I’m not exactly sure what he was talking about though. For me it was easy. Airline service to Hartford is plentiful, and from there it’s a short drive via either I-91 or I-84 to Ellington, CT.
Perhaps Mr. Wolfe had problems at the car rental counter. Or maybe I’m missing his point.
No matter – despite his warning, it would have been inconceivable for me to conduct a sports walkabout that didn’t include a stumble down memory lane. See, there’s high school basketball, and then there’s Ellington Knights high school basketball. I know this because back in the day, I proudly wore the purple and gold.
L.A. Times sportswriter Eric Sondheimer called the Northern Division Championship one of the best he’d ever seen in his many, many years of covering CIF Southern Section high school football. Hollywood is about 35 miles away from the town of Westlake Village, but they may as well have occupied the same ZIP Code during the game between arch-rivals Oaks Christian and Westlake.
It was one for the ages.
I wish I could have seen it.
But eight months into the IGTS Tour, my luck ran out. I was left with my nose pressed against the ticket window, so to speak. The game was sold out, and no amount of begging, pleading or influence peddling worked. Trust me, I tried. I made promises that would make a U.S. Congressman blanch. I was positively Cecil Newton-esque in my shamelessness.
Who would’ve thought – after successfully worming my way into 75 consecutive events, that the one that ended my streak would be a high school football game?
…Continued from the previous post.
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. That goes double when you are playing for the right to advance to the CIF Southern Section 8-Man Football Championship. Especially when you are the owners of a 7-4 record, and you’re playing against an 11-0 powerhouse.
Such is the case when you are a member of the Windward Wildcats.
To lend support to their efforts against the heavily favored Faith Baptist Contenders, I had braved L.A.’s 405 freeway on a Saturday during the Christmas shopping season. Embedded war correspondents have it cushy by comparison.
As for that “ever so humble” thing, it’s a perfect description of the athletic complex at Windward. Sandwiched into a parcel of land scarcely larger than the average dog park are the Wildcats’ baseball, softball and football playing fields. Suffice to say, there’s some overlap.
While 8-man football may consist of reduced roster sizes and smaller fields (just 80 yards long), if I had any inclination to devalue the skill level of the players, all I had to do was remind myself of this: Just across town in the L.A. Coliseum, where USC was preparing to host Notre Dame, the quarterback ready to enter the game should anything happen to the Trojan’s starter Mitch Mustain was John Manoogian – Windward High School, Class of 2009.
Regular readers may have gleaned an inkling that football isn’t exactly Number One With A Bullet on my list of favorite spectator sports this week. Going to an NFL game will do that to you these days.
But duty called, and the name of this duty was 8-man football.
The concept is a good one – the 8-man version of football allows teens to play the game even if they don’t attend a school with a large student body. Instead of simply saying “Sorry, we’re too small to field a team”, 8-man football puts high schools in a position to offer the All-American athletic experience.
In this, the second consecutive rendition of “forward into the past”, join me as I return to the Claremont Club, in the shade of the majestic San Gabriel mountain range. Back in June I had traveled to see the CIF Southern Section Boys Tennis Championships, and now for the second time in three days, I was on a mission to see if the Girls Championships could one-up the boys in terms of athletic drama.
One thing immediately apparent on my arrival was that the girls could one-up the boys in terms of athletic spectators.
In my last visit, I was met with a robust selection of available parking spots, all within a short stroll of the tennis courts. I chose something from the “shady” collection and wandered in.
This time around, despite arriving at an earlier hour, and with only two of the five Division Championships set to begin, I was shown simply…the satellite lot. It was sufficiently far enough away from the tennis courts to make me wonder whether it was even on the Claremont Club property. I had to park between two buses, for crying out loud! Is this any way to treat an old friend?
But you take the bad with the good, because another difference I noticed immediately was tremendously enhanced signage. Truth be told, there were actually just two signs, but that was two more than were there in June. And one directed me to the restrooms – a strong value-add since it had been a two-Starbucks drive.
