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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | Eric Sondheimer

Baseball in Las Vegas Is Rite of Spring for Area Teams

April 15, 2001|Eric Sondheimer

LAS VEGAS — Eric Moore resembled a neon sign glowing in the dark as he walked down The Strip with his Kennedy High baseball teammates and drew stares from curious tourists.

His bleached hair, topped by a patch of blue, gave him a distinctive Southern California look. He could have been mistaken for a cast member for the hit Luxor show, "Blue Man Group."

He'd never done anything so radical with his hair. His father, Richard, didn't believe he'd go through with it. But one day before the team left for Las Vegas, Moore made himself look like a member of "The Jetsons."

There's something alluring, if not mesmerizing, about this city that causes people to do things they wouldn't contemplate anywhere else.

It's those temptations that cause high school coaches to say Hail Marys if they make it out with their players still on the team and not in jail.

"You hold your breath," Coach Tom Meusborn of Chatsworth said.

It's a game of hide-and-seek and catch-me-if-you-can.

Teenagers were put on earth to test their elders, and letting them loose in a city filled with casinos, arcades, sports bars and strip clubs is asking for trouble.

It's not spring break, Daytona Beach, Fla., but it's not Chuck E. Cheese, either.

Threats, threats and more threats is the typical strategy employed by coaches to get their players to behave.

"If they break any of them--curfew, fight, get arrested--I'll take away their uniform and fly them back," Coach Chuck Schwal of Poly said.

Manny Alvarado of Kennedy has been taking his teams to Las Vegas for 10 years and tells them they'll keep coming back as long as everything goes OK.

"There's been some horror stories I know, but we haven't had any yet," he said.

He doesn't take anything for granted. Assistant coaches are assigned hall duties and make bed checks after curfew. One year, Alvarado had to suspend three players because they weren't in their rooms on time. None were smart enough to leave an inflatable dummy under the covers.

"If security or Las Vegas police bring them to my room, they're done," he said.

Players enjoy the freedom of exploring The Strip on their own. They're 15, 16, 17 and start imagining they're adults.

"If you run into them in the lobby, they go by like they don't know you," said one Kennedy parent. "The only time they want you is if they run out of money."

This is the eighth year Meusborn has brought Chatsworth here, and he has become as efficient as a travel agent in designing a daily itinerary, complete with early morning wake-up calls and assigned roommates for players.

Unlike many teams that have four players to a room, Meusborn allows only two to cut down on potential mischief and WWF-style wrestling in the rooms. He also doesn't believe in the 4th Amendment barring illegal searches and seizures.

"One of the smartest things I ever did is I keep a room key to all the rooms," he said. "I can walk in any time. I'm not going to knock, I'm going to come in. If they had any thoughts of bringing anything or anyone back to the hotel, that sure changed things."

There's good reason for coaches to worry. Last year, El Camino Real suspended two players for rule violations, one of whom was stuck dealing with attorneys and law-enforcement officials for weeks. El Camino Real didn't return this season.

"I swore up and down last year I wasn't going to come back," Coach Armando Gomez of San Fernando said. "It's such a distraction."

But coaches say the positives of players bonding and teaching them about responsibility outweigh the potential negatives.

"You have to trust the kids," Coach Scott Drootin of Chaminade said. "This is where you find out who your true leaders are."

Coach Rick Weber of Birmingham had only one problem--keeping catcher Jose Carrillo away from the buffet line.

Ten local baseball teams came to town this weekend for the Bishop Gorman tournament. Most arrived in comfortable air-conditioned buses, making the trip in five hours, which in the case of Chatsworth was more than enough time for pitcher Joe Guntz to start making easy money in card games.

"I love Vegas," he said.

There's good reason Guntz can't wait for the yearly trip.

After pitching a four-hit shutout on Thursday, Guntz was free to devote his attention to playing teammates in card games at their hotel. It's not a pretty sight.

"If it's not baseball, cards will be his profession," teammate Justin Cassel said. "He's that good."

Added assistant coach Matt LaCour: "I wouldn't be surprised if Joe Guntz retires in Las Vegas at the age of 25."

Guntz's reputation has spread beyond Chatsworth. Pitcher Adam Geery of Kennedy remembers playing Guntz in cards when they were teammates on a travel team.

"He'd kick my butt," he said. "The guy comes up with these games and they're his own rules. He's a card shark. I beat him a couple times. I beat him one game out of four. What is the batting average? It's not very good."

But in Las Vegas, there's always a sucker willing to seek another hand no matter how bad the odds look.

Pitcher Abraham Gonzalez of San Fernando doesn't seem impressed.

"Bring Joe Guntz on," he said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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