For a group of inner-city boys from Oxnard--most of whom had never set foot across the Ventura County line--the summer of 1972 will never be forgotten.
That was the year an underdog Little League all-star squad became one of Ventura County's most successful baseball teams of all time.
Chosen from the eight squads of Oxnard's Sunset Little League Senior Division, 14 boys, ages 14 and 15, earned the chance to test their skills against teams from all over the world.
When the group began local tournament play in mid-July, no one anticipated that by mid-August they would be part of the Little League World Series Championship.
In those intervening weeks, Sunset played 29 games--an exhausting schedule considering that only 18 games had been played during the course of the two-month regular season.
They battled their way through district, section and division tournaments, beating teams from Ventura County, the San Fernando Valley and the rest of Southern and Northern California.
Sunset then headed to the regional playoffs in Madris, Ore. They competed against teams from such places as Arizona and Hawaii, vying for the U.S. Western Regional Championship.
Facing elimination after an early tournament loss, Sunset steamrollered through its remaining games to capture the regional title--setting themselves up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The next stop was Gary, Ind., site of the 1972 Little League World Series, where Sunset--now the Western champs--had to contend with six formidable clubs for the honor of being best in the Western Hemisphere.
Game 1 pitted Sunset against Puerto Rico. The Ventura County team lost 3-2. One more loss and Sunset would be eliminated. With their backs to the wall, they beat Florida, Germany, Mexico, Indiana and finally Pennsylvania.
Thirteen Oxnard youths (one player had left the team), a coach and a manager, had realized a dream--they were representing the entire hemisphere in the 1972 Little League World Series Championship.
It was the West vs. a resolute Far East club from Taiwan for the title. Never mind that Sunset lost the game 9-0. For these players, the result could never tarnish the accomplishment of participating in the championship game.
We recently spoke with five of the starting members of the 1972 Sunset team. Nineteen years later--now in their mid-30s--here's a look at what they are doing now, and some of their reflections on that magical summer.
Tom Barber, shortstop
Considered the leader and most outstanding player on the team, Barber remains active in youth baseball. Now president of that same Sunset Little League, he is also co-owner of B & L Baseball Enterprises, which offers baseball instructional camps at Durley Park in Oxnard. Although never bitter about the defeat--"It is such a positive memory"--Barber's opinion regarding the loss to Taiwan remains firm. He and his teammates would have won the World Series under different circumstances. "By the time that game came around," he said, "all of us were just simply out of gas." At Gary, while Taiwan played four games in five days, Sunset battled through seven games in five days, including a grueling doubleheader the day before the championship.
David Escobar, catcher
An Oxnard resident who works for the Ventura County Sanitation District, Escobar has a 15-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. It was more than just tomfoolery, intermingling off the field with other teams from around world, he said. "It was a learning experience. There was a lot of hand gesturing to communicate. We all got along even though we didn't understand 10 words each was saying to the other."
Mike Olivera, right field
When he's not selling policies at Gateway Title Insurance in Oxnard, Olivera can be found at Durley Park coaching his 8-year-old son's Little League team. For Olivera, the summer of '72 meant more than just winning or losing a baseball game. "The whole thing was such a new experience for us all," he said. "It exposed us to a lot of new attitudes and places." Olivera recalls a wheelchair-bound man in Gary: "This black man came up to us and said it was great to see such an ethnic mixture of kids playing and actually having fun together. It was really something being 14 and hearing that," Olivera said.
Daryl Samuel, pitcher
Samuel, too, has answered the call of guiding some of Oxnard's young athletes. He is an assistant coach for Oxnard High School's varsity baseball team. Also a Ventura County correctional officer and father of a 7-month-old son, Samuel has aspirations of full-time coaching when he earns his teaching credential. He feels camaraderie was a deciding factor in the team's success. "We molded together and believed in ourselves," Samuel said, "even though we were always perceived as underdogs by others. We weren't going to be denied."
Larry Gutierrez, first base
Gutierrez lives in Oxnard with his wife, an 11-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl, and works at the 3M complex in Camarillo. Although the Sunset team fielded a talented starting lineup, he is quick to credit the players that came off the bench to rescue the team in times of jeopardy. "It was a total team effort," Gutierrez said. "One day in Mission Hills we played a doubleheader in 105-degree heat. We only had a half-hour between games. The players that started were dead-tired and drenched." Trailing late in the second game and faced with elimination, "players like Allan Pinedo and Craig Yonkers came in to rally the team," he said. "Without guys like that, we would have never made it."
And made it they did.
As Mike Olivera said: "It proved dreams sometimes do come true."