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North Camden, New Jersey, is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in one of the nation's most dangerous cities. Drug dealers rule many of its street corners, but there's a new scene in North Camden - baseball.
Steve Ercolani has the story.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here we go. Who's next? Ah. Let it go.
STEVE ERCOLANI, BYLINE: Kids take practice cuts on the infield dirt and adjust their hats...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hit the ball.
ERCOLANI: ...a small but enthusiastic crowd shouts words of encouragement.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Go to second base. Go to second.
ERCOLANI: The cheering parents and playful bench-side scuffles momentarily disguise the troubles in North Camden.
BRYAN MORTON: Every day, our kids walk past drug sets and open-air drug use.
ERCOLANI: North Camden Little League President Bryan Morton would know. He used to sell drugs on these same streets. As he shows me the field, we step over the baggies, vials and hypodermic needles that litter the sandlot.
MORTON: What we're trying to do in the league is create these islands where kids can still be kids.
ERCOLANI: As players unpack their bags, Morton smiles on at the island he's created.
MORTON: So that our kids just aren't visioning or seeing, you know, well, my next opportunity is to be a drug dealer.
ERCOLANI: After a stint in prison and armed now with a master's in public policy, Morton is here to revitalize youth baseball in Camden.
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ERCOLANI: The kids circle up for stretches, but threats from outside are never far away. And very suddenly, four junkies screaming and bloodied emerge from the nearby woods, not 50 feet from the sandlot.
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ERCOLANI: One grips a knife.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Can you believe them?
ERCOLANI: Morton herds his kids to safety toward the other end of the field, phoning the police.
MORTON: If that had happened in your community, everything would stop. So this is two things about these kids. One, they're resilient because we're back to baseball. But, two, some part of them is numb. And so we're going to try use baseball to unnumb that.
ERCOLANI: As the kids collect themselves, Morton is on and off the phone planning a cleanup for the recently christened Dominick Andujar Park. The park is named for one of his T-ball players who was slain last year defending his sister from an intruder high on PCP. His mother, Debbie Burgos, still supports the league.
DEBBIE BURGOS: Baseball was - kept them occupied, and it kept them, you know, focused on the good things that you can do in Camden.
ERCOLANI: Wearing a shirt emblazoned with Dominick's photograph, she watches the field guardedly as her surviving daughters play softball. Coach Maria Reyes takes a short break from instruction.
MARIA REYES: Some parents don't want to come to Pyne Poynt. There's either the junkies and they're shooting up, or there are marijuana smokers smoking their blunts, all right? Now, Pyne Poynt was so beautiful. I can remember when I was little, the city used to bring bands, and people used to come. They used to have fun and enjoy themselves.
ERCOLANI: While Reyes is coach to many, she is also mom for three of her grandchildren. Their real mother struggles with addiction. Their father is jail. Her eldest grandchild, Joey, plays ball in the 16- to 18-year-old league.
JOEY: A couple people that's on my team, they used to hustle, you know, but, like, they like baseball, so they just came to play baseball, and they stopped doing what they doing. And now, half of them got a job.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hit the ball.
ERCOLANI: The sandlot at Pyne Poynt faces the Philadelphia skyline, a painful reminder of what Camden used to be, a center of industry with a thriving social scene. But after recently securing $3.5 million for the rehabilitation of Pyne Poynt, Morton is hoping Camden can reclaim some its former glory. He thinks baseball might have something to do with it.
MORTON: When you come out and you hear these kids laughing and you hear the sound of baseball replacing the sound of gunshots, you'll know what we mean.
ERCOLANI: The kids stuff their gloves in their bags as practice winds down. Most walk down the Sixth Street corridor, known as Heroin Highway. Morton looks on as Heny and Victor make their way toward the corridor, their cleats clacking against the hot asphalt. To deter any possible repercussions, we've withheld their last names.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think the positive thing about here is it makes people want to progress. We don't want to see this no more. I know I don't. I want to get out of here, Miami or probably Florida. I'm trying to go to Los Angeles.
ERCOLANI: And while Bryan Morton hopes Heny and Victor do escape, he plans to stick around Camden, doing everything he can to make sure the next generation won't have to.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Ercolani.
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