Champs!

The Foresters (Finally) Win the Big One

HolidayCelebrates.jpgTwelve years ago, I wrote a cover story
for this newspaper on the Santa Barbara Foresters summer baseball
team. It began, simply enough, “This is a story about baseball.”
Well, this is another story about baseball, and a dozen years, more
than 600 games, and an endless chain of hot dogs later, that story
finally has an ending. On August 12, in steamy Wichita, Kansas, the
semi-pro Foresters finally won their elusive first national
championship, beating the Derby (KS) Twins in the final game of the
72nd annual National Baseball Congress World Series.

I was lucky enough to be the radio voice for the club this past
summer, a job I’ve been happy to hold down for nearly three years
now. That long-ago article welded me to the Foresters — and their
leaders Bill Pintard and Pat Burns — like pine tar to a bat. After
writing about the team, I jumped on board the next season as a
volunteer to help them create their game program, run a concession
stand, announce the batters, sell the ads, whatever was needed; and
since mid 2004 I’ve broadcast the games on 1340 AM. The whole
process has been another chapter in my lifelong love affair with
baseball, and a couple of weeks ago, we all celebrated the ultimate
moment of that affair with a joyous dogpile on the artificial turf
of a stadium in the land of Oz.

We thought we had written the ending to this story last summer,
but the Foresters came tantalizingly close, only to snatch defeat
from the jaws of victory. Last August, the team led the National
Baseball Congress (NBC) World Series championship game 4-0 going
into the bottom of the eighth inning, but gave up seven runs in the
next two innings to lose the game. As it was double elimination,
the Foresters had another chance, but lost that game, too.
Ouch.

In 2006, the early-season patchwork lineup did pretty well,
sweeping the opening weekend and going 6-2 in the first eight
games. Along with some returning players who had showed up from the
first game on, more familiar faces began to show up: There was
multi-position man Taylor “Doc” Holiday, ace reliever Jeff Stimpson
(who would go on to set a Foresters record with an unbeatable 0.00
season ERA), and outfielder Nick Peoples. Among the new players
arriving were slugging outfielder Pete Clifford, who would lead the
team with six homers; sweet-fielding shortstop Jordy Mercer, whose
arrival moved 2005 shortstop (and eventual 2006 MVP) Hector
Estrella to second base; and silent-but-deadly third baseman Conor
Gillaspie, who ended up being the team’s hitting leader with a .388
average.

It was a powerhouse lineup, one that everyone felt was better
than the 2005 national runner-up. The club reeled off a 13-game
winning streak that ran its record to 24-5. Amid that streak was a
championship in the Best of the West tournament and a win in the
Rawlings California Cup, held at UCSB and hosted by the Foresters.
In that tournament, the team learned something about itself. In the
semifinal game, the Foresters led the Maxim Yankees 8-5 going into
the ninth inning. They let the Yankees score four in the top of the
ninth to take the lead, but then stormed back in the bottom of the
ninth with two runs to win the game in dramatic fashion. It was a
real turning point for the team and the players.

Call It Chemistry Every summer, a mysterious,
alchemical thing happens at UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. A
disparate batch of bat-wielding, curve-throwing humans comes from
all parts of the country, many strangers and some friends, and in a
few short weeks becomes a family. Games like that win over the
Yankees help accelerate that process, but it’s a process that can’t
be completed on the field alone.

It starts with Pintard and his coaching staff, it trickles down
from the host families that put players up in their homes, it is
spread around by — he said humbly — the volunteers and staff who
put on the games and run things off the diamond. It is a unique
feeling, one that players on other teams in other towns just don’t
get. It’s really what makes the Foresters special. And it’s hard to
define, really, but easy to experience. By choosing players with
character matching their skills and speed, by involving them in the
Hugs for Cubs’ charitable activities with young cancer patients,
and by leading the players on a path to join a long ’Sters
tradition, Pintard, Burns, and everyone around the team creates a
real family atmosphere.

The spirit of Pintard’s late son, Eric, is also always present.
A player and coach for the team, he battled cancer for a decade on
and off, inspiring thousands and creating something that will be a
part of my life for as long as I watch baseball. Sure, the baseball
is great, but it is that atmosphere, that “E.P. 19” spirit, that
keeps former players coming back to help, that keeps fans coming
out, that keeps us volunteers on board.

TeamMugsforCamera.jpgSo, as the team enjoyed a great win on
July 4 before a big crowd at downtown Santa Barbara’s Pershing Park
in their annual “gift to the city” game, the chemistry pot was
bubbling, the wins were churning along, and, well, the baseball was
superb. In the regular season, Foresters pitchers allowed their
opponents to bat .203 while the offense had a team average of .310.
No pitcher on the staff had more than two losses, while 17
different pitchers had at least one win. A California Collegiate
League title was the only pre-Wichita goal left, and the Foresters
clinched that on July 22 with a win over the San Luis Blues. It was
on to Wichita, where the Foresters have played 13 times without
coming home with the trophy. They finished second in 2005, as
noted, but also were runners-up in 2003 and twice finished fourth.
The brass ring was there, Pintard told his players on the bus; it
was up to them to grab it.

