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Little League, big hearts

They've come from 13 states, driving more miles than they care to remember, and loving every minute. This is the ultimate.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 1999


GULFPORT -- The mamas and daddies from Georgia brought a box of dirt from their ballpark in Atlanta. Sort of their way to bring along their home field advantage.

Then there was Troy Tuttle, the assistant coach from Tennessee, who got off work on a Monday afternoon, picked up his mama and his son, and drove all night, 730 miles. The Tuttles arrived too early to check in, so they slept in their van in the hotel parking lot.

Troy's boy doesn't even play on the team.

But how do you top the people from Taylors, S.C., who made the 10-hour drive with the team mascot, a toy beaver named Bucky, posed proudly on the dashboard of the lead car?

"He's our good luck charm," said Steve Campbell, Bucky's keeper, cradling the rayon rodent. "My wife and I got him for a 25th anniversary present in June, and he's just brought us a bunch of good luck. Now, everybody's got to pet him before they go out on the field."

Apparently for inspiration and guidance (this is too easy to pass up), one must leave it to beaver.

A lot of what happens around us doesn't make the 6:30 news or the front page of the paper -- like what's going on at Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium, where adults and children bunch together on wooden benches under an aging steel grandstand, buy a hot dog for a buck and are asked at the end of each game to "please help us by picking up the trash around you and depositing it in one of the nearby cans."

Darned if nearly everyone does.

For the past eight days, Gulfport has hosted the Southern Regional Little League tournament. The championship game is scheduled for 8 tonight. At stake is a spot in the big dance: the Little League World Series starting Sunday in Williamsport, Pa.

The players and their families made the trek to the well-groomed field in Gulfport from Kernersville, N.C., D'Iberville, Miss., and Bentonville, Ark. Some flew, but most came in caravans of SUVs, vans and old pickup trucks -- 13 teams from 13 states.

The boys are 11 and 12, in that in-between age. Some have sizable biceps and thick necks. Some, when they strap on their batting helmets, look like walking Tootsie Pops.

For most of them, this tournament, these eight days in August, will be the most memorable sporting event of their lives.

* * *

There are two kinds of mamas in this world.

There are normal mamas, which is what most mamas are, and there are Little League mamas.

Sitting with them is like sitting alongside the primary runway at La Guardia, relative calm regularly shattered by fall-to-your-knees-in-pain noise. Even when they're not jumping around and hooting, Little League mamas rumble and shake and make people around them nervous.

That's why no one but other Little League mamas will sit with them.

"Don't sit there. That's in the mama zone."

Dads are there rooting too. They're just as intense, but a quiet intense. Or they're on camera duty.

During this tournament, the mamas from Kentucky yelled at their boys to "get a hit, get a hit, run the bases lickety-split." The mamas from Virginia waved pompoms, and the mamas from Florida kept up a steady chant of "C-S-A," for the boys from Coral Springs American.

But nobody topped the mamas from Tennessee.

They have this cheering thing down to an art. They load empty plastic milk jugs with a few dozen small rocks, paint the containers Tennessee orange, and commence to shaking from the first pitch to the last.

It sounds like a hailstorm.

"We shake them so much that by the end of the day the rocks will start coming out the bottom of the jug," said Donna Merritt, wife of coach Scott Merritt and mama of outfielder Brantley Merritt. "So we just go out and get us some more jugs, paint 'em and put rocks in 'em, and we're ready to go again."

Donna and about 70 other moms, dads and assorted other relatives drove 730 miles from Hermitage, a suburb of Nashville. It took them 17 hours.

"Got lost twice, had to wait on two wrecks, and took about 37 bathroom breaks," said Ginger Gaines, wife of coach Rob Gaines and mama of pitcher Ryan Gaines. "We had walkie-talkies and told jokes to each other."

Besides customizing milk jugs, Donna has another talent: the two-finger power whistle. When she puts the tip of her thumb and index finger between her lips and blows, dogs come running.

"Learned that in 10th grade homeroom," she said proudly.

Most parents cheer after a clutch hit or a good catch. Ginger and Donna cheer foul balls. For goodness sake, why?

"We just want to be involved in their lives," Ginger explained. "Whether it's baseball or school. And like the coaches tell them, God doesn't care if they win or lose. The important thing is that they're good sports and show some character.

"Little League has gotten a bad rap," she said. "People think it's too competitive and the kids burn out on it. But it's not like that. When we lose, we hang with the kids. Nobody yells at them. It's a game."

Donna stopped shaking her jug long to enough to add one more thing: "But it's a really fun game."

* * *

The team from Florida came from Coral Springs, north of Fort Lauderdale. The Coral Springs parents own car dealerships and work as CPAs, dentists and travel agents. It's less than a four-hour drive, but many of the parents flew to the tournament.

Then there was Texas.

Their team came from San Marcos, a farming community midway between Austin and San Antonio. The Texas parents are pipe fitters, house painters, day care workers and auto body repairmen.

The town scraped together air fare for the boys, but the parents made the 1,200-mile trip by car. They drove straight through, 23 hours. You look into their eyes and it looks like they drove straight through, 23 hours.

"We only brought about five families," said Ronnie Ramirez, an air conditioning contractor and father of outfielder Ryan Ramirez. He was watching Texas play Virginia. It was a crucial game. The loser would have to go home.

"I have vacation time, but some of the coaches . . . well, they may not have jobs."

Unlike most teams, the San Marcos families didn't have team T-shirts and hats. Even if the boys won, the parents could stay only until Saturday. Everyone had to be back at work Monday morning.

"I've never been out of the state . . . always working . . . so this is great," Ramirez said. "If I had the money, I'd have brought my wife and other two kids."

Ramirez said the San Marcos team made it to the tournament because the players were good, and for the first time, the district board of directors appointed a Hispanic to manage the team of mostly Hispanic players.

"Politics," Ramirez said.

A few minutes later, an announcement was made that a bucket would be passed through the stands to collect donations for the local little league.

Before the PA announcer had finished, Ramirez had his wallet out. By the time the bucket had been through the Texas section, it was filled.

Texas took at 3-0 lead into the fifth inning, but Virginia's hitters came alive and Texas lost 6-3.

"These boys made history," Texas manager Juan Maldonado said as he led his team out of the stadium. "No team from our town has ever gotten this far. The kids are taking this well because we were just happy to be here."

Maldonado, whose son pitches for Texas, works as a groundskeeper for Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. He's one of those who doesn't know if his job will be there when he gets back.

"The important thing is that the kids had fun," he said. "When we get back, they'll have a parade for them through town. We're all just so proud of them.

"This was a big deal."

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