Heroes’ Welcome Greets Northridge Little Leaguers
One day after the most heartbreaking loss of their short careers, the 14 members of the Northridge Little League team were wide-eyed with surprise Sunday as a cheering throng at Los Angeles International Airport gave them a hero’s homecoming.
Saturday’s wrenching 4-3 loss to a fire-throwing team from Maracaibo, Venezuela, in the final game of the Little League World Series might just as well never have happened.
“They are one of the two best teams in the world, and they’ll always be No. 1 to us,” said Shelley Piccard, aunt of reserve player Scott (Scooter) Drake.
About 200 giddy family members and fans gathered at USAir’s gates to await the team’s arrival from Williamsport, Pa.
Many held placards or banners made of bedsheets, proclaiming the team “U.S. Little League Champions,” a crown that it had won before taking the field against Venezuela. Others waved “Earthquake Kids” signs, the nickname for a team that juggled batting practice with house repairs after the Northridge quake in January.
“Baseball is life,” read one fan’s T-shirt. “The rest is just details.”
As other passengers got off the plane before the team, someone shouted, “Welcome to Los Angeles--we do this for everyone!” Then, the players and coaches, wearing their caps and their light-blue and white uniforms, stepped out to face family and fans. The preteen boys of summer hugged and high-fived people they’d never met, while electronic flashes popped and airport police kept the surging crowd at bay.
First baseman Matt Cassel let out a “whooo!” and began another round of high-fives when he learned that a local radio station had provided stretch limousines loaded with pizza and private phones to whisk them to their Northridge practice field and another welcoming party.
As the boys sped up the freeway in the long, white limos, gobbling pepperoni and slugging down Coke, their legend was growing among their adolescent peers in Northridge.
Awaiting the team’s arrival at the park, Little League friends and former opponents of the champs jawed like old-timers about their own on-field encounters with the now-famous 12-year-olds.
“I got a double off him the only time I ever faced him,” Ricky Wendt, 12, bragged of his duel with Northridge pitcher Justin Gentile.
But by the time the young players arrived, they had pretty much seen it all--the Little League World Series, their faces on TV, the Pittsburgh airport--and were already getting a bit jaded. (Parades at Disneyland and in Northridge are planned today.)
Lounging in the limo, reserve second baseman John Michael Baca was asked whether he remembered that school starts next week.
“I got no idea,” he replied. “Don’t care, either.”
Times staff writer Chip Johnson contributed to this story.