One in an occasional series.
The score was tied in the top of the fifth inning when a man walked through the Camden Angels' outfield, pushing a chalk machine to draw boundaries for a soccer game scheduled at the park later that weekend.
The Angels, one of the North Camden Little League's girls' softball teams, were near the end of the first game in a doubleheader against a team from North Philadelphia. As the man crossed the field the Angels' pitcher paused, the batter froze, outfielders glared, and coach Josie Rodriguez strode onto the diamond, shouting, "We're in the middle of a game here!"
Nini Torres, a 16-year-old centerfielder with a silver piercing in her eyebrow and long braids down her back, watched glumly from the sidelines. The six-inning game was not going as she expected. In the fourth inning, she had hurt her arm sliding into third base, lying in the dirt, breathing hard, and wincing as her teammates gathered around. Once the team regained focus, the man with the chalk interrupted the game. Minutes later one of Torres' teammates missed a crucial ground ball, and the opposing team scored two runs.
"I'm just mad," Torres said, holding ice to her elbow. "I just want to play."
Powered by volunteers and donations from individuals and corporate sponsors, the North Camden Little League has become one of the city's most celebrated successes. But conditions for the girls' softball teams, formed last year, are still catching up.
Thanks to a $4 million refurbishment of Pyne Poynt Park using state, county, and private money, the league's pristine main fields would not look out of place in Cherry Hill. But with splinter-filled bleachers and an uninviting chain-link fence, the realities of Camden surround the girls' softball field a few blocks away. There are no dugouts or parking lot, cars speed by blasting music, and few trees offer shade from the sun. Equipment is stored in an unused porta-potty, which was recently broken into, and grass sprouts unevenly around dirt patches worn into the field by the soccer team that shares it. The league has too few helmets to fit the girls, and because boys' games are often scheduled at the same time, softball draws fewer spectators.
"I see so much potential, so much raw talent," said Rodriguez, 37, who manages the softball program and coaches two teams. "These girls play as hard as the boys. But we're struggling right now."
The right kind of attention
Between the coed teams for young children and the nine all-female softball teams, girls make up about 45 percent of the league's approximately 450 players.
In Camden, one of the nation's poorest and most violent cities, many young men end up in prison or dead; almost one-third of this year's 16 homicide victims were teenagers or men in their 20s. Girls who grow up without fathers can be vulnerable to attention from the wrong men, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, who grew up in North Camden, had her first son when she was a teenager, and many of her friends were pregnant by 16. "I know girls who had babies in prison," she said.
Bryan Morton, a North Camden native who returned home after going to prison for drugs and armed robbery, started the league in 2011 with the goal of recruiting boys to play sports instead of joining street gangs. Last year he went looking for someone who could target the city's at-risk girls, too.
Morton's mother gave birth to him at 14, in the house where Morton now lives with his family. Ashamed and afraid, she hid the pregnancy.
"She was a child," said Morton, who was himself a teen father. "Every day I'm still thinking about that little girl who raised me."
Residents of North Camden told Morton that to revive softball, he needed Rodriguez to bring the history and street cred.
As a child, Rodriguez played softball on the field at 10th and Elm, where she now coaches, a park that once displayed a plaque honoring her cousin, Samalica Ortiz. She and Ortiz were members of Las Muñecas, the Holy Name Little League team that star hitter Ortiz led to a 1992 championship.
Ortiz was killed later that year at age 11, when a stray bullet went through the window of a child's birthday party. She was buried in her bright yellow uniform, in a casket carried by her teammates.
"Her funeral looked like the baseball Hall of Fame," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez's family tried to keep her out of trouble, but her parents split up and she lost control of her life. She quit softball and dropped out of school. As an adult, she drifted in and out of jobs, drank, partied. Her brother, John, was murdered in 2002, a killing that was unsolved for more than a decade.
Last year Morton went to Rodriguez and asked her to help bring back softball. They started with four teams. There are nine this year, plus a waiting list because there are too few female coaches. Rodriguez's coaching led to a job teaching softball at the Mastery charter school in North Camden, and her 12-year-old son plays for the league.
It's harder to get girls involved with sports, Rodriguez said. Many are self-conscious, or overly focused on boys.
"Some of these girls don't feel beautiful or confident," she said. "But as soon as they touch that dirt and they start moving, they get it."
Some days, Rodriguez looks out over the field at practice and pictures her cousin among the girls.
"She is so proud right now," she said. "She would have loved it."
'Wake up out there'
The league's softball players come from all over the city, and some have played together since last year, like Nini Torres, a Woodrow Wilson High School junior from East Camden. Torres, who has a brother and 15 half-siblings, thinks about becoming a firefighter, a gym teacher, or maybe a softball coach like Rodriguez. In her spare time, she studies YouTube videos to practice diving for hard-hit balls.
"I fell in love with softball," she said. "That's my baby right there."
Game one of the Angels' doubleheader last Saturday against the Urban Sports Zone's team from North Philadelphia was a loss for Camden.
"Y'all need to wake up out there," Rodriguez told the team. "Don't give them another win by making mistakes."
Genesis Sanchez nodded, her game face on. A junior at Camden County Technical School in Sicklerville, Sanchez moved to Camden from Puerto Rico with her family when she was 10. She didn't know English then, but at 16 has almost no accent.
Sanchez goes to batting cages with her brothers, and it shows - she routinely sends home runs deep into the outfield. She hopes a softball scholarship will help her study nursing in college.
"You can still be whatever you want to be and come from here," she said. "You have to focus, and keep your head straight. Got to stay away from trouble, bad influences. You have someone in your life who takes another path, you got to move on."
The Camden soccer team that shares the field with the softball teams has a permit to play on Sundays, though players show up to practice on weekdays and draw the chalk marks on Saturdays.
Some league T-ball games are played at an equally rundown field at Second and Erie Streets, a park that in 2013 was renamed for 6-year-old Dominick Andujar, who was murdered in 2012 as he defended his sister from a violent intruder. His sister, Amber, now plays softball.
Morton's next goal is to get the 10th Street park refurbished like Pyne Poynt, and rededicated as Samalica Ortiz Park. "The girls deserve to have a place of their own, and we'll get there," he said.
After Torres' injury in last week's game, she sat out just one inning before going back in. The Angels' pitcher left after the first game of their doubleheader, leaving Torres as the best alternative. Her throwing arm was not hurt, but Rodriguez wondered if she felt up to pitching a few innings.
"I'll pitch the whole game," Torres said.
The final score was 17-9, Camden Angels. After pitching all six innings, Torres went to the hospital, where her arm was placed in a cast. She had fractured her arm in the slide, and played through three hours of pain.