From her perch behind the backstop on the sun-splashed upper deck at UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, Alyce Harris talked in a quiet voice that would be mysteriously felt rather than clearly heard down in the batter’s box.
“Okay, now,” she said, as Blake Brown of the Santa Barbara Foresters came up to bat with two outs and a man on first in the seventh inning. On the first pitch from Patrick Smith of the Major League Academy Barons, he swung and missed.
“Take your time,” Harris said. “Just see the ball.” Brown watched the next pitch stray off the plate for a ball.
“Breathe in, breathe out,” Harris advised before Brown swung and fouled off a pitch.
“Okay,” she said decisively. “Here we go now.” Smith, who had kept the ball at the Foresters’ kneecaps for six-plus innings, hung the next pitch high in the zone. Brown was all over it. He whacked a line drive deep into the gap in left-center. Michael Ratteree easily made it home on Brown’s stand-up double, which cut the Academy’s lead to 2-1.
“You’re welcome,” Harris declared. “I had to talk him through that at-bat.”
It was the game’s pivotal blow, prompting the departure of Smith. The Barons got out of the inning, but in the eighth, a solo home run by Brett Vertigan and an RBI double by Jeff McVaney put the Foresters ahead, 3-2.
The Academy, dedicated to developing baseball talent in the inner-city environs of Compton, did not have an answer for the Foresters’ late-inning surge. “Thank you for coming,” Harris said, as Santa Barbara’s closer Austin Kubitza induced a game-ending double play.
Harris adopted the Foresters as her favorite team not long after they appeared in 1991 as the reincarnation of a semi-pro team from the 1950s. She took her Little League son Touré to the games. He would later play in the Foresters’ outfield. “I didn’t like baseball before he tried out,” she said. “I thought it took too long to play. It’s hard to explain baseball. You have to feel it. You have to know it. It’s so good to see basic, fundamental baseball.”
She works in the UCSB library and makes it to most of Santa Barbara’s home games, but “not on Sundays and Tuesdays. Then I’m in church.”
For another loyal Foresters fan, Bob Abramson, the ballpark is church, and he’s the choir. “Rip it, Michael,” he bellowed as Ratteree, a slugger from Rice University, stepped up to the plate. “Don’t think about it. Just rip it.” Abramson’s pleas earned him the moniker “Rip-It Dude” years ago. A retired pharmacist, he regularly attended L.A. Dodgers games until the players’ strike of 1994. “I haven’t gone back since then,” he said. Instead, he and his wife, Georgia, make the drive from Oxnard to enjoy Foresters baseball.
“They exemplify what baseball should be,” Abramson said. “[Manager] Bill Pintard molds them. They steal bases. They run singles into doubles. They scratch out wins. When a boy comes away from a summer here, I think he’s learned something.”
True to form, the Foresters took a 3-0 lead over the Conejo Oaks last Saturday when Jeff McNeil stole home. He timed his jump when Oaks pitcher Dalton Saberhagen — son of former major leaguer Bret Saberhagen — went into a deliberate windup, and McNeil beat the pitch to the plate.
Much to the delight of Abramson, the Foresters then turned the ballpark into Rip City. Ratteree and Jared Womack smacked home runs in the third inning, and Brown and Derek Legg went deep in the fifth. They downed the Oaks, who had split six previous meetings with Santa Barbara, by a 13-1 score.
That put the Foresters into the championship game of the Rawlings California Cup. Winning the tournament is one way of qualifying for the National Baseball Congress World Series. Another is to win the California Collegiate League title. The Foresters have a one-game lead over the San Luis Obispo Blues in the CCL standings.
So the Foresters took care of business Sunday, beating the Menlo Park Legends, 6-2, to punch their ticket to Wichita for the 19th consecutive year. “This takes a lot of pressure off,” said Pintard, in his 17th season running the team. “There’s a burden of winning. People expect it. But you don’t win all the time.”
This year’s team does not have as many veterans as Pintard would like, but the youngsters are making great strides. He points to speedy outfielders McNeil, a freshman from Long Beach State; Vertigan, a dynamic UCSB junior who sat out the spring season with a double hernia; and Brown, a Missouri freshman.
The Foresters play 10 of their last 15 games at home, including two this weekend — Friday, July 15, at 5 p.m. and Sunday, July 17, at 1 p.m. — before they load up the bus taking them to Kansas in August.