L to R David Foster, Jimmy Brakka, Gabe Speier, Derron Spiller (coach), Johnny Brontsema, John Salda, and Jack Gregson.
Paul Wellman

Baseball had its Murderers’ Row (the lineup of the 1927 Yankees), but the lifeblood of America’s pastime is the Mothers’ Rows—the generations of parents who accompany their children to countless practices and games.

Six ballplayers from Santa Barbara are in a large mix to play for a U.S.A. baseball team because, in addition to playing for their high school teams, they have spent the better part of a year traveling to Camarillo for weekly workouts with the Southern California Cardinals.

“These kids are very dedicated,” says Derron Spiller, head coach of the Cardinals. “Their moms have been toting them down since October. Practices would go on until 9:30 at night.”

None of them is more devoted to baseball than Spiller himself. A 1988 draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals out of Rio Mesa High, he never realized his dream of pitching in the major leagues. He toiled for nine years in the minors, winding up his career with the Moose Jaw Diamond Dogs of Saskatchewan, Canada.

Spiller, 42, uses his experience to help prepare high schoolers for the next level. He doesn’t promise that they will end up in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, but he does give them confidence that they’ll go as far as they’re capable.

The Cardinals are one of 72 teams competing in the U.S.A. Baseball 16U West Championships this week at three major-league training complexes near Phoenix. They have gotten off to a good start, winning three of their first four games. Only 20 players out of the hundreds competing in Arizona will ultimately make the national U16 team in the fall, but there are other potential rewards.

“Coaches from 250 colleges will be looking at them,” Spiller says. “They’ll have a shot at D-1 scholarships. Some will be picked in the draft.”

Most of Spiller’s Cardinals hail from Ventura County. Following are the Santa Barbara boys. All the mothers have followed them to Arizona.

Jimmy Brakka (mother: Lori), San Marcos senior (in 2011-12), outfielder and pitcher. “One of the best pure hitters on the club,” Spiller says. “He’s got a D-1 bat. He’ll take the mound for us, too.” Brakka has learned to keep plugging from his dad: “He’s a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.”

Johnny Brontsema (Kathleen), Santa Barbara junior, shortstop/2nd base. His father, Bob, just ended an 18-year run as UCSB’s head baseball coach. “Coming from a baseball family, his knowledge of the middle infield is above his years,” Spiller says. “Defensively, he’s our top glove. He’s going to fill out physically.” Brontsema saw action as the youngest player on the S.B. Dons’ CIF semifinal team.

David Foster (Wendy), Bishop Diego sophomore, pitcher and outfielder. “He’s the baby on the team. He’ll be a returner next year. His progress from January 1 to right now is unbelievable.” Foster racked up 15 strikeouts in a JV game.

Jack Gregson (Roxanne), Bishop Diego junior, outfielder. “He’s like a middle linebacker playing baseball,” says Spiller. “He always goes full throttle down the lines and running balls down in the outfield. He finds a way to contribute.” Gregson has attended some games in Boston’s Fenway Park and dreams of playing for the Red Sox.

John Salda (Erica), Bishop Diego junior, catcher. “He has a tremendous work ethic. He’s one of three catchers on the team. We’ll need them in the 110-degree heat in Arizona.” Salda says his selection to the Cardinals is already one of his greatest accomplishments: “I never thought I’d come anywhere near the U.S.A. team.”

Gabe Speier (Jenny), Dos Pueblos junior, pitcher. “He’s a kid who gets outs, a Jamie Moyer type. He’s going to throw strikes and keep you off balance.” Speier, a southpaw, says: “I want to take baseball as far as I can. My dream would be to play for the San Francisco Giants like my uncle [Chris Speier] did. When the Giants won the World Series, we popped champagne and had a huge celebration in our house.”

EXTRA-INNING EFFORT: Cord Phelps, an All-CIF infielder at S.B. High in 2005, made his major-league debut two weeks ago with the Cleveland Indians. He had just two hits in his first 20 at-bats, but when he came up Sunday with two men on in the bottom of the 11th inning, Phelps belted a walk-off home run for a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

SOFTBALL FEVER: More than 50 girls’ softball teams will be competing this weekend (June 24-26) at Elings Park and Dos Pueblos High in the Central California qualifying tournament for the American Softball Association (ASA) Western Nationals. The tournament will include two teams from the Goleta Valley Girls Softball Association (GVGSA). There are three age divisions (9-10, 11-12, and 13-14). Games will be played Friday, 4-8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.


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