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Northridge Predecessors Relive Their Halcyon Days

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years removed from the Little League World Series, Craig Stevenson was in uniform and jogging in the outfield of a minor-league ballpark in 1985 when he noticed that a player from the other team was giving him a funny look.

Stevenson didn’t think much of it initially but when their paths again crossed near the warning track, the player began an unsolicited question-and-answer session.

“You Craig Stevenson?” asked the player, who received an answer in the affirmative. “From Northridge Little League?”

“Uh-huh. Why?” Stevenson said, cautiously.

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“I’m Dion Lowe,” the player said, extending a hand. “We played against each other in the (Little League World) Series.”

Lowe low-bridged Stevenson with a blast from the past. This sort of reminiscence hasn’t exactly been rare over the past couple of weeks, either.

Stevenson and many of his mates from the 1975 Northridge Series entry, as well as the members of the 1967 team that advanced to Williamsport, Pa., have experienced a flood of nostalgia as the 1994 Northridge all-stars won the national championship last week.

“It seems like every five or six years there’s something to stir up the memories,” said Stevenson, 31, an air-traffic controller who lives in Saugus. “But nothing like this.”

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As players on the ’94 team embark this week on a victory tour that will include limousine rides, parades, mayoral proclamations and a television blitz, their Northridge predecessors are reliving their own moment in the sun. Vicariously and, generally, in private.

The 1994 team is the third from Northridge to advance to the World Series, a first for any league in the Western Region. While the pomp and circumstance associated with the first two series teams wasn’t as great--there were no earthquakes of significance or major league strikes in 1967 or ’75--in many respects the ride was just as wild.

Perhaps no household has been affected by the 1994 run to glory as the Wold abode in Northridge. Steve Wold was the team’s top pitcher in 1967 and his father, Glen, was manager.

Steve coached the Northridge all-stars last summer, a team that included 1994 standouts Justin Gentile, Nathaniel Dunlap, Matt Fisher and Matt Cunningham. As this year’s team climbed the series ladder, the memories came flooding back to Steve. The entire Wold household heard of Steve’s experiences.

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“He remembers every pitch (from the ’67 Series),” said Greg Wold, a sophomore at Chatsworth High and Steve’s son. “He remembers every hit. It’s all he’s talked about for the last two weeks.

“He was my Little League coach and he told us all about it then.

Way back when, the die was cast. Northridge lost in its ’67 Series opener--a feat matched by the two teams to follow. In 1967 and ’75, however, the Series was a single-elimination affair, which meant that championship aspirations were history, consolation-bracket games notwithstanding.

With Steve Wold on the hill, Northridge ’67 lost in the series opener to Mexico, 1-0. Mexico scored a run with two out in the top of the sixth and final inning. Northridge couldn’t answer.

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Mexico used a pitcher who was old enough to shave, team members recalled. The pitcher looked 17, they insisted.

Big deal. A few Northridge guys were 100--at least in terms of body temperature. A handful of players, including stars Wold and future major leaguer Bobby Mitchell, went to the facility’s infirmary for treatment.

All through the playoffs, Manager Glen Wold had forbidden his players from going swimming. After winning the regional in Inglewood, he relented and kids hopped into the hotel pool. A few hours later, at midnight, players boarded a plane to Pennsylvania and the air conditioning gave many the sniffles.

“It was terrible,” said Coach Bob Mitchell, Bobby’s father. “It was awfully muggy and damp there. Having (the flu) only made it worse.”

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If the Mexican pitcher in ’67 seemed tough, Lowe was even nastier on the mound eight years later. Lowe, pitching for Lakewood, N.J., hooked up in a memorable duel with Stevenson that went into extra innings.

Northridge shortstop and leadoff man Eric Davis--an appropriate name for a player on a team nicknamed the Little Red Machine--watched three Lowe fastballs fly past for a strikeout. His teammates pumped him for information when he trudged back to the bench.

“How’s he throwing?” they asked.

Reeeal hard,” Davis said, breathlessly.

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Stevenson, who struck out 15 and later played at USC, sensed he was in trouble right away. Realizing he couldn’t overpower the New Jersey hitters, Stevenson switched to off-speed stuff to survive. He compared his plan of attack to the one chosen by the crafty Gentile in the 4-3 loss to Venezuela in Saturday’s World Series final.

