When it comes to baseball, the only thing more unbridled than the emotions of a 12-year-old boy are those of his parents and siblings about him and his team on the road to Williamsport. Had the pleasure of broadcasting the Northwest and West Regional championships again this week in San Bernadino, and you could barely hear our call with Tom Candiotti above the frenetic screams of players, moms, and coaches.
Candy got a rare treat -- a 12-year-old tutoring Mr. Candiotti about the knuckleball. It was Southern California's Jordan Brower, who showed Tom his three-finger knuckler that he's been throwing since he was 10! It's one of about five pitches he features, from three different arm angles. Brower is one of the reasons that as 10-year-olds, this group shocked the Yorba Linda team with Tim Wallach's and Buck Rodgers' offspring on it and went to win the California championship. In fact, in three years, this group has never lost, including 17-0 this year, as they head to Williamsport having outscored the opposition 134-20. They're coached by Tom Ginther, who still gets a lot of support from Thousand Oaks icon Sparky Anderson. As the Tigers' manager, Sparky first noticed Ginther at nearby Cal Lutheran College, where he had brought Kirk Gibson for workouts. Next thing he knew, Ginther got a call from Detroit GM Bill Lajoie and spent a year in rookie ball, and the next spring at Lakeland, before getting cut and beginning his Little League odyssey. He's been at it so long, he coached the father of his current shortstop Tyler Karp, who now helps out with the team. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, next door in North Park, drops by when he can, always bringing a load of Angels equipment to pass out and thrill the kids.
The team Southern California beat to make the World Series, Green Valley Little League of Henderson Nev., is the only team to represent the Silver State in the West regional final, and all three times, a California team kept it from Williamsport. Its manager Don Harrison is a master motivator, including giving the 12 kids named to the team a gift bag, each with one letter in it -- when each kid posted his, it spelled out Williamsport. No team played with greater unity or group karma, from having every player, including coach Harrison with bleached-blonde hair, to a series of movies in "Miracle," "Remember the Titans," and "Rudy" vein to fire up the troops. The players actually picked "Rudy" to watch at their party just before the tournament started. When it was over, a stranger stood up and said, "Do you know who I am?" The kids looked quizzically. "I'm the guy in that movie. I'm Rudy." It was in fact Rudy Ruettiger, the legend from Notre Dame who inspired the movie and now lives in Henderson. When the kids realized it was him, he signed each of their hats, and was scheduled to call in to our broadcast but his daughter had a recital that night. Shortly after his scheduled call time, Nevada did rally within a run with a three-run homer, but came up short. There was no shortage of inspiration for this special team, whose caps also had the initials J.W. next to where Rudy had signed them. "Just Win" was their slogan, but it was also the initials of June Welch, the grandmother of Cory Welch, and mother of coach Rob Welch, who passed away as the tournament was starting. The "Just Win!" chant was an homage to her before each game.
Those stories just pour out of the Little League experience. The Redmond, Wash. team is from just outside Seattle, but it was its opponents from Eagle, Idaho, who actually had stronger ties to the Mariners. In the early '80s, coach Randy Dodd was the batting practice pitcher for the Mariners, and said the locker they gave him was always trashed because that's the one players chose to take their frustration out on when something didn't go right on the field. Dodd formed a strong bond with longtime Mariners like Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Gaylord Perry, and all three have helped Eagle in its fund-raising efforts for new facilities, none more so than Perry. The Hall of Famer drives his motor home cross country from North Carolina to visit the team and participate in the charity auction, donating items as priceless as a signed Stan Musial jersey and balls signed by his fellow inductees in Cooperstown. In return, Dodd and his coaches take the angler fishing in the noted Idaho streams, although Perry figured out they had actually slipped him into Oregon. Perry says the first thing the kids want to know is if he put anything on the ball and how he did it. To this day, he's still not telling. He was all set to bring the new Winnebago down to Williamsport, but Redmond knocked off Idaho in the Northwest regional championship.
