It was early Friday afternoon, and Chandler’s champion ballplayers were headed home from the Little League World Series.
A bus hauled them to Harrisburg, Pa., where they caught a plane to Phoenix, and by the time they got to Phoenix they began to understand what a splash they made back home.
It began to sink in with a big welcome at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which was but the prelude to a brain-spinning round of accolades. On Saturday, there will be a parade at the Chandler sports complex where the Little Leaguers learned the game.
At some point, Luis Gonzalez is springing for dinner at his Gilbert restaurant. The team will be honored at an Arizona Diamondbacks game on Sept. 12. They’ll be the featured celebrities at various high school homecomings, and the governor plans to show them around her office at the Capitol.
There will be everything but Nike endorsement deals, it seems.
Yet on the way out of Williamsport, Pa., where Chandler National finished in the top four among all U.S. Little League teams, little of this seemed to have registered.
Justin Rosales, 12, said via cell phone from the bus, “We just know that a lot of people are rooting for us.” But he wasn’t sure why.
Markus Kalber, also 12, thought the fans “just want to support us because we came so far.” Beyond that, he wasn’t sure why, either.
Somewhere down the road, as they leaf through scrapbooks and sift memories, it may dawn on them what all the fuss was about. For now, it’s up to the adults to explain.
Mark Kem has no inconsequential job when he’s not coaching kid baseball. He’s a vice president for Chandler Regional Medical Center. But kid baseball has been his focus since the team rolled through the Arizona tournament and made mincemeat out of the western regional field at San Bernardino, Calif., and then swept its first three World Series games.
“This is the pinnacle of a 12-year-old baseball player’s career,” said Kem, one of the team’s assistant coaches. “They play four years, and every time they step on the diamond in March they dream about going to Williamsport.”
It’s a dream very few kids ever realize. Kem said there are 7,000 Little League teams worldwide and only 16 of them make the big show in Pennsylvania. Between June 15 and July 31, he said, it took some 15,000 games to determine who those teams would be.
“They’re all winners getting to this point,” he said.
But there’s more to it than just winning, Chandler city councilwoman Donna Wallace said.
Normally she’s not a baseball fan, “but I sure have been with these guys. They’ve been so terrific, so focused, so down to earth. The whole thing altogether is just wonderful,” she said. “I’ve certainly been glued to it like everybody else.”
“It’s just like the kids next door. It shows that anybody can do anything. It’s just a real positive, wonderful story.”
Chandler’s mayor agrees.
Boyd Dunn played Little League as a kid during the ’60s and for one thing he admires the Chandler National players' sheer skill at the game. As a catcher and third baseman, Dunn said, “I was just grateful to get out of the inning.” But “what’s phenomenal to me was how well these players played. At times they looked like big-leaguers; they were just smaller in size.”
Beyond that, Dunn said, “They were just perfect ambassadors for not only the city of Chandler but also the state of Arizona.” Congratulations, he said, came from all over the state, including a message from the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce.
And beyond that, Dunn said baseball resonates with Americans as does no other game. Life has been tough lately, with the war in Iraq and a nerve-jangling gasoline shortage in the Valley.
“It’s always nice to go back to American pie, baseball, and see these young kids out there enjoying what they’re doing. It’s kind of an escape, perhaps.”
Baseball is in the blood of Ramon Espinoza, a member of the Chandler Little League’s board of directors, who named his son Clemente after the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente. Kids and baseball, he said, are a perfect match.
“The kids don’t have hidden agendas,” he said. “The kids just love to play baseball. It’s the love of the game that the adults get all wrapped up in.”
Besides, baseball is the essential American game, a part of the national fabric.
“Who else,” Espinoza asked, “can say, ‘Babe Ruth?’ All our kids know Babe Ruth, and their kids will know Babe Ruth. The story goes so far back it takes over these little kids.”
Espinoza was impressed with the Chandler team’s composure in the high-profile, high-pressure games. “I think they showed professionalism as a baseball team and that’s a reflection of their coaches,” he said. “It’s hard because it’s so emotional, especially when you get to that level.”
The story rang bells last week in the governor’s office, where Janet Napolitano took time for the games even as she dealt with the gasoline crisis. And it made waves with Jerry Colangelo, who owns a World Series trophy
“I experienced a little bit of that as a kid playing baseball,” Colangelo said. He was so good at it one of his teams made it to a championship series in Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field.
Dunn said Chandler intends to make sure the kids see what a thrill their success was for the East Valley.
“They may not really understand how much of a following they had here,” the mayor said, “so we’re going to make it very clear how well they did as ambassadors."