Monday, August 26, 2013

Eastlake, Tijuana head to Williamsport

Eastlake, Tijuana head to Williamsport
Eastlake beats Northern California 9-0 Saturday. Little League World Series starts Thursday
By Chris Jenkins Aug. 10, 2013

Eastlake celebrates after beating Northern California 9-0 Saturday. It makes its Williamsport debut Thursday with a noon (Pacific) game against Great Lakes champion Grosse Pointe, Mich. - John Gibbins

They're ballplayers without borders. Adolescent boys separated by a man-made barrier, but caring only about the fence that's 225 feet away from home plate.

It is wayyyyy too early in the game to predict or even suggest, but dare to imagine the possibility of this scene in Williamsport, Pa.: The Eastlake Little League All-Stars matched against the Municipal de Tijuana Seleccionados - two teams of players raised just a few miles apart, American and Mexican kids who've played both with and against each other - in a globally televised baseball game.

"That would be awesome," said Grant Holman, 13, a 6-foot-2 pitcher and shortstop for Eastlake. "There's only one way we could play them in Williamsport."

Exactly. Such a game would have to be for the Little League World Series championship on Aug. 25 at storied Lamade Stadium.

Could happen. Es posible.

Eastlake is the fourth San Diego County team in 13 years to represent the U.S. West region in Williamsport. Ultimately, the winners of the eight-team American pool will face off for the title against the champion of the International pool, and one of those eight foreign ballclubs is Mexico's champion from Tijuana.

"For both of our teams to be (in Williamsport)," said left-hander Martin Gonzalez, one of the Tijuana stars who's been friends and teammates with players on the Eastlake All-Stars, "would be so amazing."

Actually, the merely "amazing" already has been accomplished by both Eastlake and Tijuana. The former is the second team from South County to win the difficult West Region title - just four summers after the Park View All-Stars of Chula Vista won it all at Willamsport - and the latter became the first team from Tijuana to win the national championship of Mexico.

Tijuana opens LLWS round-robin play Thursday (2 p.m., Pacific) against Australia at Volunteer Stadium, the Mexicans' first game in a month since winning the national championship. Coming off eight games and seven wins in two weeks,
including a 9-0 triumph over Northern California for the West regional title Saturday night in San Bernardino, Eastlake makes its Williamsport debut Thursday with a noon (Pacific) game against Great Lakes champion Grosse Pointe, Mich.

A tight-knit, hang-loose bunch that listens to the beach music of Jack Johnson during practices -- though they'll sneak in a little hip-hop when the coaches aren't listening -- the Eastlake All-Stars haven't often been stressed since the start of Little League tournament play. They've lost just one game, a meaningless contest played after they'd already qualified for the semifinals in San Bernardino, en route to the mecca that is Williamsport.

Teammates of one sort or another since they were seven years old, they all live within a couple miles of each other, most of them attending Eastlake Middle School. A well-balanced, power-packed bunch whose smallest player can lift the ball out of the park, they have four exceptional pitchers and no one or two players drawing all the attention.

Baseball's largely a year-round game for them, which is how they began their familiarity with the kids south of the border. The name "Municipal de Tijuana" is not foreign to them.

"Some of (the Tijuana players) came up to watch us play Districts," said Eastlake pitcher/firstbaseman Giancarlo Cortez. "I told them, "I think we both have the kind of teams that could make it there.'"

Cortez should be considered a bit of an authority on the makeup and skills of the two clubs. His father (Carlo) was raised in Tijuana, and knowing the high quality of competition of the youth baseball there, began taking Giancarlo south to play and practice at the Municipal when the lad was still in kindergarten.

"It's a really cool experience," said Giancarlo, 12. "I love playing down there. The atmosphere's great; everybody's really into it and every game is really loud. The guys down there are really good friends. I'd play with the guys (on Team Mexico now) when I went to TJ and sometimes they'd come over to our side to play."

Doug Holman, who coaches the Eastlake team, still grins broadly about the time three years ago when his son Grant was invited to play for a club named the "TJ Stars." Put together for a travel-ball tournament in Lakeside, the TJ Stars didn't have their own uniform, so each player wore his favorite baseball jersey with his last name on the back.

