Bergen Beach baseball, by any other name, is now the Brooklyn Bandits.
A youth baseball league in a neighborhood near the southeastern tip of borough had been steadily losing popularity — and enrollment — in recent years, until last year, when local coaches Frank Cappiello and Carlos Zafra got involved. The duo decided to breathe new life into the declining loop, to provide fresh opportunities for young players in the community.
“With the help of Carlos, myself, [and] a lot of the guys we coached with, we wanted to keep it going. We didn’t want it to die,” said Cappiello, who grew up playing in the Bergen Beach organization. “It was [once] a big league where all the kids from the neighborhood went and played. There were eight to 10 in-house teams packed with kids, and the fields were always packed.”
Cappiello and Zafra, with coach Kevin Merrick and executive director Paul Curiale, joined forces to make Bergen Beach baseball popular again. The started by forming a loop called the Brooklyn Bandits.
“We started with two Bandits teams,” Cappiello said. “We made this travel team up with no expectations. Just teaching them the game the right way.”
That first season, the younger of the two Bandits teams wound up winning their league championship. The following year, more teams were formed.
“One of the older travel teams, coached by Scott Slater, went under the Bandits banner, too,” Cappiello said. “He [has] Bandits for a 14-U team. Then we have our other coach, Alan Umbria, who does the basketball program with us, he took on an 11- to 12-year-old team. We have two 9- to 10-year-old teams. Another coach, Pete Stark, took an 8-U team, and then [coach] Michael Obdyke took on a tee-ball team.”
In just one season, the league went from having two member teams to six, and now boasts an ever-growing fan base and pool of dedicated players.
“All the neighboring areas are gravitating toward the organization now,” Cappiello said. “It’s exactly what we envisioned, and we just have to keep it rolling.”
He explained that the league’s expansion isn’t just about teaching the boys baseball, but also about teaching them life lessons.
“When you think about it, how many kids are going to turn pro?” Cappiello said. “You’d rather they be good people when they get older and know some things along the way. That’s what we’re trying to instill into their minds. Not just the baseball end of it, but the life end of it.”
Cappiello and Zafra are confident that the growth of the Brooklyn Bandits can be a unifying force for the Bergen Beach community.
“As these kids get older, they’re going to remember each other from playing on these teams so they’re going to be one community together, knowing each other,” Zafra said. “There’s no animosity towards each other. It’s all representing the neighborhood and Brooklyn as a whole.”
When they started the league, the pair never dreamed it would be as successful as it has become — and that so many local youth baseball coaches would be involved.
“Everybody’s pulling a little weight on that rope,” Zafra said. “It’s not one or two guys pulling. We’re all pulling. We want to make sure that the entire organization gets recognized for what is going on.”