In beautiful summer weather, looking back at Taney Playground

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Taney coach Leland Lott (center) and the Dragons team preparing for a promotional shot earlier this month.

Knock, knock.

"Who's there?"

San Diego.

"San Diego who?"

Who needs San Diego when Philadelphia has weather like this in August?

And by this I mean, open a window. Hear that? Nothing. No otherworldly hum of air conditioners groaning from neighbors' houses. Listen to the silence. Ignore the Mr. Softee truck's dee-Dee, dee-Deedly, dee-Dee-DEE jingle tinkling in the distance.

That's the sound of Philadelphia during most of this unlikely summer of 2014. Here we are a week away from Labor Day and the daily default late-summer forecast of "hazy, hot, and humid" has been on hiatus.

Days worthy of the descriptions "brutal" and "oppressive" paid a brief visit in mid-July, but otherwise, the miserable dog days of high summer have been playful cocker spaniel puppies rather than slobbering rottweilers.

"I grew up here, I know what summers are like in Philadelphia," said NBC10 meteorologist Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz after Wednesday's 11 p.m. newscast, where he forecast another week of "unusually comfortable" August days.

"In the 19 years since I've been back [in his hometown], this has been the most pleasant summer weather I can remember," said Schwartz. "It started with those 10 dry weekends in a row. There's been two minimal heat waves.

"The highest it's reached all summer is 96 degrees, and even then it was low humidity. This made for a cool summer at the Shore. Maybe too cool for a lot of people." With what sounded like a wistful hint of regret, he added, "This made for a mild hurricane season."

The most unexpected summer breeze came from a playground beneath the South Street Bridge on the Schuylkill's eastern bank.

There is no precedent for the positive national impact enjoyed by this talented group of Philadelphia tweeners, humble teammates almost preternaturally poised and focused on their mission to have fun and play ball.

These are Philly kids to the core, old souls in young bodies. You can see it in their eyes, in their answers, in their laughter, in their game. In the way they respect and love their coaches. In the way the coaches have succeeded. The game is baseball; the lesson is life.

The Taney Dragons play on a baseball field where most of the team members would not have been welcomed or tolerated within the lifetimes of their parents. Black kids, Asian kids, "different" kids, girls.

For decades, Taney Playground was the social, athletic, and underage-drinking ground of an Irish working-class neighborhood straddling the South Street Bridge. The neighborhood northeast of the bridge was called Taney; the neighborhood to the southeast was called Schuylkill.

Nearby was another tough Irish neighborhood called "the Pocket," short for Devil's Pocket, which was where a famous fire-and-brimstone spouting priest at the neighborhood Catholic church told the congregation they belonged "in the devil's pocket!"

During a notorious and life-altering incident in 1981, at an Irish bar at 24th and Lombard, Daily News columnist Pete Dexter and heavyweight boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb were savagely beaten with bats wielded by young neighborhood men returning from a softball game at Taney Playground. Dexter turned the incident into the centerpiece of his first novel, God's Pocket.

I was well into my 30s when I was playing in a softball tournament at Taney Playground when this handful of 12- and 13-year-old neighborhood boys walked up to us and demanded that we leave the field. When we laughed in response, the boys raised their bats in a threatening manner.

There were like 20 men from two softball teams, and these four or five kids stood there and challenged us like it was a fair fight. When we refused to engage them in battle, the ringleader walked away with tears of frustration in his eyes.

Imagine what a good coach could have done for that boy.


Clark DeLeon's column appears regularly in Currents. deleonc88@aol.com