could transform their lives, not only by helping them get noticed by college scouts but also by exposing them to new experiences that could kindle “aspirations of doing something more than just baseball.”
“I’m really excited to see how these kids’ futures change after this whole experience,” Rivera said.
At Sunday’s rally, hosted by the Boathouse Cafe in Third Ward Park, the players received new uniforms, donated by a local business, and polo shirts to look sharp when they step off the plane. They also heard words of support from local leaders, including Passaic County Freeholder Hector Lora and Board of Education trustee L. Daniel Rodriguez.
Lora, a Passaic native, told the teenagers, “You became champions the very first day you signed up for this program … and set a remarkable example for the children of our community.”
He added: “You’ve already shown us that you’re champions. Now we want you to go and show the world we have champions in Passaic.”
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