Joel's last Game Teammates: Each time the Moorpark Reds took the field this week at the Little League World Series, they felt the presence of their fallen friend

August 23, 1996|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- There is nothing so still as a baseball diamond after the last out of the last game of the last year of Little League. There will always be baseball, of course, maybe in high school or -- knock on a wooden bat -- the majors for a very few. But, after your 12th summer, it will never be Little League again.

Here in the birthplace of Little League baseball, the stadium seems particularly still as the mist rolls off the mountains and play has ended for another day. Dan Burchfield is standing on a riser on the third-base side and staring silently at the empty diamond that glows under its bright lights. His wife Laura is waiting at an exit ramp with their son, Ryan, and telling him, see, Daddy's right over there; we'll be leaving in a minute.

It's a very long minute, though, so long that the Burchfields are just about the last of the 15,000 spectators to leave the stadium after Panama City, Fla., beat Moorpark, Calif. It's midway through the week-long Little League World Series, but for Moorpark, it's over.

"He would have loved it," Dan says finally. "I think he was here, actually."

The Moorpark players have just left the field, each wearing a wristband with the number 15 on it. Their parents and neighbors have rolled up the banner they were waving in the stands with each of the players' names scrolled around a baseball with angel wings on it. Both the wings and the number 15 belong to Dan Burchfield's son, Joel.

On Jan. 31, 11-year-old Joel was taking his usual short-cut home from school, a route that took him over one of the arroyos and creeks that crisscross Ventura County. It saved him a half-mile of walking to a bridge, and it was Wednesday, basketball practice night. But heavy rains over the winter had swollen the waterways, and Joel somehow was pulled into the swiftly moving currents. His body was found the next morning, seven miles away.

A close-knit community of about 25,000, Moorpark was devastated. With Joel a player and Dan a coach, Little League tryouts for that weekend were canceled. Joel was buried in his Moorpark Reds uniform. And when the league started playing in the spring, the season was dedicated to the boy now known as the angel in the outfield.

It's a standard of sports culture to dedicate games or entire seasons to the memory of a player or coach. But the best of intentions don't always translate to the final score.

This time it did. When Moorpark chose its All-Stars from among the town's Little Leaguers, it filled only 13 of the 14 spots that league rules allow. Joel would have been on the team if he had lived, teammates and coaches believe, and he would be on it in death. The All-Stars began playing with special purpose.

"From the beginning, they said, 'We're going to go all the way for Joel,'" says Jan Pizzola, whose son Justin is on the Moorpark team.

Getting to the Little League World Series, though, is arguably harder than getting into the real World Series. More than 7,000 teams on six continents begin competing in July in what officials call the world's largest elimination tournament. Teams compete locally and then regionally, moving up and up as more and more are eliminated, until just eight remain, four from the U.S. (representing East, Central, South and West regions) and four from other parts of the world.

The kids from Moorpark took the hard route: Typically, they would lose an early game, putting themselves in a do-or-die situation of having to win every subsequent game or be eliminated. Nine times, as they moved up through district, section and state tournaments, they put themselves on the brink of elimination, only to pull it off in the end.

Most dramatically, at the Western Regionals in San Bernardino, Calif., they lost their first game, won their second, then battled to a tie game that was finally suspended in the 13th inning as the clock ticked toward the 11 p.m. curfew. The game was picked up at 9 o'clock the next morning and went three more excruciating innings before Moorpark won.

And it still wasn't over: To qualify for the World Series, they would have to win two more games, that same day.

They did.

At 4 o'clock the following morning, a bus picked them up and took them to Los Angeles International. They were going to Williamsport.

Still groggy from the whirlwind of the regionals and the flight across three time zones, a lethargic team took the field on Monday and promptly lost its first game. Typical. On Tuesday, they bounced back and won, dazzlingly. Typical.

Crowd favorites

They became the sentimental favorites here. Conventional wisdom has it that Taiwan, with 17 titles under its belt, will win it in the end -- in this, the 50th year of the Little League World Series. The final game will be televised live by ABC-TV at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.

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