Summer of hope, exertion climaxes at field of dreams

August 25, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WILLIAMSPORT, PA. — WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.-- Summer dreams spill down Bald Eagle Mountain, the towering green guard of this town, carried on a current of whoops and cries of little kids.

They swirl into a small stadium nestled at the foot of the mountain and become real each August in the Little League World Series.

Elsewhere last week, the world sat transfixed by turmoil in the Soviet Union. Here, there was no place so important as the patch of sweet-smelling grass outlined by a baseball diamond.

"This is a dream come true," marveled Brad Rucker as he watched his son, Kolby, warm up before the final game yesterday.

The young boy with long locks peeking from under his cap was third baseman on the U.S. champion team from Danville, Calif. This was to be the playoff against Taiwan for the world title, and as he shagged fly balls he tried to look casual.

Kolby had just turned 13 last week, and now 36,000 fans were watching him play. He spat the way he had seen the pros spit.

This series is the climax of the summer-long march of sandlot games for players, and for their parents who drove the car pools, sold the hot dogs and coached and cheered through an endless schedule.

It is also a reminder that wars and coups may preoccupy adults, but children can still get together from around the world and have fun.

"A lot of people view Little League just as a baseball program," said Creighton J. Hale, president of the Little League. "But our goals are more general than that. We try to downplay winning. If it's not fun, it's not Little League."

Besides, Taiwan usually does the winning. The Chinese had taken 14 championships in 17 trips to the series coming into yesterday's game.

This year's Taiwan team was no less imposing. They demolished Canada in the playoff, 17-1. Their players scooped up ground balls and leaned into pitches with smooth assurance that mocked the sometimes-awkward motions of the other kids.

A U.S. team had won the series only once in seven years.

But the all-stars from San Ramon Valley, Calif., were used to adversity. They had gotten there through a succession of narrow escapes and clutch hits.

They were the underdog, the California parents admitted. But they were trusting the "ifs": If their pitcher was on. If Taiwan made an error or two. If they were hitting.

"I'm nervous because I know how good we are," said Mr. Rucker, a 38-year-old trader on the Pacific Stock Exchange who had helped coach the team. "I want us to play up to our potential."

It had been a long buildup. When the regular season's thrice-a-week games ended, the San Ramon Valley all-stars began the tournament that eventually narrowed 7,000 league teams worldwide to a final eight.

Mothers washed the uniforms in out-of-town laundromats. Fathers took off from work to lug bats and balls and catcher's mitts. Sisters glumly gave up their summer vacations to follow their brothers' success.

"This is the 26th ballgame we've played since July 11," said Mr. Rucker. "The kids have been on the road for almost three weeks. I think they're ready to go home."

But Kolby had predicted this, said his mother, Dru Rucker. At the start of the last school year, he had written an essay for English class on his goals. Seven months before the season even began, the youngster predicted that he would go to the Little League World Series to beat Taiwan.

"I don't think they've even realized what they've done just to get here," said his mother. "They don't know that there are already banners in the street and a parade set up, whether they win or lose."

Williamsport greeted them with bunting and banners, as it does every year. Little League was born here 52 years ago when Carl Stotz tripped over a lilac bush while playing catch with his nephews and vowed to create a more organized game.

From a simple three-team league with $1.58-apiece uniforms, his creation has grown to oversee 2.5 million children playing in 46 countries.

The Soviet Union organized a league this year -- with a little trouble getting the hang of Little League's democratic rules, Mr. Hale said.

Despite such cultural gaps -- and a scarcity of equipment overseas -- more countries are eager to learn baseball since the game has been included in the 1992 Olympics, he said.

Each August, the final eight teams -- four from the United States and one each from Europe, Latin America, Canada and the Far East -- arrive in Williamsport for the World Series.

The place seems fitted for its idyllic role. A huge American flag greets the visitors by the ballpark. The homes here favor porches, and the streets have made a pleasant reconciliation with trees once cut down in Williamsport's heyday as a logging capital. European tour groups now stop in Williamsport to see a slice of "Middle America."

Most importantly, for the players, there is a swimming pool. Right next to the baseball field. The players stay in cabins there, and parents are allowed only for short visiting hours.

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