Locals characterized the Northridge-New Jersey opener as one of the best in Series history. The high-anxiety game was scoreless after six innings. Each team waited for the other to blink.

New Jersey, which later won the World Series title, finally broke through with a pair of unearned runs in the seventh to win, 2-0.

Before thousands of boisterous fans, many rooting for New Jersey, Northridge never got its offense in gear. Players were distracted by the raucous crowd, Coach Barry Breen said.

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Breen, who this week thumbed through a team yearbook issued after the World Series, recounted the fateful play-by-play account of the New Jersey rally, which was aided by a couple of defensive lapses. There was palpable pain in his voice.

“I’m reliving it,” said Breen, 49, who lives in Tehachapi. “I never thought I’d have to go through it again.”

Normally, Breen is as gung-ho as it gets. He attended the ’94 World Series by somehow finagling a press credential through a Tehachapi newspaper. He works at Edwards Air Force Base as an Air Force civilian employee.

Breen wished the New Jersey game had ended the way the postseason run started for the ’75 team. Northridge was losing its first district playoff game when reserve outfielder Lance Phifer, nicknamed Fat Man, came off the bench to hit a game-winning homer.

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“That started the whole thing,” Breen said. “I don’t remember him getting another hit the whole rest of the way.”

This summer, dozens of folks with ties to the 1967 and ’75 teams turned out to watch the playoff run of the “Earthquake Kids.” In fact, Breen and E.J. McClave, the manager of the ’75 entry, convinced Stevenson to give a rah-rah speech to the ’94 team during the San Bernardino regional.

Said Stevenson, who played in the minors for three seasons: “I played baseball at some pretty high levels and I can honestly say that the greatest thrill I ever had was playing in Williamsport. It’s more important than you can ever imagine.”

Bobby Mitchell of the ’67 team no doubt would have given a similar speech. Mitchell, 38, is a roving minor-league coach for the Montreal Expos. He played in the College World Series at USC and in 1981 played briefly for a Dodger team that won the World Series. Yet he once told his mother that “nothing was more exciting” than his Williamsport experience.

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When the ’67 team returned home, there were no television cameras at the airport. There was a parade preceding the homecoming, however. In Montreal.

After the World Series, players from each team were taken to Expo ’67 in Montreal, where they were placed in convertibles and driven through . . . the suburbs?

“We went right through a residential section,” said Steve Wold, a realtor who played at Cal State Northridge from 1974-76. “There was nobody outside except for a couple of people in their underwear wondering what the heck was going on.

“We knew it was a joke. We were waving to imaginary people.”

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After the 1-0 loss to Mexico in ’67, disconsolate parents filed back to the hotel, which is situated atop a knoll that overlooks the Williamsport ball field. Plenty of hanging heads, plenty of long faces.

“After a while, we looked down below and the kids were all out playing Whiffle ball, like they didn’t have a care in the world,” said Lucille Mitchell, Bobby’s mother. “We were all in our rooms crying. Isn’t it something how kids handle stuff like this?”

Parents had plenty of trouble battling their nerves. Moms and dads of the ’67 team were practically paralyzed by superstition.

“It was out of control,” Bob Mitchell said.

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Mitchell wore the same pants and plaid shirt for every tournament game but the World Series opener--when coaches had to wear clothing supplied by Little League officials. Kiss of death.

One Northridge father sat only to the right of a particular dad at games. A handful of team moms wore the same clothing for days at a time as the team entered the World Series with an 11-0 record.

On the other hand. . . .

“I was superstitious about being superstitious,” Steve Wold said. “I wore different clothes all the time. It’s the kids, not somebody’s orange pants.”

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Though neither of the first two Northridge teams matched the success of the 1994 all-stars, merely making it to the championship dance was a notable accomplishment.

Breen was practically orbiting Earth when the ’75 team downed Hawaii in the regional final at San Bernardino to earn a World Series berth. He also was in attendance this year when Northridge again beat Hawaii in the regional final, again at San Bernardino.

Talk about flashbacks.

“You never forget that high,” Breen said. “You couldn’t feel the ground. I never thought I’d see it again. It was a dream then, it was a dream now. I take my hat off to these guys.”

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The same cap that Breen wore as coach 19 years ago. “It’s pretty tattered,” he said. “After this, I think I may have to retire it.”

Until next time, that is.


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