Torrance players, parents cope with bubble, separation at Little League World Series
Two weeks ago, the families of Torrance Little League’s 14-player All-Star team met at their home field, loaded each kid and three coaches onto a charter bus, then watched as it pulled away.
They haven’t had any in-person interaction with their boys since. And if all goes well in the team’s appearance at the Little League Baseball World Series, it’ll be at least another week until they get together again.
“It’s been harder, because we can’t see our parents or talk to them or do anything with them,” said outfielder and catcher Andrew Nuruki. “But it’s been more fun because we get to be with our teammates all the time.”
Though the Little League Baseball World Series has returned after last year’s cancelation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, not all social distancing precautions have gone away.
Instead, since the start of their West Region championship earlier this month, Torrance’s players and coaches have been sequestered in a bubble — a rule implemented by Little League organizers this year in hopes of keeping the resurgent virus at bay.
Torrance Little League defeated Hooksett, N.H. 10-2 in the opening game of the Little League Baseball World Series on Thursday.
First, the team spent a week in a San Bernardino hotel during the regional, going back and forth from the field en route to punching their ticket to the World Series — the first Los Angeles County team to do so since 1994.
From there, they took a chartered flight last weekend directly to Williamsport, where they’ve since lodged in isolation with the other 15 teams participating in the event.
Family and friends are allowed to come to games and talk to the players from the other side of the fence. But that’s been the extent of their face-to-face communication.
“It’s like sending your kid off to summer camp, but it’s baseball,” said Shane Harrison, whose son Kaishu is a first baseman and outfielder on the team.
“They’ve never been locked away like this. They’ve never had to rely on each other as much as they do now.”
Sitting alongside some other families at a Williamsport hotel Saturday afternoon, Harrison wore a smile of disbelief as he reflected on the past couple weeks. He never dreamed the team would actually reach the World Series. And now that they’re here, he never expected the kids would look so grown up going through it.
“The way they carry themselves looks different, they look confident,” he said, adding: “We saw them going off to practice the other day, and … they didn’t look and linger and were like, ‘Oh, I miss my parents so much.’ It was like, ‘Oh, nice to see you. Off to go play baseball now.’”
Torrance is the first L.A. County team since 1994 to reach the Little League Baseball World Series. They begin play on Thursday.
For many of the 12-and-under players, it has been their first prolonged experience away from their homes and their families. Some of them were initially homesick, according to assistant coach Ollie Turner, who is one of the three dads inside the bubble as part of the coaching staff.
But the longer they’ve been away, the more the team has bonded together, embracing the sudden independence that has accompanied the first — and maybe only — period of their lives in which baseball has been front and center.
“That’s what this kind of celebrates. This is like the end of being a little boy. And then you’re starting to become a young man.”
— Shane Harrison, Torrance parent
“It’s definitely fun getting to bond more with the team,” said Gibson Turner, Ollie’s son. “To get to play and be away from our parents, to kind of feel grown up a little bit more.”
After surviving three elimination games in the West Region, Torrance won its opening game in the double-elimination World Series on Thursday.
The team will face Hamilton, Ohio, in a second-round game on Sunday morning (6 a.m. PDT, ESPN). With a win, it would be just two wins away from the championship game and guaranteed to remain in Williamsport through at least the end of next week.
To the coaches, the biggest challenge inside the bubble has been balancing a regimented schedule. Between rounds of COVID testing, media obligations, and preparation for games, they’ve tried to work other activities into each day too.
“We are just getting really good at shifting our focus,” Ollie said. “For one hour, our focus is going to be on jumping in the pool. For the next hour, it’s going to be getting to dinner on time. For the next hour, it’s going to be hitting in the cage … We’re just trying to take as many slices and keep our focus on whatever we’re doing.”
But, Ollie added, “You couldn’t pay for this experience if you tried … I think these guys will look back on it, and I probably will too with the other coaches, as the best vacation we ever took.”
Family members outside the bubble have found a familiar peace, the first time many of them have found themselves with no gameday responsibility.
“There’s no stress, like ‘Get your stuff. Oh, you forgot your cleats!’” Harrison said. “I just got to show up and be a fan.”
The parents have heard of a few expected shenanigans behind the scenes.
At regionals, the Torrance team had to repair a broken pingpong table, completing their DIY construction with a piece that had “built by Torrance Little League” inscribed on the surface. During their first day in Williamsport, several players forgot about a no-hats-inside rule when they showed up for dinner, leading to a pile of caps sitting in the middle of their table.
Torrance plays in the Little League World Series representing California as the first Los Angeles County team in 20 years.
What has struck the families the most, however, has been the rapid growth they’ve witnessed from afar, a newfound maturity in the players’ demeanor under the spotlight of a national stage.
“It’s such a unique experience,” said Mike Golia, whose son Dominic is a two-way player. “They’re growing up a lot faster in the last two weeks than most 12-year-olds. Going away, that whole experience, they’re in an exclusive club.”
And if that means being separated from their boys for a little while longer, so be it. Even on opposite sides of the bubble, so far it’s been an experience neither the parents nor the players are ready to end.
“This is kind of the end of childhood,” Harrison said. “A lot of them are about to be 13 in a couple weeks. You’re still a kid, but you’re not a little boy anymore. That’s what this [tournament] kind of celebrates. This is like the end of being a little boy. And then you’re starting to become a young man.”
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