From the moment the tournament began, youngsters from Venezuela and Mexico seemed to be the shining stars destined for fame. But in the end, those teams were gone and the 2011 Little League World Series took on a familiar theme. Defending champion Japan was in the finals again, and a southern California squad had qualified for the second time in three years. So, when Ocean View Little League from Huntington Beach won the title game 2-1 in a last-inning thriller, they joined a team from Park View Little League in Chula Vista that accomplished the feat in 2009.
“That’s what we were thinking,” said Christian Catano, Ocean View’s talkative outfielder-second baseman. “We wanted to win it like Chula Vista.”
Now, I’ve never been a fan of Little League and its silly quirks. In my opinion, an advanced 12- or 13-year-old pitcher should deal with balks and learn to check speedy runners from a stretch position. I also think catchers and pitchers should be held accountable for dropped third strikes when the ball squirts all the way to the backstop. But in this year’s event, real baseball rules seemed unimportant because a high percentage of kids seemed to ooze talent.
Venezuela’s colorful shortstop, Yonny Hernandez, was the best player I’ve ever seen at the youth level. He glides toward ground balls on both sides of the diamond, has a rocket arm and is a hitting machine. Even Yonny’s braces sparkled, although he was all business and never smiled. But when Mexico’s left fielder Bruno Ruiz blasted a go-ahead home run off Hernandez, when he was forced into mound duty, Venezuela was never the same.
I honestly thought the Mexican kids would end up in the championship game with Huntington Beach. Their gutsy shortstop, Carlos Arellano, was pretty good, too, and a better pitcher than Hernandez. Plus, Mexico had fireballer Alonzo Garcia and crafty Jorge Jacobo to balance out the pitching chores. In their opener against Taiwan, Jacobo threw a two-hit shutout, and the kids from Mexicali went on to beat the Venezuelans and then Japan to sit in the driver’s seat. But the rematch against the scrappy bunch from Hamamatsu City was a nightmare. Jacobo got the start and contributed to his undoing by forgetting to cover on a deep grounder to first base in the second inning. Later on, Ruiz misplayed a ball that went to the fence, and Arellano botched a relay throw to the plate.
The Californians also had a setback, dropping a 1-0 game against upstart Montana, but easily rebounded to earn the right to meet Japan. Like Chula Vista before them, Huntington Beach fielded a sizable group of Mexican-American players that contributed to the team’s overall success. Catano, a distant cousin of the Disney Channel’s Mateo and Moises Arias, played a leader’s role and kept his teammates pumped up and focused. In an almost comical but crucial play in the top of the sixth inning against Japan, Christian was playing second base when he ranged to his left to stab a sharply hit ball. In a bang-bang play, he fired a bullet at close range to first baseman Nick Pratto, the force almost knocking him down while recording the out.
The game’s climax came in the bottom of the sixth when Pratto, an athletic lefty who smothered Montana on the mound a day earlier, lined a walk-off, bases-loaded single to deny the Japanese a repeat title.
“That was the most important hit of my life,” noted Nick after the celebration. “I’ll never forget it.”
Maybe one day soon, the players and coaches from Ocean View and Park View will get together for carne asada and share all the things they have in common. That would be awesome.
It would be an injustice not to recognize Braydon “El Caballo” Salzman, aka “Brim” for his magical hat, on his efforts in the championship game. All Salzman did was shrug off two teammate errors to go the distance on the hill, and, at one point, struck out six consecutive hitters. And props, as well, to Hagen Danner, who tied the game with his second homer of the tournament and recorded 11 hits for an overall .556 batting average. He is also a lights-out pitcher and an accomplished travel ballplayer. Hey Hagen, you can play on my team any time you want!
Nancy Prieto, the only female umpire in the tournament, worked the championship game. She has been a top Little League official for over two decades, and resides in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, an area ravaged with recent drug cartel activity. Nancy is also the national women’s softball coach who will pilot Mexico in the next Pan American Games. Bien hecho, Nancy!