Big Brothers Blazed Trail for Northridge Little League Stars : Baseball: Players from 1967 and 1975 World Series teams relive glory through 1994 squad.
Once a dream comes true, can it recur?
It can for a select few who were part of Northridge teams that qualified for the Little League World Series in 1967 and 1975.
Several of them are following this year’s 11- and 12-year-old Northridge all-stars, who are one victory from advancing to next week’s World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Northridge (16-0, 4-0 in regional play) will face Hawaii (10-2, 5-1), a 5-3 winner over Utah, tonight at 5:30 in the Western Regional final. A Northridge defeat would force a second game, 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first.
According to Little League Headquarters, Northridge would be the first league from the Western Region to send three teams to the World Series since it began in 1947.
Steve Wold, star pitcher of the 1967 team and currently a coach in Northridge Little League, is a close friend of Larry Baca and George Saul, the manager and coach of this year’s team.
Wold, whose father, Glen, was manager of the 1967 team, hit a game-winning home run against Spain and was the losing pitcher in a 1-0 loss to Linares, Mexico, in the ’67 World Series.
Attending this year’s games with Wold has been Bob Mitchell, coach of the 1967 team and father of Bobby Mitchell, a Northridge player in ’67 who played with the Dodgers and Minnesota Twins from 1980-83.
The younger Mitchell is a minor league coach with the Montreal Expos.
Wold will pitch batting practice to the team today because he throws a curveball that simulates the one they expect from the opposing pitcher.
“Those kids crush my fastball, but my curve gets them pretty good,” Wold said.
Sitting side by side at every game have been E.J. McClave and Barry Breen, manager and coach of the 1975 team.
They wear tattered red Northridge caps studded with Little League pins, and they loudly exhort the team by dusting off a chant-like cheer as dated as disco: “Here we go Northridge, here we go!”
Both men remain involved in youth baseball. McClave coaches his grandson in Westlake Village and Breen is a member of the Little League in Tehachapi. “These are magical moments,” Breen said. “It really is a dream come true.
“I still have the home plate and three bases from our 1975 team. It’s about time I hand them over to somebody.”
Breen has been something of a Johnny Appleseed of Little League since leaving Northridge more than a decade ago, having started leagues in Bedford, Tex., and Palm Bay, Fla.
“I used the Northridge bylaws as a framework to start both of those leagues,” he said.
McClave recalls his World Series team vividly, pointing out that the tournaments all were single elimination, including the World Series, during which Northridge lost its first game to eventual champion Lakewood, N.J., 2-0.
In district play, Northridge defeated Van Nuys-Reseda pitcher Bret Saberhagen, 2-1.
“It was a great year for Northridge because the kids who didn’t make the all-star team stayed home and worked as extras in the Bad News Bears movie, which was shot at our field,” said McClave, who carries a picture of his ’75 team, a group of mostly oversized kids with shaggy hair.
This year’s players keep their hair closely cropped, but the differences probably end there. They are 14 boys remaining focused on a goal that has taken two months to come within one victory of achieving.
The World Series is the fifth tournament a team must win to become world champions, following district, section, division and regional play. The odds against one league--especially a league from Southern California--having three World Series teams are tremendous.
“In Southern California there are so many excellent programs that it’s almost a fluke thing to get here,” Baca said. “You’ve got a group of kids who have played together for years, then boom, you’ve got a team.”
Boom is how the Northridge bats have gone; the team has outscored opponents, 207-34.
A deep pitching staff is also essential, and Northridge has more than Nathaniel Dunlap (7-0), the 5-foot-11 right-hander who might be the nation’s top 12-year-old hurler. Justin Gentile, a right-hander, will start tonight.
Gentile (4-0) allowed three hits in five shutout innings of a 10-0 victory over Las Vegas in the second round of the regional.
Waiting in relief will be Peter Tuber, a 5-9 right-hander who is the grandson of late Dodger great Pete Reiser. Tuber (4-0) has allowed two hits in 11 innings during the regional.
If there is a second game, Dunlap will start, Baca said. Dunlap defeated Utah, 3-1, Tuesday night and has allowed only one unearned run in eight innings during regional play. He has 80 strikeouts in 42 innings of all-star competition.
In the pocket of Dunlap’s mother, Debbie, will be her son’s birth certificate, which proves he is indeed 12. A rumor circulating the barracks where the teams are staying claims Dunlap is 14.
“I think one of our kids’ older brothers started that as a joke,” Baca said.
Tonight, the Northridge players realize, it is time to get serious.
“We’ll just play the same way we’ve been playing all along,” said first baseman Matt Cassel. “That should be good enough.”
A Little Way
* Who: Northridge Little League 12-year-old all-star team.
* What: Western Regional.
* When: 5:30 tonight.
* Where: Western Regional headquarters, 6707 Little League Drive, San Bernardino. Take Highway 118 east to Interstate 210 east to Interstate 10 east to Interstate 15 north to Interstate 215 south. Exit at Palm Avenue and turn right. Turn left at Little League Drive.
* Tickets: Admission is free.