They drive beat-up cars that barely make it to blue-collar jobs. Their dreams are in minor-league hues and of major-league debuts. But the reality for the Valley Rangers is summer amateur baseball, because somewhere along the line nearly every member of the squad was overlooked or rejected by a professional team.
Yet nobody asked for credentials or lines of credit when the Rangers lined up last month at the Central State National Baseball Congress tournament in Santa Maria. And now this band of castoffs is bound for Wichita, Kan., this morning, and the NBC World Series.
To become the first Valley team since the 1987 Valley Dodgers to earn an NBC World Series berth, the Rangers won four games in the losers’ bracket of the central state event.
Twice they rallied with two out in the bottom of the ninth to keep their Cinderella summer alive.
Their chances in the World Series, beginning Monday against the Hays (Kan.) Larks, seem slim considering their first-year status. To compound matters, the Rangers won’t be at full strength.
Several players, including pitcher Lance Gibson and shortstops Donnie Erickson and Ted Weisfuss, couldn’t get time off from work to make the trip.
Neither could former Calabasas star Cort Wright, so he gave up his job as a supermarket box boy, ensuring that the Rangers would have enough pitching.
Now Wright and most of his teammates are concerned about paying for lodging and meals. The Rangers got a late start raising money for the tournament because of a communications breakdown between local NBC officials and their national counterparts.
The national group refuted the locals’ contention that the Rangers, as central state runners-up, were assured a berth in the World Series. Nevertheless, on July 27, the national organizers invited the Rangers to replace a first-place team that couldn’t raise enough money for the trip.
Rangers Manager Frank Des Enfants found himself in the same situation after scrambling for a week, without success, to find corporate sponsorship in the Valley.
Fortunately, half of his players were able to come up with the air fare; the others were still trying to borrow a van late in the week.
“While no one has to do anything, I’m a little disappointed by the lack of community support,” said Des Enfants.
“Maybe they’d care if we were Little League. People are ignorant about NBC baseball. We’re not a bunch of fat beer-swillers. There’s nothing higher (than the NBC) in amateur baseball (except) the Olympics every four years.”
With that in mind, the 45-year-old skipper considered competitiveness, talent and attitude last spring when he assembled the Rangers.
“Over the years you get a feel for who can play and who can’t,” Des Enfants said. “Who is a crybaby and who you want up at the plate in a clutch situation.”
The 33-9 Rangers cornered the market on clutch in winning nine games with ninth-inning rallies, some of which were inspired by infielder Dave Price.
“He does an unbelievable impersonation of Vin Scully,” said Wright. “He changes all the last names to big-league names like ‘Cort’ Canseco. He can do play-by-play for nine innings.”
Reliever Tim de Grasse, of UC Santa Barbara via Notre Dame High, offers another source of amusement. The “Vulture,” as he is known for swooping in amid late-inning rallies and claiming wins, is a blur of zany, constant chatter.
“I make sure no one gets mad if they don’t do well,” De Grasse said. “I remind them it’s not the college season or their life or their job on the line. It’s summer ball and you gotta be loose.
“Now, we’re going to a place where there’ll be millions of fans and scouts. That’s what we want.”
“We want to be pros,” added center fielder Jason Peterson, “that’s where it’s at.”
Peterson played for Grant High in a City Section championship game at Dodger Stadium, but Peterson didn’t get a tumble in the amateur draft following his senior year, much less a call from a college recruiter.
Yet, Des Enfants believes Peterson is one of several Rangers who could play at the Class-A level.
Some team members already have played in the minors. Price competed in a pro league in Australia, and part-time catcher Andy Allanson was with the Cleveland Indians last year.
“This team has a lot of talent,” Des Enfants said. “I’m not worried when anyone comes up to the plate. I don’t say I wish we had our No. 3 or No. 4 hitter up. Everyone has contributed to the late-inning rallies.”
Since many pro and college scouts are expected to be in Wichita, the World Series represents the late innings of these players’ careers, their last chance to impress someone and earn the right to keep playing the game they love.
Before Wright left his job he remembered the feeling of going from work to play.
“When you get on the ball field,” he said, “it’s like a dreamscape. Everything becomes magical.”
The same can be said of the Valley Rangers’ season.