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Not Forgotten : Burchfield's Memory Inspires Moorpark, Which Calls Him an 'Angel In The Outfield'

August 20, 1996|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The citizens of Moorpark cried when 11-year-old Little Leaguer Joel Burchfield drowned trying to cross a rain-swollen drainage canal Jan. 31.

Today they will cheer for a Moorpark team that has beaten amazing odds to reach the Little League World Series.

"We've done this for Joel, and I really don't know if we could have done it without Joel," said second baseman Michael Lopez, a friend of Burchfield.

Moorpark (19-3) won three games in one day at the Western Regional to reach the World Series, overcoming a six-run deficit in the championship game of the Southern California tournament to reach to regional.

"This has been such a healing experience for the Burchfields and for the community," said Colleen Hubler, a Moorpark League official. "The entire season was dedicated to Joel, and it has been nothing short of miraculous.

"We truly believe we are being watched over by an angel."

Life without their son continues as a daily struggle for Dan and Laura Burchfield, yet they feel him near when they put on green and white Moorpark caps and T-shirts and lose themselves for a few hours at the ballpark.

The feeling was acute during the regional in San Bernardino, when several thousand Moorpark supporters sitting directly behind the Burchfields clapped, chanted and cheered for the team.

"Dan and I had the same thought," Laura said. "We correlated it to the night Joel was missing, when so many people were looking for him and comforting us.

"We looked around the stands and there were the same people, our support group, all rooting. The way everyone pulled together then, we saw it all over again."

Moments after Moorpark had won the regional final, the players marched from the dugout to the field holding a large banner honoring Joel. Over the public address system, Little League official Merle Sanders introduced the 13 Moorpark players, then announced: "And Moorpark's 14th player, their angel in the outfield, Joel Burchfield!"

The crowd thundered its approval and Joel's parents were overcome with emotion.

"We just lost it," Laura said. "It was so awesome. These kids have been part of our lives for six years. They would hang out at our house. Now they are so inspired, it is comforting to us. The whole thing is mind-boggling."

Joel has impacted more than a baseball team. From sharing the grief of his loss and the joy of the team's accomplishments, a sterile suburb has been transformed into a place rich in love and support.

"This has brought definition to the word community," Hubler said.

After Joel's death, friends gently asked the Burchfields, who have an 8-year-old son, Ryan, if the family planned to move. Perhaps the Moorpark memories would be too painful, they reasoned.

"I said, 'Are you kidding?' " Laura said. "This is difficult and the pain will never leave, but there is so much love here. Our life is here."

Dan Burchfield forged ahead, continuing to serve as coach on Joel's basketball and baseball teams as if his son were present. He frequently pitches batting practice for the all-star team, as he did here Monday morning.

"These kids were all Joel's friends and I put my energy into that," he said. "It's hard to describe. I saw him in them."

Dan is popular with the team, and has provided a welcome respite to the right arms of coaches Hector Garcia, Gary Sharpe and Bobby Valenzuela.

"He has saved us," said Sharpe, whose son, Blake, is the shortstop. "And the kids love him. Dan is my son's favorite guy."

Joel is remembered as an exuberant boy, a good ballplayer and a great friend. Dozens of players from the league attended his funeral, and the league dedicated the season to him during opening ceremonies.

The Burchfields donated an electronic scoreboard in memory of their son, and the season proceeded like countless others across the nation until tournament time, when Moorpark rattled off a remarkable string of victories.

Moorpark overcame a loss to Thousand Oaks to win its first district championship, but in the Southern California final found itself trailing La Puente, 8-2, in the second inning.

Then a squirrel ran into the outfield, halting play momentarily.

Laura Burchfield stood in the stands and said, "Everything will be OK, Joel is here!"

Moorpark players grinned, promptly scored seven runs in their next at-bat, and went on to win, 12-10.

At the regional, a loss to Pearl City, Hawaii, put Moorpark in the losers' bracket of the double-elimination tournament. After defeating Rock Springs, Wyo., Moorpark was locked in a scoreless tie against Issaquah, Wash.

When that game was suspended after 13 innings because of an 11 p.m. curfew, Laura Burchfield turned to another Moorpark fan and said, "If Joel has something to do with this, he's lucky he's not here because I'd strangle him."

At 9 a.m. the next day, bleary-eyed ballplayers resumed the game, and Moorpark won in the 16th inning on a home run by Sharpe.

The task was not complete, however. Moorpark needed to defeat Pearl City twice that evening to advance to the World Series.

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