Back in the summer of 2003, 7-year-old Skyler Palermo was glued to his television while kids from his city represented the Chandler National baseball team in the fabled Little League World Series.
“He’s had that glimmer in his eye ever since,” Skyler’s dad, Jason Palermo, said. “He and his friends talked about having their own chance at doing it. Without a doubt, that’s been the goal.”
By then, Skyler had already been playing organized team baseball for three years, with dad coaching every year. And playing in Arizona District 13, which has suddenly become the Little League power not only in the state, but the entire West Region, made the young pitcher/outfielder’s dreams even more plausible.
Welcome to South Williamsport, Pa., Skyler. And welcome back, Chandler.
After steamrolling through the district tournament — outscoring foes by a ridiculous 99-1 margin — and marching through both the state and regional tourneys undefeated, Chandler National is back on the hallowed ground of Lamade Stadium — where a team with solid pitching and an ultra-potent offense will attempt to become Arizona’s first Little League World Series champion.
For District 13, this is becoming a rite of summer. For the third time in five years, local fans will flip their TVs to ESPN and rally behind the hometown boys. Last year, Chandler National’s main rival, Ahwatukee American, won the district crown, sending it on a World Series run of its own.
This particular group of Chandler kids, who lost to Ahwatukee each of the last two years at lower levels, had revenge in mind. And both teams know the winner might not see a more worthy opponent until the national level.
“From the first practice this year, the thoughts were: ‘We have to get past Ahwatukee,’ ” Jason Palermo said. “The kids knew if they could, they had a great chance to get to (the regional in) California and a great chance to get to Williamsport.”
Chandler National is proud of the respect and notoriety it enjoys elsewhere. League president Brett Watson travels statewide in his job with the Arizona Supreme Court and said the “Cn” logo on his maroon and gold cap starts a lot of conversations.
“People say, ‘Are you with Chandler National? We know about you,’” Watson said. “We have a reputation for winning, for being a strong team. Each new group wants to add to that.
“Chandler National doesn’t operate under the idea of making a good appearance. We’re going to go out and try to win the district, try to win state and try to win a championship at every level.”
But while tradition helps, the district has a lot of other things going for it. It sits in an area of explosive growth and affluence — the Ocotillo neighborhood has been nicknamed “Paradise Valley, Southeast.” Since 1997, the population of the city and school enrollment has doubled to about 250,000 residents and 35,200 students.
As Watson puts it, “It’s new, it’s nice, the facilities are great and you can play every day.”
It is also rich with baseball talent — both at the youth and adult level.
Each of the three World Series qualifiers has featured a former pro athlete/father on its coaching staff. Baseball’s Mike Benjamin helped coach Chandler in 2003; ex-Cardinals and All-Pro punter Rich Camarillo helped guide Ahwatukee last year; and Clay Bellinger, who earned two World Series rings with the New York Yankees (1999-2000), is coaching son Cody this season.
Ex-Diamondback Jay Bell was on the Ahwatukee coaching staff this year and many others have either coached or cheered on their kids in the league.
“Skyler got Jay Bell’s autograph when he was 6 or 7. Now he’s playing against his team he’s coaching in a game,” Jason Palermo said. “That’s pretty cool.”
But all successful teams and programs also have detractors, and there are accusations of an uneven playing field.
“We’ve heard it all,” Watson said. “There are rumors that we pay our players, that we pay our coaches. ... I’m serious. There was one going around that we brought two kids in from Tucson to be on our team.
“The fact is, we do everything by the book, even go overboard, just to make sure there are no questions. On this team, eight of the 13 kids go to the same school (San Tan Junior High). They live in the same ZIP code within two miles of each other. The rest go to Jacobsen Elementary. That’s all well within our boundaries.”
Some think the mushrooming growth within those boundaries is part of the problem, and that the 900-plus players who take part in Chandler National baseball come from a stilted well of talent, something that irks even people within District 13.
Bouyed by all the attention and news media coverage of two local World Series runs, Chandler National’s ranks have swelled by more than 100 players each of the last two years.
At the All-Star tournament this summer, an upset parent and board member from rival Chandler American made his own protest, holding a sign reading “Make Little League fair: Divide Chandler National” before umpires stopped the game to have it removed.
“I just think there should be an even playing field,” Dean Busk said of his protest. “We have 180 kids in the Chandler American program, Chandler National has 952. That’s a 5-to-1 ratio.
“If you are putting 13 players on an All-Star team, how easy is it to build a powerhouse when you have almost 1,000 kids?” Busk asked.
“The team Chandler National beat for the West Region championship (Solano Beach, Calif.) is an area of 13,000 people. Chandler has a quarter million, and five out of six kids play for Chandler National. I thought we (Chandler American) had a pretty good All-Star team this year, and they beat us 27-0.” Busk said.
“Is the idea to have competitive games, or build and construct an overwhelming team?”
Watson said other booming Valley leagues have even more players — noting Glendale Arrowhead had more than 1,200 players this year — and they are just giving everyone who wants to play a chance to do so.
“People look on our Web site to make sure where our boundaries are,” Watson said. “People being moved down here for Motorola or Intel who are into sports and who play sports — they look for the programs that have success. That’s the drawing card.”
The District 13 teams don’t have a lot of fans in California either.
From 1974 to 2002, 23 of the 29 Little League World Series representatives of the West Region came from California (Southern California 15 times, Northern California eight times).
Now, a major roadblock to South Williamsport has sprung up in Arizona, which sent only three teams to the World Series in 55 years — two of them from Tucson — before Cory Bernard, Matt Potter, Tim Fowler and the rest of the Chandler National team broke the drought in 2003, reaching the U.S. semifinals.
Can the 2007 team go even further? Bell said he has no doubts that this group is built for Series success.
“I think they are going to win the whole thing,” Bell said. “These guys aren’t intimidated by velocity. They can all hit the fastball. They just keep coming at you. The top two pitchers are very good and the coaching staff has prepared them well.
“They were the best team in our area this year, hands down. And if you can win here, you have a good chance anywhere.”
Watch Chandler play Salisbury, Md., in the Little League World Series live at noon Saturday on ESPN.