Fields of Dreams

Page 2 of 11

"Hey, Gary, want to take some cuts?"

Overhearing the comment, the Chandler National coach smiles and says to Coach Rodriguez:

"That's so cute. Ozzie calling the kid Gary. The kid must really love Gary Sheffield."

And why not? Sheffield's one of the top hitters in baseball.

Rodriguez pauses, seemingly looking for a diplomatic answer.

"Uh, well, that's his name," he says. "That's Gary Sheffield's son. He joined our team last week."

Trivia question: Name the player who holds the record for the most hits in three consecutive major league games.

Answer: Mike Benjamin, 14 hits, San Francisco Giants, 1995.

Trivia question: Name the most recent player to hit three home runs in one game in the Little League World Series.

Answer: Cory Bernard, Chandler National Little League, 2003.

The Chandler National Little League All-Stars' march to the semifinals of the Little League World Series last August was deemed the top story of the year by three East Valley newspapers.

Meaning it was considered the top story in a region encompassing about a million people.

Slow news year?

For sure. But to many longtime Valley baseball junkies, the mass excitement generated by a bunch of 12-year-olds playing a game speaks to some truth about the Phoenix metro area.

Ours is a sports-crazed populace with very little to be sports-crazy about except baseball.

For example, the Cardinals, Coyotes and Suns combined to give Phoenix what would have been one of the worst professional sports records of any major metropolitan area in the last decade if not for the Diamondbacks' winning record.

Only the Diamondbacks have been consistent winners. Only the Diamondbacks have given the city a major sports championship. Only the Diamondbacks seem interested in winning again any time soon.

"Ten or 15 years ago, every kid here wanted to be like Charles Barkley," says former major leaguer and club ball coach Lou Klimchock. "Now, all you hear out of the kids is baseball, baseball, baseball. The Diamondbacks are the only game in town, and that fact is shaping how a generation of kids from this city view sports."

Youth baseball coaches citywide say they saw a major bump in interest following the Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series run.

"I think you're seeing kids growing up with a long-term interest in that team," Klimchock says.

By last August, though, even the Diamondbacks were fading.

Yet at the same time, out in San Bernardino, California, an Arizona Little League team was beating the cleats off the rest of the western United States in regional pool play.

Not only were the kids from Chandler competing, they were dominating. For the first time in decades, an Arizona team was actually favored to win the tournament once pool play was finished.

Local Chandler-area papers began reporting about the team. Then the East Valley Tribune. Then the Arizona Republic. By the Regional finals, the Valley's television stations were broadcasting from Chandler bars and pizzerias where parents and others congregated to watch the games.

But it was the win over Southern California in the regional finals that took the team from curiosity to stardom. Arizona had had a long string of almosts in the regional tournaments. The year before, Arrowhead Little League was within an out of advancing to the Little League World Series. But somehow, whether it was talent or always having the home-field advantage, a California team had always stopped the dream in the Western Regionals.

But here was an Arizona team shutting out a Southern California team in front of 8,000 rabid Southern California Little League fans.

"I don't think the kids had any idea what a big deal that win was to people back in Arizona," says the team's assistant coach, Mark Kem. "You know, I guess none of us did. It was absolutely stunning the reception they got when they returned to Arizona."

They returned after going 4-0 in World Series pool play, then losing a close game in the semifinals to a Florida team and its ace flame-thrower, Michael Broad.

Governor Janet Napolitano came out for the parade in Chandler. D-Backs slugger Luis Gonzalez had the kids to his restaurant. The Arizona Legislature unanimously approved a "Chandler National Little League Day." The Diamondbacks invited the kids out to be honored during a game.

And through the Valley, thousands of kids got jealous. Hey, how do I get to be on television like those guys?

"My son was just enamored by the whole thing," says Jackie Tucker, head coach of the Ahwatukee Dodgers, one of the state's top 11-and-under club teams. "He wanted to know how he could get that kind of attention for playing baseball.

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Robert Nelson