The phrase "tough times" doesn't even begin to describe what the Camelback High School baseball program has endured in recent years. One win in three seasons, recurring issues with academic ineligibility, regular losses by as many as 20 runs and sometimes worse -- the Spartans have seen it all.
Through all of it, though, coach Todd Goertzen has seen progress and plenty of players unwilling to give up. Now, thanks to Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, the team will have something to be proud of.
Ethier partnered recently with New Balance to set Camelback up with new cleats, warmup gear and brand-new uniforms, which the team will design itself.
A Phoenix native and graduate of St. Mary's High School -- about 10 minutes from Camelback -- Ethier heard of Camelback's situation through the Orange County-based Going to Bat Foundation. They had pinpointed the school as one working hard in the community and in need of a helping hand, and Ethier took it one step further by offering to pay for the new uniforms.
"It's my home community, its where I grew up," Ethier said. "I think it's just a great opportunity to help a baseball program that's trying to get back on track and give those kids that are so involved and wanting to be doing stuff on the field a little bit of incentive to keep going out there and doing it."
The involvement Ethier spoke of is via the Opportunity Through Baseball program started by Camelback assistant coach Sean Payton. The program, now in its eighth year and in the process of gaining 501(c)3 status, offers free baseball clinics and academic tutoring. It's funded by donations from the community. Camelback's baseball team instructs younger players.
Payton started the program to help revitalize youth baseball in the central Phoenix area. Over time, little leagues had disappeared, and baseball at the developmental level was essentially nonexistent. By the time players got to Camelback, they were only just learning the basics of baseball.
"Right now they're having a hard time winning because they're learning the game this late," assistant coach Jeff Killeen said. "They get in a situation where they see a guy throwing 80 or 90 miles per hour at them -- they've never seen that before."
It wasn't always like this for Camelback. The school played in the 1985 state finals and throughout the 1990s won 20 or more games on a consistent basis. But as the community changed and little leagues suffered, players went elsewhere or didn't play at all.
The idea now is that Opportunity Through Baseball will restore the developmental level of baseball in the community and have players well-versed in the game by the time they get to high school, be it at Camelback or elsewhere.
The Going to Bat Foundation saw the work Camelback players were doing to further the game in their community and offered to help.
Ethier remembers playing little league in central Phoenix and facing some of the same limitations Camelback has now, so he wanted to help, too. He shared those memories with the team last Saturday at Camelback Ranch, the Dodgers' spring training facility, where the team came to be presented with the new equipment and watch a game.
"They're struggling to keep kids involved and even get them involved," Ethier said. "They have coaches there and people who really want to help the kids and keep them involved. It's sad to say, but sometimes if you don't have the nicest stuff or equipment or field, it can make your decision to go out there and play kind of hard."
Involvement truly is the greatest challenge facing Camelback. The freshman team currently has just 11 players. One player in the program couldn't return this season because he had to get a job when his father lost his. Goertzen said many are soccer players and some quit early on, unable to take the frustration of learning a game full of failure.
"We had to hook 'em first," Goertzen said. "These young men are hooked. ... It's a really difficult setting and situation, but a lot of these kids are working very hard just to continue doing it."
Then there's the frustration of losing constantly. Camelback recently lost a game 34-0, and earlier this week it lost to Ethier's alma mater 10-0. The newly instituted run rule, in its first year, has helped at times, ending lopsided games after four or five innings, but with players learning as they, go it's often a challenge to get that far.
"They see my frustration or my coaches' frustration, but they're really still trying to understand and learn the game," Goertzen said. "We try to emphasize getting better. ... The humiliation, I'm sure they go through it a little bit, but they don't show it much."
Said Alfredo Correra, a 17-year-old second baseman at Camelback: "Sometimes, actually, it does get frustrating. But you have to deal with it and start playing baseball. We play as a team and we stay as a team."
For players like Correra who do stay involved, it's easy to see a strong passion for baseball and community. While classmates slept in on a no-school out Friday, which was Csar Chvez Day, Camelback players were at the school before 8 a.m. watering the field in preparation for practice. The previous day, they had given their time after school to a baseball clinic.
"I like teaching little kids how to play baseball," Correra said. "It's just seeing their smile as they learn how to play baseball. Giving back to the community, that's what I like doing. They give to us and we give back."
While all the hard work players and coaches have put in learning, practicing and teaching has not yet amounted to results on the field, it's paying off in a way they never imagined it would: the help of Ethier and New Balance.
"We gave our time and effort to help out some other people, little kids, and we got a reward," said Oscar Lopez, 17, Camelback's right fielder. "We didn't want one, but we got one, and it's surprising to meet somebody big like that, especially somebody who can say he's from here."
Camelback players didn't know they were getting new uniforms from Ethier until they stood with him on the field at Camelback Ranch after watching batting practice. Naturally, their jaws dropped.
"For once, they weren't talking," Killeen joked. "It was pretty amazing. An emotional day."
Goertzen got choked up more than once when the team met Ethier. He's been with the program for 28 years and seen it at its best and worst. That someone who could have easily brushed off what the team is trying to do took the opportunity to help means more than wins.
"There were four or five times tears came to my eyes," Goertzen said. "It was just an emotional experience for me, seeing that so many people pulled this together so we could give so much back to these young men. I was speechless. It really made me feel good inside. ... It was easy to tear up."
Goertzen said Ethier provided a real-life example of what hard work in the pursuit of your dreams can amount to, which was the message Ethier gave to the players. Both know that new uniforms and cleats won't translate directly to wins, but the hope is that Ethier's help can charge interest in the program and keep the players motivated.
And even if they are losing by 30 runs, they can at least be proud of how they look doing it.
"It builds your confidence whole-heartedly," Goertzen said. "You're going out there and you are dressed the same as a team from north Scottsdale. ... It gives you more personal pride."
Ethier's donation to Camelback was far from his first effort to give back to the Phoenix community. He makes a yearly donation to the St. Mary's baseball and softball programs and has taken part in numerous speaking engagements; he spoke in January at a YMCA in Chandler.
"I grew up in downtown Phoenix," Ethier said. "I've always had an affinity for Phoenix. This is my hometown, it will always be my hometown. It's somewhere I love being, and I just loved being involved with something that helped me get to where I am today."