Our brush with greatness this week was pre-arranged. I attended a screening and press interviews for next month's release of "Mr. 3000." It's the first starring role for Bernie Mac, who was such a scene stealer in "Bad Santa," and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." Mac plays Stan Ross, a self-absorbed, egomaniacal ballplayer who retires right as he gets his 3,000th hit and "immortality" only to have three of them taken away in a scoring adjustment nine years later. It's a meaty role, filled with humor, bravado and several serious stabs at high-salaried players, and the media that cover them. But when I sat down with Bernie, all the fellow Chicagoan wanted to talk about was his love/hate relationship with the White Sox. Bernie bellowed so loud about the trading of Esteban Loaiza to the Yankees, and bringing "Olamar" and Everett back for the second straight year, he interrupted the interviews going on simultaneously with the others in the cast at Dodger Stadium Thursday. And he did all this in between being hooked up to oxygen as he battles a case of pneumonia! Having grown up in the projects, Mac knew of what he spoke when he said, "you go to a Sox game, you watch them lose, again, and you come out and the windows are broken out your car, and your tires are slashed. What in the world they buildin' a park in that part of town for!" That was actually more the story with the old Comiskey, but he says his favorite era was the '60s teams with Wilbur Wood, "No Neck" Williams, Carlos May, and Chet Lemon. He still hasn't forgiven the 1983 team for losing to the Orioles, but says he can't root for the Cubs because he has to go with "an underdog." To an outsider, it would make no sense NOT considering the Cubs an underdog, but as Bernie put it, "Dven if the Cubs are 2-95, they're all over the pages of the paper, and the sportscast, and when the sportscaster wraps up, or buried on page 4 of the Tribune it's ... 'and oh yeah, the Sox won 7-4.' " Mac was in charge of the beer vendors at Soldier Field in the Bears' 1985 championship season and said, much like his character in "Mr. 3000", it was ego that prevented Chicago from having multiple titles with that team.
His character in the film will remind many of Barry Bonds, but no one involved would come right out and equate that. When I asked Bernie if he patterned Stan Ross after anyone, he said Roberto Clemente. In one scene, a framed still of Clemente hangs on the wall. Perhaps not so ironically, Clemente finished with exactly 3,000 hits when his life was cut short in a plane crash. Clearly the overblown personality of "Mr. 3000" isn't patterned after Clemente, but Mac said his playing style, and the athletic greatness of a player who "could do whatever he wanted on a field with a bat, a ball and a glove," epitomizes Clemente.
Co-star Brian White plays "T-Rex" Pennebaker, the younger version of Ross, or the modern version. White is the son of former Celtics great Jo Jo White and cousin of Devon White and Chris Chambliss. Still, Brian White said he didn't need them to tell him horror stories about ego-driven ballplayers to form his character, he had witnessed plenty growing up around them and in his football- and lacrosse-playing days. White is still built like an athlete and regularly took batting practice with the Brewers when the movie was filming last year, getting tips from Geoff Jenkins and Richie Sexson. He even joined them in putting his share out of Miller Park, including a few that made the final cut. Brian wouldn't name names either, but said his character was a composite of an NFL, NBA, and MLB player, but wouldn't deny it when I guessed Bonds, Terrell Owens, and Alan Iverson.
Director Charles Stone III is familiar to you through his previous work, including the award-winning "Wassup" beer commercials. In fact Mr. "Wassup" himself, Scott Martin Brooks, has a cameo as Bernie Mac's trainer, for his comeback at age 47. Stone's biggest film to date was the critically acclaimed and sports-themed "Drumline." He said this film has been in the making for 10 years, and he's drawn to it because baseball lends itself so much to the individual drama of pitcher against batter within a team context. Stone said the addition of a speaking role for "The Hot Dog" from the quartet of Milwaukee's famous racing sausages was a last-minute addition, but a hysterical one. He not only frequently taunts Mac's Stan Ross after being refused an autograph, but Stone and his crew happened to be filming the day of Randall Simon's famous assault on the "Italian Sausage." The filmmakers captured the attack from several cinematic angles. That "lost" footage could very well be included in the special features DVD when "Mr. 3000" goes to DVD next year.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.