I got the “Throwback Thursday” bug last week on Facebook and posted a photo from 1971 of my first little league team, Tire Outlet #2. Those were the days when sponsors were team names, rather than a using the name a professional major league team. Rich Archuleta, an old friend from those days, commented on Facebook that I “really brought back a flood of memories with this picture.” Boy was he right!
I played baseball at East Hills Little League in east San Jose for six years from 1971-1976. It was an era before parents saw youth sports as a ticket to a college scholarship, glory, and potential riches as a professional athlete. As a little leaguer, there was no pressure to meet with a batting coach for weekly lessons at the batting cage, compete on a travel team, and equip ourselves with the best high-tech gear available. We just played baseball.
During those six years, we were Tire Outlet #2, Imwalle Farms (there was a giant red and white pumpkin on our red-sleeved jerseys), and the East Valley Lions Club. My last season, when I was 12 years old, I was the winning pitcher in the major division championship game. There were no full uniforms (until the major division), bat bags, cleats, or customized gloves and helmets. Baseball has always been part of my life and playing at East Hills Little League started that lifelong love of our national pastime.
I still remember the day that my mom took me to register for little league at August Boeger Middle School. The registration fee was $5.00 and a book of S&H Green Stamps or Blue Chip Stamps. For that fee, we got a baseball cap with “EH” in block letters across the front, a shirt, and a 20-game schedule. I was placed in the “Red” organization. Due to an ordering error, we wore blue shirts that first year.
The Red teams were a family affair led by the Marquez Family. Phil Marquez, Jr. was our manager, Mrs. Marquez was team mom, Larry and Ernie “Nesto” Marquez were our sluggers, and Mr. Marquez, a deacon at Guadalupe Church, was head cheerleader in charge. Junior was a great coach who has stayed involved with youth baseball or softball for 40 years, winning championships at every level including varsity softball at Mt. Pleasant High School. He’s a true east side legend.
Opening Day always started with a parade that wound its way through the east side from Payless Drug Store on Capitol Avenue to the league’s fields. Dads who had pick-up trucks carried the players and honked horns as the procession slowly drove by neighborhoods. Once there, the teams would file onto the major league division field that had a dirt infield, home run fence, electronic school board, and pitching mound. The little kids couldn’t wait to play on that field.
While I’m sure we all had dreams of playing in the Big Leagues, that wasn’t the goal. The reason we went to practice every day was to play ball. Some of us went on to play in high school, a few others played in college, and one kid made it to the majors. Kenny Williams played for the Chicago White Sox and later became the franchise’s general manager. I’ll never forget watching Kenny on TV, as general manager, when the Sox won the World Series in 2005.
Although I’ll never know what it’s like to be a major leaguer, I made long-lasting friendships playing baseball. I stay in contact with many fellow little leaguers and high school teammates are still some of my closest friends. Rudy Bryand, my boyhood friend and best man in my wedding, and I met playing sandlot baseball during lunchtime in middle school. He sat by my family’s side for 100 days when I was in ICU fighting for my life.
My dad shared my passion for baseball and taught me how to pitch and play the infield. He never missed a game from little league through high school. He took me to my first major league game in 1971 to see the Dodgers play the Giants at Candlestick Park. I can still name the starting line-up from that Giants team that included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal. I wanted to pitch with a high kick like Marichal, and I made the sign of the cross before batting like second baseman Tito Fuentes.
That passion has now passed onto my family. When my daughter Erica played little league, I managed the team, Sandra helped me stay organized, and my daughter Marisa was the Director of Equipment Management, my fancy name for the bat and ball girl. When Edgar Renteria hit a home run to give the Giants their first World Series win in San Francisco, the four of us were together hugging and high-fiving.
Posting that photo reminded me about the important things in life. For me, playing baseball wasn’t a means to a college scholarship or a profession. Baseball gave me a common bond with my dad, a bond that has extended to my daughters. Baseball has been the centerpiece of many lifelong friendships. And it all started on the fields of East Hill Little League.