You know you’ve been doing this for a while when you start coming back to the same venues for season-ending events – and it’s a different season.
In late May, in Event # 15 on the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, I visited Cypress College to take in the spectacle that was the CIF Southern Section Boys Volleyball Championships. Now half a year and 57 events later, there I was again – only this time to witness the distaff side do battle.
While one of the Boys Championships featured a school not too far away from the rustic home office of the IGTS Tour, the Girls Championships went one step further in terms of providing a rooting interest. The featured bout (there’s that boxing influence sneaking in again…) of the day-long volleyball extravaganza was the Division 1AA Championship match-up between heavily favored Long Beach Polytechnic High School and Redondo Union High School.
Long Beach Poly has spent a good bit of time this season at #1 in the MaxPreps Freeman Rankings. Not #1 in SoCal. Not #1 in the state of California. No, we’re talking #1 in the entire U.S. of A. Their appearance in the title game was, how shall I say it…not exactly breaking news. In fact, they had lost just one game in their combined play-off matches prior to the finals – and that by a score of 25 to 23. So they’re fairly good.
John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” is playing on the P.A. system. I’m sitting in the grandstand at an internationally recognized and beloved sporting event. I’ve parked, secured admission and had a little lunch in preparation for the Little League World Series International Championship game. Total cost thus far? Let me see…parking…plus ticket…add in a hot dog and a Powerade…total the column, carry the remainder…OK, if my math is correct, that comes out to a grand total of $4.50.
I haven’t even seen a pitch yet and this is already one of the best events on the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour schedule to date. But then again, any day that starts with meeting a sportscasting legend certainly does get things rolling in the right direction.
It’s funny how planets align sometimes. Friend and former Futures Tour tournament director Howard Storck just happened to be travelling through Pennsylvania at the same time as I, he on his way to New York. And he was also stopping in Williamsport – not to see the LLWS, but to visit with a college roommate. Len Berman. Yes that Len Berman, of NBC Sports, The Today Show and New York City’s WNBC-TV.
Berman was in Williamsport as part of a tour to promote his latest book The 25 Greatest Baseball Players Of All Time. And all I had to do to meet him was sacrifice several hours of sleep and track down the location of the Williamsport Public Library on Saturday morning. Done and done.
A gracious guy with a very dry wit, Berman patiently explained to me that the reason that no Los Angeles Angels were on his list was that…well, they’ve never had any great players of the homegrown variety. Ouch. But point well taken.
Having recovered from that sting, all was right with my world as I sat at the far end of the right field grandstand in Howard J. Lamade Stadium, awaiting the start of the game between Japan and Taiwan. Even if I did have anything to complain about, it felt vaguely un-American to even entertain the notion.
I even succumbed to feeling kindly about the between-inning “entertainment”, which usually involved Dugout – a mascot dressed in a bear costume that danced and mugged his way through each game. I’m not a big mascot fan, but as mascots go, Dugout was impressive in his energy level, if nothing else.
One particular bit had him dressed up as a prizefighter, shadow-boxing to the theme song from Rocky for the full interminable duration of a TV timeout. Now I know I was only a couple hours away from Philadelphia, where a recent poll showed that 104.6% of the population believes that Rocky was an actual person, but please – that was a looooong time ago.
And speaking of time, I’m sure that Dugout joined me in wondering if that Rocky bit would ever be over. If it was left solely up to ESPN, they surely would have run four more commercials, after which time they would’ve had to drag Dugout’s spent carcass off on a stretcher, accompanied by at least two intravenous fluid feeds.
As for the International Championship game itself, most of the action came early. Japan made good use of the only hit they mustered over the first five innings and scratched out a run in the bottom of the first inning. Taiwan responded in kind in the top of the second, with two runs scored on three of the only four hits they recorded in the game. After that it was a pitcher’s duel, supported by excellent defense on both sides. Taiwan in fact turned two inning-ending double plays with major-league type crispness.