Kansas Calling The bus rolled into Wichita
after a hot and sweaty 30-plus-hour ride. The Foresters swept
through early games with only occasional bumps, winning their first
two with identical 6-2 scores and their third on the “mercy rule,”
10-0 in only five innings. A win in the fourth game over the
Southern California Fire was more hard-fought and not a little
sloppy, but what would you expect for a game that started at 1:57
a.m. Wichita time and didn’t end until nearly 4:30? It was one of
four games that started or ended past midnight. At least that way,
however, the team didn’t have to play in the mid-day 104-degree
heat.

The team was meanwhile continuing to gel into a group that
would, during the traditional post-final-game team meeting, use
words not often heard among young men, to say the least, young
athletes: friends, love, thanks, forever. You could see it in the
almost-constant joshing and teasing among players of different
ages, races, schools, backgrounds, hair, etc. You could see it in
the absence of cliques that can sometimes form on teams.

To get there, they had to beat two Kansas teams, and one of
those teams twice. A win in the Foresters’ fifth game in Wichita
would make them the final undefeated team in this
double-elimination tournament, and they faced the Derby Twins, who
came into the game leading the tournament in hitting. The Foresters
kept it close, scoring three while holding the hot-hitting Twins to
only four runs through seven.

In the eighth, the Foresters called on the late-inning magic
that had developed at that Yankees game. DeAndre Miller, who led
the team — again — with 52 runs in the regular season, led off with
a single, was sacrificed to second, wild-pitched to third, and
driven in by a Clifford groundout to tie the score. Then, with two
outs, consecutive singles by Bowman and Gillaspie set up Peoples to
deliver the big blow, scoring two and clinching the victory.

The Hays Larks were next and this was a battle royal in which
the Foresters drew on all their weapons to forge a victory. The
teams were, stunningly, 3-3 after the first inning, as Foresters
pitching faltered for the first time. However, the bats picked ’em
up, scoring five runs (with two outs!) in the fourth. The final was
12-7, but it wasn’t that close. So, here we go again: Gotta win one
game out of two in the championship final to finally get that
dogpile a-pilin’.

Well, things got off to a flying start. The Foresters had
already played this team. That helped starter Alexander Francisco
battle through five tough innings. Meanwhile, the ’Sters discovered
that the Twins had pretty much run out of pitching. They had used
two pitchers for 47 innings in their previous games — and every
other pitcher on their staff for a total of less than 10. In the
second, catcher Danny Grubb got the scoring started with a two-run
double; then he scored on an Estrella single. It was the eighth
time in the tournament the club had scored three or more runs in an
inning.

The Twins scratched out runs in the second, third, and fourth,
with a big double-play ending one of their rallies. In the fourth,
with just a one-run lead, the Foresters sailed ahead again. Miller
broke up a double play to keep the inning alive, and a few batters
later, Nick Peoples hit a back-breaking, three-run triple to give
Santa Barbara a five-run lead.

They would need every one of those runs, as the Twins stirred
echoes of 2005 by scoring four runs in the bottom of the eighth to
pull within one. In the bottom of the ninth, as I tried not to cry
on the radio, and as the local Twins fans tried to cheer their team
on, Mercer shut them down 1-2-3.

It was hard not to think of all the people who have touched me
and the Foresters through the years. The former players, the former
coaches, the sponsors, the regular fans we see at all the games,
the volunteers who made it go, the guys Pintard has gathered around
him who love him as much as they love baseball. I thought of all
those people, and I tried to mention them all. I’m no Vin Scully,
I’m just a guy who gets to live a dream by talking about baseball
on the radio before I head back to my real life, far from the
microphone.

I’ll never forget a lot of images from that night, but one I’ll
remember as much as any other is the sight of young Bud Fulfer,
whom the Foresters met on their annual hospital visit 10 years ago.
Bud was dying back then, but he rallied and he wore his bright blue
No. 19 jersey as he leaped on the dogpile. I’ll always think that
that was our own No. 19, E.P., doing the diving.

The post-game celebration was memorable in every respect, from
the on-field dancing to the players-only championship T-shirts, to
the photos of each player holding the trophy, to the team meeting
at which more than a few tears were shed, to my cab ride to the
airport after zero hours of sleep and awash in so much rum I’m
surprised they let me on the plane.

Didn’t matter, though. We could have all flown home without a
plane (but some did ride the bus, the few, the proud, the road
warriors). It had finally happened. We were, to quote Freddy
Mercury, the champions. Or, to quote Eric Pintard, “’Zall good!”
And so, again, this was a story about baseball. This time, the
princes got the trophy. The dragon was defeated. The kingdom was
saved. And they all played happily ever after.

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