Little League Series a long fly from majors

August 26, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- A Coke costs a quarter, a hot pretzel 30 cents. A hot dog (with or without kraut) runs three quarters. If a hamburger is your fancy, you had better come prepared. A full buck is required to purchase one of those.

Welcome to Howard J. Lamade Stadium, home of the Little League World Series.

Welcome to the Disneyland of baseball. A kids' paradise.

The two-tiered hill that overlooks the baseball diamond offers many options. Picnic blankets and lawn chairs dot the lower hill, the blankets turning to makeshift umbrellas when the sky starts crying.

The steeper upper incline serves as cardboard sledding territory. In between the tiers, boys run imaginary bases, no doubt pretending they are running the bases below with the World Series on the line, maybe the only World Series of 1994. A couple of kids having a catch here, a couple of others tossing a Nerf football there.

Down on the diamond, fundamental baseball is played.

Yesterday, the U.S. West champions from Northridge, Calif., defeated the U.S. South champions from Springfield, Va., 3-0, to advance to tomorrow's title game against the Latin American champs from Venezuela.

Earlier in the day, Venezuela defeated the European champs, from Saudi Arabia, 10-1, to advance to the title game. During that one, as a Venezuelan player circled the bases on a home run, a flock of children stormed over a mesh fence beyond the outfield fence in search of the home run ball. They piled on.

Jim Palmer, a fixture at the Little League World Series for the past decade, is seated in the back row of the press box. The Hall of Fame pitcher marveled at the home run hitter's bat speed. And the public address announcer cleared his throat.

"Please refrain from jumping over the fence," he boomed after the clapping inspired by the home run ceased.

He wasn't finished. He still hadn't said the part promising violators will be prosecuted. He never did. He said worse. He uttered a parental cliche.

"You're gonna get hurt," he scolded. "Stop it!"

What he didn't say and didn't have to say because it was understood was to look out for the steel fence posts, "or you'll poke your eye out!"

Just as major-leaguers, these players too must wait six years for free agency. Most of them are 12 and will be free to choose their own addresses in six years.

Just as in the major leagues, this World Series never has a team from Chicago.

Other than those factors, the similarities are few.

No Little League teams claim to be losing money. A salary cap (zero) already is in place. The children don't say nasty things about their bosses because if they did they would be grounded.

Many of these players were resting in their mothers' wombs during the 1981 strike, so their sense of baseball labor history is limited. Of course, this isn't about labor. It's about baseball in its most simple form.

The pitchers hit in this league, and if they aren't batting third, it's usually only because they are batting cleanup.

Games last six innings. The World Series is played under daylight. Tickets are free.

The stands are full and the ballplayers entertain at the base of the hill.

No one was more entertaining yesterday than Northridge's Nathaniel Dunlap, whose fastball averaged 70 mph in the sixth inning. He lost his no-hit bid in the sixth, when Springfield put two runners on with one out after a single by Paul Weishar and Northridge's first error.

Dunlap, who worked with a 3-0 lead thanks to Spencer Gordon's three-run home run in the first inning, struck out the next two batters to nail down the national title.

Those from the losing side could have attributed being one-hit by the team from California for the second day in a row to jitters, but they didn't.

"Back at the barracks, they were relaxed," Springfield manager Jim Hamilton said. "They all laid down and took a nap."

They took a nap. It works for Orioles closer Lee Smith, but it didn't work for Little League champs from Springfield. They fell one game short of a national championship.

"There were tears in the dugout," Hamilton said. "And there were tears in my eyes. They did their best. I can't ask any more than that."

For Northridge, the good news is they are national champions. The bad news? They must defeat a powerhouse Venezuelan team from Maracaibo tomorrow to win the Little League World Series.

Northridge manager Larry Baca, trying to keep the Little League World Series title in Southern California after a two-year reign by Long Beach, knows the importance of the task at hand.

"They look like a pretty mature team to me," Baca said. "These vTC guys have a little more definition to their bodies than our kids. I'm not questioning their ages, but they seem to have more maturity. When the girls walk in the cafeteria, they are the only ones who spin their heads around to look. The rest of the boys just keep eating."

Remember when life was so simple? It still is in Williamsport for one week every year. So is baseball.

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