Down to their last at-bat, Japan sandwiched two singles around Taiwan’s only error of the game and managed to send the game into extra innings at 2-2. Then in the bottom of the 7th inning, a single, a wild pitch and a fielder’s choice set the stage for a game-winning single by Japan’s Ryo Motegi.
Just like that, the opportunistic Japanese had claimed the International Championship. Taiwan, the prohibitive favorite due to a prodigious offense that in one game alone had produced 24 runs, was relegated to Sunday’s consolation game.
The United States Championship game pitted a team from the Houston area – Pearland, Texas to be exact – against the Waipio All-Stars from Waipahu, Hawaii on the island of O’ahu. Remarkably, Waipio had won the Little League World Series title in 2008 and was now in a position to do so again – but with an entirely different roster. What were the chances?
Hawaii was in a tough position this time around. Little League rules put limitations on the number of pitches that a young pitcher can throw on a given day or series of days. Needing to play an extra game to compensate for a first-game loss in the double-elimination tournament had used up Hawaii’s front-line pitching ranks. So in this game for all the U.S. marbles, the ball was handed to 5’1” lefty Ezra Heleski – normally a starting outfielder – with the hopes that he could go as far as possible with his allotted 85 pitches. As it turned out, that didn’t have to be too far.
The LLWS employs a “Mercy Rule”, which states that, if one team leads by at least 10 runs after the trailing team has completed four innings of at-bats, the game is officially concluded. When Hawaii jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, the only question remaining was whether Heleski could finish the game before tossing his 85th and final pitch, thus saving what was left of a bullpen for the next day’s World Championship contest. He left the mound after five innings with a scant 14 pitches available for the job.
It became a moot point however, as in the bottom of the 5th, Hawaii scored three runs to extend their lead to 10-0 and trigger the Mercy Rule.
I felt somewhat uneasy as I watched this unfold. Given that Texas had mustered just two hits and Hawaii was running roughshod on the bases, it was pretty obvious to all in attendance that the eventual outcome of the game was not in doubt.
So when Hawaii pushed the issue in pursuit of a Mercy Rule win, I couldn’t decide whether I was witnessing a case of questionable sportsmanship. That thought process was exacerbated when Hawaii scored their 10th run as a result of yet another Texas miscue – a wild pitch – and jubilantly celebrated on the field.
If this game had been on any other level I wouldn’t have given this a second thought, but these are just 12 and 13-year old kids. And being embarrassed on national television can’t possibly have rolled right off their backs.
But then again, it’s been a long time since I was 12. And since I’m pretty sure that just being on national television would have pushed me perilously close to wetting my pants, maybe I’m not the right person to comment on this.
Back when I was kid, when we played the game with stuffed brontosaurus skins and woolly mammoth tusks, there was a single three-syllable word that encapsulated all of my fondest baseball dreams: Williamsport.
I barely knew that Williamsport was an actual place, let alone how to find it on a map. It was more like a concept whose existence you took on faith. Much like Valhalla to ancient warriors.
You went there only if you persevered, played your absolute best, and had the gods of baseball smiling down on you at just the right time. Every kid that ever played Little League knew that each August, just one All-Star team from each of four U.S. regions (now eight regions) was able to play their way to Williamsport, Pennsylvania and the Little League World Series.
One year, an All-Star team from South Windsor, the town right next to mine, went on a magical mid-Summer streak and wound up winning the East Regional, thus earning an invitation to Williamsport. The members of that team became local legends – attaining a level of celebrity almost Paris Hilton-esque, if you can even remotely process that thought.
When we played a midget football game against South Windsor that Fall, I could barely wait until the game was over so that I could meet those conquering heroes. During the postgame handshake I uttered the magic words: “Tell us about Williamsport”.
And they did, as my friends and I listened slack-jawed. We almost had to be dragged onto the buses that would take us back to our comparatively menial existences. The legend grew.
