The 11 members of the Tri-Valley Allstars rose before dawn Saturday, dressed in their softball uniforms and gathered at Grant High School by 5:30 a.m., surrounded by sleeping bags and flashlights and eager to leave for a statewide Special Olympics meet in San Diego.
But instead of piling into the 15-passenger van their coach had rented and packed chock-full of equipment and snacks, the team learned the van had been stolen during the night and that their trip was canceled.
“It almost killed me to tell them,” said William Tebbs, a city building inspector who volunteers each Saturday morning to coach the mentally retarded players, who range in age from 15 to 43 years old.
“Some cried. They’re all so different, on different plateaus. Some of them hung their heads. Some of them didn’t realize exactly what it meant. They kept asking, ‘Where’s the bus?’ Some of them hugged me.
“I was just devastated,” Tebbs said.
Police recovered the van in San Fernando on Saturday night. But it was too late to get the team to the tournament. It was unclear late Saturday whether police recovered the equipment.
The team, whose members come from all over the San Fernando Valley, was to have spent the weekend at one of San Diego’s naval bases, meeting sailors and attending Special Olympics parties between tournament games. Last year, they brought home the gold medal for their division, and they had high hopes of doing the same this year.
“The team’s gone undefeated all summer,” said parent William Holliday Jr. of Arleta, whose 32-year-old son, William III, usually serves as catcher. “They’ve just played their hearts out.”
Alice Ward of Woodland Hills said her 30-year-old son, Blythe, was among those players who at first could not believe the trip was canceled.
“He thought they were just going some other way at first . . . and I had to tell him, no, that there’s no equipment. That you can’t play without equipment. So he understood that, and he’s pretty logical.”
She said her son, an outfielder, had been so excited he was up at 4 a.m., dressed and made himself breakfast. “He’s been talking about it for at least two or three weeks. They all have.”
Tebbs said he rented the van Friday and--in an effort to set out early the next morning--loaded it up with the Allstars’ complete set of aluminum bats, softballs, gloves and safety helmets, as well as sodas and cookies for the ride.
Between 8 and 9 p.m., he locked and parked the van in the driveway of his Bradley Avenue condominium in Sylmar because it was too large to fit inside the garage.
It was still dark when Tebbs got up Saturday and carried an ice chest outside amid last-minute preparations. The van was gone.
“He said his heart dropped right down to the ground,” according to Holliday, who was there when Tebbs broke the news.
Tebbs said he phoned the police right away but, because the van was leased, he was referred to the car-rental agency first to file a stolen-vehicle report. A police report had yet to be filed by Saturday afternoon.
A weekend manager at the Burbank Budget outlet that Tebbs patronized said he did not have another 15-passenger van available on site. He would have had to order a substitute from another outlet, and there was no telling how quickly one might have been located.
Tebbs said he didn’t bother to try because he realized it was unlikely they would arrive in San Diego in time for the 8:30 a.m. opening ceremonies. Budget opens at 7 a.m. on Saturdays.
“What’s this city coming to?” sighed Tebbs, who said he is supposed to have knee-replacement surgery this week because of injuries he received in a robbery and beating on the job.
The Allstars play every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Grant High School in Van Nuys, and participate in several tournaments a year. Holliday and other parents cited the pleasure their children receive from socializing with people like themselves, seeing new places and showing off their skills.
Holliday recalled a game at UCLA that the Allstars lost. On their way back home, they ran into some players from the winning team and, awkwardly trying to show sympathy, he and his wife said something like, “There are the dirty rats that beat you.
“ ‘They’re not dirty rats. They just played better than us,’ ” the son responded.
“That took us aback,” Holliday said. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a grown-up thought.’ The parents get so competitive sometimes. . . . It made me think, ‘Now who is retarded here?’ ”