Friday, September 6, 2013

Tijuana: The perfect place for Little League

 — There were no news cameras, no radio shows broadcasting live, no T-shirts covered with sponsors.
There was but one television inside, another on the patio, and neither was getting sound an hour before the game. 
Friday, the Eastlake Little League team drew hundreds to Eastlake Tavern & Bowl in Chula Vista, where the atmosphere was boisterous, inspired, and downright electric. 
A day earlier in Mexico, a few dozen filed into the Municipal de Tijuana Little League cafeteria...where the atmosphere was even better.
The official distance separating two of the 16 Little Leagues represented in Williamsport, Pa., is 15 miles. The unofficial distance is one galaxy. You don't feel like you're on a champion's home turf when graffitied walls and dilapidated playground equipment flank the entrance to the complex -- but you darn well feel part of a community once you make your entrance known.
The woman greeting me Thursday was Belinda Tovalin, the Municipal de Tijuana Little League president's wife, who was charged with providing the satellite connection so that fans could watch the game against Australia together. She succeeded with the visual portion of the assignment, but panicked when, 60 minutes before the first pitch, she turned the TV on and discovered there was no audio.
Tovalin was able to make a call and get it fixed, but it would have been of little concern regardless. The crowd made it so you couldn't hear the TV anyway.
Among the principal noisemakers Thursday was 79-year-old Pedro Fernandez, one of the Little League's former presidents. Fernandez looks as though he smiled so much as a kid that his face got stuck that way, but there is one subject that can erase that grin, and that's his late son Ernesto.
Fernandez accompanied Ernesto to Chicago for a tournament similar to the LLWS in the 1970s, and the look on his face tells you that it was among the most precious memories of his life. It also helps temper the pain of Ernesto succumbing to cancer 15 years later.
Fernandez gets emotional when discussing the subject, but it's clear that watching this year's Tijuana team floods his mind with positive memories. He even brought pictures of former Little League teams to share with people he'd never met.
Sitting wide-eyed for two straight hours, Fernandez showed up alone Thursday but was never by himself.
"I'm a talker," he said. "I got a big mouth."
And the world is better for it.
About 10 feet in front of Fernandez is 29-year-old Joseph Mende, who doesn't do much talking -- at least not when he's on the clock. Mende works as the mascot for the Tijuana Toros of the Northern League of Mexico, but has had more than 10 different mascot jobs since he turned 21.
Mende wasn't on the Municipal de Tijuana grounds promoting, though. He was there reminiscing -- harking back to his Little League days, which he called "the most beautiful thing in the world."
Don't worry. This wasn't Al Bundy clinging to his four-touchdown game in high school. Mende is perfectly happy with his life these days, but watching these kids makes him that much happier.
"This is a dream come true," Mende said through an interpreter. "It's something good for the city. It's something special."
Alicia Lopez agreed. The 69-year-old cafeteria cook said that her "heart jumped out of her chest" when she found out her Little League team had made the World Series, even though she confesses she doesn't understand baseball. 
Eight-year-old Francisco Ramirez agrees, too, which is why he marched around the cafeteria after every half-inning while draped in a Mexican flag.
Municipal de Tijuana employee Veronica Gircei blew a horn about every 1.8 seconds during Tijuana's 12-0 win, 13-year-old Sergio Vizcaino cheered with his buddies -- all of whom were wearing Little League uniforms -- while Oscar Rocha looked on quietly with his 7-year-old niece Jacquelin and 3-year-old niece Paola. More people are expected Sunday when Mexico takes on Panama at 9 a.m., but something about the size of this crowd seemed perfect.
Anyway, the only thing missing for me Thursday was a relative of one of the players, which I thought could have added a poignant piece of color to my story. And after failing to find one for the first hour and a half or so, I gave it one last shot and tapped the shoulder of 22-year-old Ulises Gomez.
"Are any of the players' family here?" I asked him.
Gomez just smiled.
"Ah, man," he said. "We're all family here."

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