I’m positive that the Little League World Series holds the same level of enchantment for millions of others of us “graduates”, as Little League Baseball, Incorporated likes to call us. That sentiment, combined with the event’s scheduled spot during one of the quietest times on the television sports calendar, has made the Little League World Series one of the most consistently viewed sporting events of the year – and a staple of ESPN’s annual programming.
Consequently, I could not have conceived of an “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour that excluded the LLWS. Decades after the last ground ball scooted under my glove and between my legs I would finally get around to locating Williamsport on a map.
A few months back I started researching the possibility of getting a ticket to the event, and much to my delight discovered that the good folks in Williamsport do not charge admission. That’s right – it’s free. Gratis, nada, zip, zilch. All you have to do is request tickets by mail ahead of time. Waaaaaay ahead of time. In fact, so far ahead of time that by the time I first conjured images of myself basking in the grandstand, I was already months too late.
BUT WAIT! The hill that lies beyond the outfield fence forms a natural amphitheatre, and it’s there that the Fan’s Law of Natural Selection applies: First-come, first-served seating. So you’re saying there’s a chance…
I arrived at the LLWS complex over two hours early on Saturday, ready to claim a spot on the hill and camp out for the duration – the International Championship game at 1:00, followed by the United States Championship at 4:00. Yes, I realized that this was asking a lot of my backside. And it didn’t help that the temperature was pushing 90 degrees. But it was Williamsport!And I’m not playing with a full deck, as we’ve established consistently over the past several months.
The main gate to Little League’s version of Valhalla is at the lower end of the complex. Once you’ve passed through security, you proceed up a gradual slope past practice fields and Volunteer Stadium until you reach the Promised Land: Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Approaching Lamade from the back side of the stadium as I did, my view of the famous hillside which would be home for the next 7 or 8 hours was blocked. But I did get a very good look at the line that I would have to stand in to get there, given that the back end had already snaked around the stadium to greet me.
So I queued up and hoped for the best. Surely there would be room on that hillside for just one more Sports Fan!
The line moved steadily, but agonizingly slowly. Helpless to improve my position, and left with no other way to entertain myself, I started eavesdropping on the people around me. It was all pretty pedestrian stuff – until I heard the words “It looks good. I think we’re going to get in.”
“In?” How does one get “in” to a hillside? It was clearly time for a little investigative journalism.
I sized up the group in front of me and picked out the guy who appeared the least judgmental. “Ahh, sorry to bother you, but can you tell me what we’re waiting in line for?” I asked, sounding every bit like the idiot that I clearly was.
“They’re handing out the unclaimed tickets” came the reply. “First-come, first-served.”
“You mean tickets into the stadium?” I asked, thus cementing my idiot status.
A slow grin crept across the face of my new friend. “First time here?”
We were old buddies by the time we got to the front of the line, so much so that he did the talking for me. “He came all the way from Los Angeles”, he explained to the Ticket Meister. Who listened and gave me a big smile. And a General Admission grandstand ticket.
To be continued…
Theoretically, the somewhat oxymoronically named University High School is called that because of its location adjacent to the University of California, Irvine. But it could just be a clever ruse. See, when the bus pulls into the school parking lot to pick up the UHS boy’s tennis team and transport it to their matches, who would be the wiser if by some “snafu” in communications the UCI tennis team happened to board. An honest mistake. I mean, they’re right next door. And if caught, they could always laugh it off as an innocent joke. After all, Will Ferrell is a University High graduate. I mean, how else can you explain a team winning the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Championship by a margin of 17-1?
Blair Field, in the heart of Long Beach’s famed Recreation Park, is home to Long Beach State’s baseball team, the Dirtbags. Yes, I said the Dirtbags. I can imagine that this makes for interesting recruiting challenges. How do you start that conversation? “Mr. and Mrs. Kelly, we think your son has what it takes to be a Dirtbag…”