Fields of dreams and memories
Jeff. Co.'s rich all-star heritage
For those of us who love local history and its sports legends, this week's story by Joe McHaney on the 1964 Little League All-Star team is pure gold.
Long before the days of travel baseball and basketball teams and regional tackle football leagues for grade-schoolers, Little League all-star baseball was about as big-time as a smalltown kid could get.
I recall as a young kid bugging my teenage future brother-in-law, Willy Fuentes, for stories about their alll-star teams while we'd throw ground balls at each in my front yard. His teams came a few years on the heels of the '64 squad. While the '64 team beat those strong K-Falls teams by a run or two en route to their state title, Willy's teams, also coached by Dick Souers and Willy's uncle, Ed Spino, would lose district titles to them in similarly close games -- an early lesson to me that a fine line separates many teams and on-field glory and victory.
I still recall my first game as a Little Leaguer (bits of it anyway) -- the spring of 1971, at the old Little League fields at the fairgrounds. I was 8 and a proud Minor leaguer. How excited I was, the steady light rain, my friend and team leader Ronnie Wilson diving into first base to beat out an infield hit, my Sluggers hammering Thrifty Drug about 22-2. Organized sports, with uniforms and everything ... I'd made it! I'd never had so much fun in my young life.
Later that summer, I first personally witnessed a Jefferson County Majors all-star team, my brother Dan's squad. They were led by two big pitchers, Chuck Warren and Scott Gallagher. They cruised through subdistrict, then won a one-run game over a Pendleton team to earn a ticket to state in Portland. In their opening round, the local kids played a Portland team, Belmont, to a scoreless tie after regulation. In the bottom of the seventh (if memory serves) Belmont scored, tagging from third on a short foul out to the right side.
While our pitchers were excellent, so was the much smaller Belmont kid. The sheer intensity of that game was evident to me when the Belmont pitcher broke into tears on his way to the dugout late in the game after another inning of scoreless pitching. I couldn't understand until later years why he'd be crying.
Jeff. Co. lost the game 1-0, but it was an awesome thing to watch. At 8, I knew one thing: I was going to be a Little League all-star someday.
The next summer, '72, was like an all-star festival in Jefferson County. Both the Majors district and the Seniors regional tournaments were in Madras. My family hosted kids from Hood River for the Majors, including their tall ace pitcher, who carried them to a district title at the old fairgrounds fields. We also hosted players from Oxnard, Calif., for a Seniors tournament. I remember watching those 15-year-old Oxnard "kids" looking like pros playing catch in our front yard, while the girls from across the street tried to control their interest.
The Oxnard team had several black players. One of a ton of interesting elements of Joe's story on the '64 team was how no one at the Portland state tournament would house Jeff. Co.'s Willy Fortson because he was black. To think that was just eight years before those Oxnard kids were in Madras. I don't think they had a problem being housed here. Hope not.
By 10 and in fourth grade, I was in the Majors division, which fielded the all-star squad. I was a decent player for 10, but pretty easy pickings for the gods of the league at that time, all two years older and a foot taller than me: the Warm Springs studs, Jim Souers, Mike Fiala, Pat Earl, Culver's dominating Pito Rodriguez, and Mike Mollman in Madras. How could those guys be just 12 and be taller than my dad?
That summer, '73, I traveled to The Dalles to watch the Jeff. Co. Majors team play in the district tournament. I didn't think anyone could beat them. I knew I'd be watching them later that summer on TV from Williamsport playing the Little League World Series on Wide World of Sports. They did win the district tourney, pitcher Souers beating a future Major Leaguer Bill Lavelle, of The Dalles, in the process.
I made the team when I was 11. Apparently they needed a redheaded third base coach. I got to bat once, reached on a fielder's choice. Far from spectacular. But I had been an all-star, was in that team photo in the Pioneer, and had an all-star jacket that I would wear in mid-July.
At 12, I was starting in the infield. We didn't have a six-foot 12-year-old (curse of my athletic class: no height) but we had some talented ballers, with our catcher, Fox Leonard, maybe our best. We had plenty of good pitchers, no great ones. But we beat Redmond and then Willow Creek pretty easily to reach the championship game, against The Dalles American.
My all-star career highlight came in the Willow Creek game.
I came in from shortstop to relief pitch in the last inning. Not sure why as my buddy, Steve Rogers, had them shut down and we were comfortably ahead. But I threw the last inning: nine pitches, three strikeouts. That afternoon, on that stage in Hood River and that J.C. on my chest, I felt like I could have thrown my fastball through the backstop, and my curveball around it.
But by throwing that one inning, I couldn't pitch in the championship game (and it was a clear sign that our coach had no plans of me doing so). One of our best all-around players, Tiger Van Pelt, pitched the title game, but it wasn't his day. The Dalles scored five runs in the first inning. Eventually our coach brought in Kip Light to pitch. Kip threw hard, and I think he hit the first batter he faced. I've always thought that had Kip started, and hit the first kid he faced, The Dalles wouldn't have been comfortable enough to score five runs all day.
So, the dream of Williamsport died early. Our team's loss was tough on the county's Little League program. It set it back for, well, about 11 months. The next year's team won the district title, beating The Dalles American.
Little League and all-stars were important to us, just as it today. Maybe too much so. For some reason (maybe baseball burnout, maybe realizing we weren't great players, something we hadn't yet realized about basketball or football), many of the guys I grew up with packed the sport away once we reached junior high, when other sports became "organized" -- football and basketball. Come high school, baseball became a third-favorite, if played at all, for a good many, me included. While Madras High baseball was strong into the mid-70s, it strugged from then until basically the new century, when a kid named Ellsbury entered high school.
But from the foundation of that '64 team, other Jefferson County Little League champions arose. Jeff. Co.'s Senior League team, led by Gerry Snow (who would be drafted the by Dodgers out of high school) won a state title in 1972 (just missing playing in the regional in Madras by losing in the Northwest subregional). Those guys who'd dominated the Majors when I was 10, Souers, Fiala, Earl and Rodriguez, won a Seniors state title in 1976. It would be the last state title by a Jeff. Co. Little League team until 1999, when another Senior team, led by Jacoby Ellsbury (the only other White Buff besides Snow to get drafted out of high school), won. A Juniors team, with Turner Gill, an all-conference college player at University of Portland now, won a state title in 2006.
A few years back, Jefferson County Little League and Warm Springs split into two separate leagues. I'm sure it made sense at the time for those involved in the decision, and probably still does. But for those who witnessed and lived the local youth baseball history history here, when there was just one league playing together, it was disappointing.
For more than 40 years, Jefferson County Little League all-star tournaments were about the only time Madras, Culver and Warm Springs joined forces in, well, just about anything. Since the great '64 team set the bar, the Majors all-star squad always seemed to be composed of one or two team leaders from Culver, two or three (or more) from Warm Springs, joining forces with sons of Madras merchants and farmers to make up some pretty strong teams.
That was Jefferson County Little League All-Stars. And that was pretty good.