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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

Baseball Could Use More Fans Like These

April 04, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

Mario Lopez, 10 years old and with brown eyes big as a cup of coffee, says he was not sure which team he was going to cheer for Saturday night at Edison Field: the Angels or Aguascalientes, the Mexican League team that was the first from its league to play in a major league ballpark.

Jose Delgado, a 12-year-old and therefore much more worldly wise and sure of his opinions, was not wavering at all, though. "The Mexican team," Jose said, and Jose's 10-year-old brother Juan nodded seriously in agreement.

And this would be perfectly fine with Gaddi Vasquez, division vice president for public affairs at Edison International.

Vasquez is 44 now, but one of his most vivid childhood memories was being an 11-year-old and taken on a group trip to a Los Angeles Ram game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Coliseum. "We sat in the top row at the very top of the Coliseum," said Vasquez, who grew up in Orange. "I'd never been anywhere near the Coliseum and to be at the very brim of the Coliseum, it was like, the ultimate. I remember this still like it was yesterday. I always reflect on that, and always think it is great out there when boys and girls in similar situations have an opportunity to see a ballgame."

That happened Saturday night at Edison Field. Vasquez had taken a particular interest in helping area Latino groups come to this Angel game. Vasquez was eager to give a chance to Latino children to see the Mexican team play the Angels.

Vasquez said that Jerry Melendez would bring a group of Latino children from Corona. Raoul Aguirre escorted a group from the Pico Boys Club.

But perhaps the largest gathering of enthusiastic Latino children came from the Oscar De La Hoya Youth Center. Some 85 boys and girls, ages 8 to 14, and 15 chaperons would make the 40-mile trip from East L.A. to Edison Field. Olympic boxer De La Hoya, who had established, through his own foundation, this boxing gym and learning center in East L.A., his neighborhood, had been invited to throw out the first ball Saturday night. And Angel outfielder Tim Salmon had invited this group from De La Hoya's center to sit in Salmon's outfield seats.

"This is what I hope we can do more of," Vasquez says. "If these kids can have a memory like the one I had, it would be great."

Vasquez, whose parents were migrant farm workers, also remembers riding his bike to the old Anaheim Stadium, an eager child who loved sports and who would stand in front of the park trying to look cherubic and hoping that someone would give him a ticket. "Sometimes somebody would give me a ticket and tell me to use the ticket to get into the park but to not sit next to them. I didn't mind. I just wanted to see the game," he says.

These children from East L.A. would have their own tickets. And some are already learning to love baseball. Arlette Urzua, 12, who would be accompanied by her 11-year-old brother Oswald and 8-year-old sister Shirley, said that Jim Edmonds was her favorite baseball player. Oswald agreed.

The youth center tries to take kids to baseball games each summer and Arlette and Oswald had been to an Angel game last summer too.

These trips do make an impression.

Juan Delgado enjoyed the hamburgers, hot dogs, pretzels and arcade games as much as the baseball. But he also found there was "lots of excitement around the Angels," and he was also looking forward to Saturday's trip.

Anthony Madrano, 11, has not become a fan of any particular Angel player and was considering cheering for the Mexican team Saturday, but he also said these baseball excursions had taught him to enjoy baseball. "I like Mike Piazza," Madrano said. That Piazza had been traded by the Dodgers last summer was of little importance to Madrano. "I'll just be a fan of whoever Piazza plays for."

And that's what baseball so desperately needs. New, young fans. In Southern California, new young fans from all cultures. Last week, the Angels announced they will air six games on Spanish-language television station KVEA (Channel 52).

Which didn't mean much to a chattering group of children on a Friday afternoon at the Oscar De La Hoya Youth Center. In one building, serious punches were being thrown at bags hanging from the bright ceiling in the spotlessly clean gym. In a building across the sidewalk, another group of children were studying with tutors, playing math and language games on computers.

These children who took the bus to Edison Field on Saturday had to earn the trip. Grades, attendance in school, behavior at the center, it all mattered.

On the wall in the gym and in the learning center are banners that say, "You never know what you can do until you try."

The Angels seem to be trying. These children, who were inside studying and training on a sunny Friday when they could have been outside playing, are trying. And baseball needs these kids. For Saturday night and for all the Saturday nights ahead. Because the ballparks have plenty of seats.

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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