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Youth Baseball League Produces Winners--When It Can Pay the Bills

June 24, 1993|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This season is not much different from other seasons for Armando Perez, founder of the Montebello Stars youth baseball organization. There are uniforms to buy, equipment to replace, insurance, officiating and tournament fees to pay.

But this year has been one of the tougher ones for the Montebello resident who founded the nonprofit American Amateur Baseball Congress when it had only one traveling team in 1970.

"I almost folded up shop eight to 10 years ago and told the guys I would quit if they wanted to run the team," Perez, 57, said. "I've had my moments but when the dust settles, I would never drop the team."

The 100-player organization, which now fields eight teams with players ranging in age from 8 to 18, has won seven national championships and qualified for the national tournament 21 times. But its competitive successes have not helped the Stars' financial problems off the field.

The Stars' bank account fell to $165.34 at the end of May after the congress paid more than $5,000 in expenses since January. Perez was unable to come up with funds last month to pay a manufacturer $200 for emblems for the teams' caps.

A fund-raising breakfast is planned at St. Benedict's Parish Hall in Montebello on July 11 to help generate income.

"It is harder to exist because of the economy," said Perez, who coaches the Stars' Pee-Wee Reese (11- and 12-year-olds) team. "This one is for survival money."

The organization also has had to overcome tragedy.

Bob Duron, a former manager of the Stars, was killed in March. Duron was shot in the back as he was walking home from his sister-in-law's house in East Los Angeles. The Stars are playing with black armbands in Duron's memory.

The Sheriff's Department has issued a murder warrant for the arrest of Efrain Ariola, 30. Sheriff's Detective Richard Adams said the shooting is believed to have arisen from a confrontation between Duron and Ariola more than a year ago. Duron and his family had been barbecuing at Saybrook Park in Montebello when Ariola threw Duron's dog, a small Chihuahua, across the lawn after it snapped at Ariola's daughter. Duron then chased them out of the park. The Stars donated $600 from a fund-raising dance in June to Duron's son, Bob Jr., 18, a former player with the Stars.

"It was a gesture for the family to help Bob go to school," Perez said.

Perez said he had school in mind when he created the Stars 23 years ago, recruiting players from Montebello, Roosevelt and other area high schools to form a team made up of 17- and 18-year-olds.

"Baseball is a vehicle for education," said Perez, a graduate of Roosevelt High who played at East L.A. College and in the Orioles' farm system from 1956-59. "Winning takes care of itself; we emphasize preparation over time."

More than 100 players from the Stars have gone on to play college baseball. Among those who have played in the major leagues are Dodger pitcher Jim Gott, former Red Sox pitcher Jeff Sellers (1985-88) and Craig Worthington, who played with the Orioles and Indians and now with the Cubs' triple-A team in Iowa.

Montebello High captured the Almont League to win its first league title in a decade this season.

Several former Stars played on this year's East L.A. College team, which captured the Southern California Athletic Conference championship, its first conference title since 1975. Jayson Pantages, now at the University of Tennessee, and Ricky Parra, an All Southern California Athletic Conference first-team selection in '91 and '92, were among the East L.A. players to go through the Stars program.

"What makes the Stars unique is they have so many teams and so many age levels," East L.A. Coach Al Cone said. "They start them off real young and it's a great benefit because they have an opportunity to build a foundation that players in other cities don't get."

Home games are played at Montebello City Park. The Stars' season starts in May and runs through the end of July. The 25-game schedule includes matches against teams from Monterey Park, South Gate and Bell, as well as tournaments with teams in and out of California.

All coaches are volunteers. Registration is open for athletes under 14; older players must try out for the Mickey Mantle (age 15-16) and Connie Mack (age 17-18) teams. Team members are charged $65 to help cover operating expenses in excess of $12,000, but fees are sometimes waived in cases of financial need.

"If you don't have the money to pay, that's not a problem," said Gabriel Lopez, 13, of Pico Rivera, who plays on the Stars' Sandy Koufax (age 13-14) team. "They'll work something out."

The organization awards several scholarships a year for its players and raises funds through dances and snack bar sales, among other activities, and donations from local businesses.

Perez also is attempting to subsidize a portion of the Connie Mack team's expenses to play in the highly competitive Carson City tournament later this month, but the players will be required to come up with the remainder.

"It's a shoestring operation, but you can't put a price on the exposure and competition," said Tony Nieto, 20, a junior pitcher at USC who played three seasons on the Stars.

The Stars will play host to the eight-team Pee Wee Reese Pacific Regional tournament July 22-25 at Montebello City Park. Teams from Hawaii, Arizona and Northern California will compete for a berth in the national tournament.

Perez and players will put up members of the visiting teams in their homes during the tournament.

"I've seen a lot of good ballplayers come out of the program for years and years," said San Francisco Giants scout George Genovese. "It's great for the community and people who love baseball. It's more or less behind the scenes, and they never get enough credit for what they do."

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