The score was 1 to 0, with the team from San Pedro ahead. Twelve-year-old Victoria Brucker stretched over her bat, and then pulled her long dark hair away from her neck, where it was sticking in the muggy Pennsylvania heat. She picked at the shirt of her uniform.
Finally, she stepped up to the plate, and in doing so on Wednesday became the first girl to play on an American team in this youngest version of the national pastime--the Little League World Series.
With a nonchalance befitting a big league player, which in fact Victoria hopes someday to be, the Eastview Little League clean-up hitter took one, two, three casual warm-up swings, while the pitcher from the Tampa sized her up and prepared to throw.
The crowd of about 10,000 roared from the stands of Lamade Stadium and from the grassy hill beyond center field, where people had gathered on blankets and lawn chairs.
Victoria--who only allows her teammates to call her Vicky--let the first pitch go by.
"Strike one!" came the umpire's call.
Her stepfather, 38-year-old Rick Roderick, the first person who ever threw a ball to her, said he could tell from the stands that Victoria was not herself.
"She's nervous," he said to Victoria's mother, Elizabeth. They had driven 2,700 miles from San Pedro to be here.
In three more pitches, Victoria struck out.
But, as they say in baseball, it ain't over 'til it's over, and Victoria--the team's leading home-run hitter--would find redemption in her next three at bats.
She walked twice and, in her last at bat, knocked a single through the infield. She scored every time she reached base, and the San Pedro team, which won the Western Regional championship last weekend and was playing in a World Series for the first time, went on to rout the Southern champs from Tampa, 12 to 5.
In all, San Pedro pounded out 14 hits, with three home runs. Tim Harper, who pitched all six innings, got two hits, as did Gary Sloan and Steve Williams, both pitchers, and left fielder Joe Sulentor.
San Pedro now advances to the semifinals, playing a team from Trumbull, Conn., today for the U.S. championship. If the team is victorious in this game, it will play for the world title Saturday on network television. In the last five years, Asian teams have won the Little League title, and this year, the Chinese team from Taipei, winners the last two years, is touted as the team to beat.
Many of the fans here are pulling for San Pedro--and Victoria.
It has been 15 years since girls started to participate in organized Little League, at first playing in a softball division and later creeping onto the rosters of regular hardball teams.
Although Victoria was not the first female athlete to play in a Little League World Series (Victoria Roche of Brussels, Belgium, earned that distinction in 1984), she was the first girl on a U.S. team to take part, and the first from anywhere to get a hit and score a run.
"This year, the girl is gonna get them," Kathy Gilbert, a Little League staffer, said with a laugh as she distributed press credentials in league headquarters near the stadium. The cheers for Victoria from the crowd, here to observe the 50th anniversary of Little League, indicated by their volume that Gilbert was not alone in the sentiment.
Victoria, a 5-foot, 3-inch, 137-pound first baseman, made several good defensive plays, twice making good pegs to finish off double plays.
Baseball, as all Little Leaguers seem to divine, is also a matter of style, and Victoria had all the proper moves down pat. She would stand casually between plays, weight on one leg, one hand on a hip. She would walk off base a few feet, and smooth the red dirt with her cleats. Then she would return to the base, and kick it. And adjust her cap. And lean over, hands and mitt on knees, ready for play.
"Victoria eats, lives and breathes baseball," said her mother, Elizabeth Roderick.
"You know how little girls love to get together and play with each other? Not Victoria. What does she do? If she's home she puts on her mitt and drags her brother, Adam, (age 8) outside."
Victoria handles questions about herself with aplomb, looking half shy and a little bored. Before the game, reporters constantly asked her if she felt special, and she always shrugged and said, "No. I'm just one of the guys."
Then she'd laugh and shrug like a girl who is not yet sure of herself. But she is sure about one thing: baseball.
Hungered for Hardball
From the time she first played T-ball, a modified version of baseball played by the youngest players, Victoria hungered to play hardball. She refused to follow the suggestions of many coaches and switch to softball, like many other girls do.
Victoria says she does not know why that happened.
"I don't really remember," she said during the warm-up, "because I was 9 then. My mom probably told me to do what you want to do and I wanted to play baseball."
Victoria's bedroom at home, Roderick said, is "wall to wall" trophies from her swimming days, which she did before age 9, and baseballs retrieved from home runs she has hit. The only concession to girlish fancy is a pink wristband. But the wristband stayed home this week.
This fall, she enters the eighth grade at Dodson Junior High School in San Pedro, although her teammates, who also are 12, will be entering seventh grade. Victoria has skipped a grade, and says she earns A's and B's in her studies.
It is too early to choose a career path, of course, but Victoria does have an early preference.
"I want to play baseball," she said.
Victoria, by her presence, attracted unusual press attention. From the moment she stepped out for warm-ups, she was surrounded by camera crews and reporters.
Her teammates have accepted the fact that Victoria gets much of the ink, said team manager Joe Dileva, an insurance agent who has volunteered with the league for eight years.
"She's just another player to us," he said.
The team is comprised of 14 all-stars from the Eastview Little League in San Pedro. It earned a trip to the World Series with 17 victories in preliminary play.
And Victoria carried her load, hitting nine home runs in the early games and sometimes pitching as well. In one regional game, her stepfather recalled, opposing players laughed at her. Then she hit a home run. The next time, they walked her intentionally.
Asked how she thought she played in the Wednesday game, Victoria was modest.
"It was OK," she said.
Her face revealed a more vivid account, however, after her base hit. It was fairly aglow as she rounded first base, and took a few taunting steps toward second.
Added her manager: "She was trying to put the ball out in the first. After that, she calmed down. They didn't give her nothing to hit. They didn't want to give up a long ball to a girl, I guess."
After the game, Victoria was escorted by a coach to a television interview. Several times along the way, she had to stop to sign autographs.
"She handles it really well," her mother said, adding in a lower voice, "I hope that continues."
Victoria, meanwhile, trudged along next to the coach, Nick Lusic. Even though they won, he was saying, the team didn't play well.
"It was a bad game, really," he said, ticking off mistakes players had made.
Victoria looked up at the sky, where a drizzling rain had started to fall. For once, it seemed, she'd had her fill of baseball and, more to the point, her moment in its spotlight.
"I want," she said, "to go to the pool."