Coaching Pioneers

Frankford baseball coach Juan Namnun watches the game against La Salle for the Class AAAA City Title. La Salle’s baseball coach Bob Peffle was once Juan’s coach, Thursday, May 31, 2012, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Embarrassed.

That was the word Frankford baseball coach Juan Namnun used when he phoned his mentor, Bob Peffle, after last Thursday’s brutal 14–1 loss at the hands of La Salle in the City Title game.

Peffle was quick to console his former protégé, telling Namnun that one ugly game would mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Focus on the fact that you won 18 games, Peffle said, as well as the third Public League title in Namnun’s five years in charge.

“I told him, ‘Stop right there,’” Peffle said. “One game does not define you, and what happened to them on Thursday can happen to anyone on any given day. I told him to look at the big picture, to look back on what he’s done there and be proud.”

If anyone would know how to point Namnun in the right direction, it’s Peffle; after all, you could say the two have a bit of history together.

Peffle, now an assistant coach at La Salle, was the longtime baseball coach for the Pioneers. A Frankford alum, he won five Public League titles in 19 seasons and had reached legendary status by the time he retired in 2007. Dozens of players came and went during his tenure, but one stuck out more than the rest: the one he had to beat to win La Salle the city championship in the game at FDR Park in South Philadelphia.

In 1992, Peffle promoted a then 14-year-old Namnun from the JV team to varsity, only to see Namnun become an integral mainstay of the baseball program in his subsequent three years as a player. After transferring from Kutztown to West Chester University in college, Namnun decided during his senior year to get into teaching in Philadelphia. Back in the area, he called his former coach to ask about an assistant job.

“I wanted to get into teaching because of him, and I happened to get a good student-teaching opportunity in Philly during my senior year,” Namnun said. “So I figured since I was back in the area, I’d try to get into coaching, too. Only problem was Bob had never had an assistant, so I knew it was a long shot. I told him, ‘Just let me hang out. I’ll hit grounders, throw batting practice…whatever you need me to do.’”

For Peffle, the decision to bring Namnun on board was an easy one, even though he had previously been a lone wolf on the Frankford bench.

“I’ve always been careful of who I bring on board because I’ve developed a certain way of doing things where every practice and game is planned out to the minute,” Peffle said. “If I’m bringing a guy on my staff, he’s got to have what I’m looking for in terms of knowledge and work ethic. That was never a problem with Juan. I had full faith and trust in him and was confident he would do things the way I wanted them done.

“That makes it so much easier for a coach,” he continued. “I’m a Frankford grad, he’s a Frankford grad and he played for me. Even though I’m at La Salle now, we still both bleed those red, blue and gold Frankford colors. Everything I experienced with him as a player made it easier to say yes.”

So in 2000, Namnun came on board, and the dynamic of he and Peffle’s relationship shifted from player-coach to assistant coach-head coach. Namnun admitted it wasn’t the easiest transition at first, as he had to learn how to approach the game from a coach’s viewpoint.

“I remember so clearly how, early on, he showed me how to manage a game,” Namnun said. “He’d explain to me why he’d pitch hitters a certain way, or why he’d align the defense the way he did. As a player you don’t see those things, you just react and trust your coach. He taught me how to run a team behind the scenes.”

Namnun’s arrival as an assistant coincided perfectly with Frankford’s elevation to arguably the top Public League baseball program in the city. Peffle had experienced success before Namnun showed up as a 22-year-old assistant, but it wasn’t until Namnun’s first year on staff in 2000 that Frankford won its first league title since 1981.

Once Namnun secured a full-time teaching position at Frankford a short time later, the relationship between him and Peffle flourished. From 2000–07, the two men compiled a staggering 101–11 record and five championships in Public League competition.

Having just turned 60 during the 2007 season, Peffle knew the time had come to pass the baton to Namnun. Little by little, the latter had assumed more coaching responsibilities and was calling most of the shots in Peffle’s final season. Knowing he had found the perfect replacement made Peffle comfortable in his decision to retire, but walking away didn’t come without some trepidation.

“The way it works in the Philadelphia School District is you have to apply for the coaching position, so I wasn’t sure Juan would get the job,” Peffle said. “I just hoped that I was grooming the next Frankford coach.”

Of course, Namnun got the job, something that was personally met with mixed emotions.

“It meant the world to me,” Namnun said. “As a man, you dream about becoming a person of legendary status like Coach Peffle did. Now, I had the opportunity to become a part of that fraternity. Together, we built the program from the ground up, so for me to take over without him being there…it was difficult.

“I remember the night before my first game, I had this fear that I wouldn’t be able to maintain the level of success we had spent almost ten years building,” he continued. “But when he retired, he told me the only question he had was would the right person take over? When he found out it was me, he had no fear and was completely confident, which meant so much to me.”

Fresh off his Frankford retirement, Peffle was soon presented with a unique opportunity at La Salle; having already served as the school’s soccer coach since 1987 (a role he still holds today), he was offered a full-time faculty position at the school. Then, longtime friend and legendary La Salle baseball coach Joe Parisi offered Peffle the chance to come on as an assistant, an opportunity he was excited but reserved about. Not wanting his old school to think he was “abandoning” Frankford for another job, Peffle phoned Namnun to ask for advice. After some initial hesitation, Peffle’s former pupil told him to accept the job, no questions asked, a further indicator of the strong bond and trust level the two men share.

Though he admitted it was extremely difficult for him to write “BEAT FRANKFORD” on La Salle’s dugout whiteboard on the eve of the city title game, Peffle found comfort knowing him ending up with the Explorers worked out perfectly for both parties. For Peffle, he still gets to fulfill his passion of mentoring young student-athletes, while Namnun continues to strengthen his resume as one of the city’s top baseball coaches. In five full seasons since inheriting the Frankford position, Namnun has gone 58–12 in Public League play and won three titles, bringing his total coaching mark to a stunning 159–23 with eight titles in 13 seasons.

“That man, along with my father, taught me everything that I know,” said Namnun, who showed up to the La Salle-Neumann-Goretti Catholic League title game to support (and not scout) his former boss’s team. “I met him when I was 14 and he was present in all the major moments in my life, from me marrying my high school sweetheart to the birth of my sons. He guided me in making the right decisions; he was always supportive and honest with me. We still talk and text each other regularly throughout the week. Since the first day I met him up until last Thursday, our relationship has been all about a friendship that that extends a million miles beyond the baseball field.”

For his part, Peffle said he still monitors Frankford’s progress every day, something that will never leave him despite finishing up his coaching career at La Salle. It’s something that will never dissipate, especially considering someone he cares so deeply about is leading the baseball program.

“Juan is very special to me,” Peffle in a phone conversation on Sunday night. “I have two grown sons that I love dearly, and he’s in that category for me, too. I think so highly of him.

“You have to know that I always pick up the papers to look to see how Frankford did the day before,” he concluded. “Frankford High School burns through me, and I was extremely blessed to go there when I did and get my coaching experience. I will forever fondly remember all the young men that played for me, particularly Juan Namnun.” ••