"Every kid on the team is from Tijuana, all of Hispanic descent, except for my 5-foot-6, 10-year-old with blond hair," said the elder Holman. "I hadn't really paid attention to anything like that until my son comes up to bat and everybody starts laughing. At first I couldn't figure it out, but then I saw why.

"My son's favorite player was Adrian Gonzalez and he'd chosen to wear a Padres jersey with the name "Gonzalez" on the back. Grant goes by "G," so they started calling him Guillermo Gonzalez. It was hilarious."

To them, yes. Maybe not so much to the other teams.

"TJ ended up winning the tournament, too," said Holman. "It was something to see. Here are a bunch of kids, everybody on the team wearing a different uniform, looking rag-tag as could be, playing great ball and beating the heck out of everybody."

The name "Adrian Gonzalez" also adorns one of the 15 campos (ballfields) at Municipal de Tijuana, a baseball and soccer complex near the Otay crossing that's so close to the Tijuana Airport landing strip, you can virtually see passengers' faces in the windows of roaring 737's that regularly descend directly over the team's practice.

Adrian Gonzalez grew up playing at Municipal, effectively shuttling back and forth for games and practices with teams on both sides of the border, eventually coming out of Eastlake High as major league baseball's No. 1 draft choice of 2000.

"It's incredible to me that two Little League teams so close together would get this far," said Gonzalez, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Awesome. I've got teams to root for on both sides."

The all-dirt diamond where the 11- and 12-year-olds play their regular-season games bears the name "Campo Benjamin Gil," tribute to a Tijuana native who also became a first-round big-league pick out of Castle Park. Yet another field is named after Mar Vista High (Imperial Beach) product Esteban Loaiza, a former major league All-Star pitcher who spoke to the Tijuana team last week

None of the aforementioned MLB stars from Mexico ever had a chance to play in Williamsport. It was only four years ago that Tijuana came under the auspices of Little League Baseball, which gives Mexico its own region, thus one of only eight LLWS berths. The Mexicans open against the Australian champions from Perth.

"We've seen their games," said Pedro Altajero, a Tijuana coach and SDG&E rep whose twin sons (Mikey and Alex) are on the team. "Their final game for the Australia championship was on YouTube."

The Aussies have made the longest trip by far to Williamsport, but the fact is, many of the players on Team Mexico have travelled many more miles than the considerable distance between Tijuana and Williamsport to play ball.

As members of Mexico's championship team for 10-year-olds in 2010, they played in Columbia, losing the tournament final to Venezuela. In March of this year, they flew to a tournament in Mexico City. In the progression to Williamsport, the Tijuana kids have been bused or driven by caravan to tourneys in Mexicali, Nogales/Sonora and Reynosa, the latter of which is a round trip of roughly 3,100 miles.

Because of the travel involved, the International teams begin and complete their journeys toward Williamsport much sooner than the American all-star program. While the Eastlake kids have played eight games in the past two weeks - and lost just once in a total of 16 games - the Tijuanans (16-2) have not played a game since clinching the city's unprecedented national championship of Little League Baseball on July 15.

"To be the first was so exciting," said Martin Gonzalez, wearing his San Diego Chiefs travel-ball cap as he practiced with Municipale de Tijuana. "I think about it all the time. I'm proud of the way our team has played. We've made history."

Eastlake's following in what's become a rather striking tradition of San Diego County teams that represent California and the West region - including Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada and Utah -- in Williamsport.

Oceanside American made it to the U.S. semifinals of 2001 before losing 1-0 to a Bronx, N.Y., team whose star player later was found to be older than stated and thus ineligible. Rancho Buena Vista reached Williamsport in 2005 and Chula Vista Park View won the Little League World Series in 2009.

Surely never, though, has the Little League World Series championship come down to a game matching two teams so close in geographic proximity. In the event of an Eastlake-Tijuana finale, which still must be considered somewhat of a longshot, you'd have a winner-take-all game between ballplayers who are friends and close neighbors from different countries.

"It'd be a real battle," said Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett, "but it'd be great fun."

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