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The State

Team in Little League World Series Gives Oceanside Much-Needed Boost

Image: Swelling with pride, the city hopes to shake its reputation as a honky-tonk for Marines.

August 23, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OCEANSIDE — There's something new on the menu at Mary's Family Restaurant across from City Hall: Oceanside Little League Breakfast.

Mary's owner, Jose Hernandez, hopes that his latest offering--two eggs, two pancakes, two sausage links and two bacon strips for $3.99--can soon be renamed the Breakfast of Champions.

For the first time, Oceanside has an all-star team in the Little League World Series tournament and civic hopes are buoyant.

Beyond the sheer joy of watching a dozen local lads match skills with the best of their peer group, Oceanside is counting on the team to boost the city's reputation, long tarred as nothing but a honky-tonk for hell-raising Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton.

"Our Little League team is putting Oceanside on the map," Mayor Terry Johnson said Wednesday. "The world is learning that these wonderful kids are the real Oceanside."

Downtown businesses have sprouted supportive signs and decorations in the team colors of green and white. Fund-raising efforts are trying to help parents recoup the cost of plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The checkers at three Albertson's stores are wearing "Congratulations Oceanside American" T-shirts. A parade, complete with a Marine Corps band, is planned for Sept. 1.

"This is the best thing that's happened to Oceanside in years and years," said Dora Coney, a downtown shopper.

The burden of civic expectations is lost on the youthful players--who won 18 straight games to earn a playoff spot representing the West in Williamsport, Pa. They have triumphed in two of three games there.

Gleneth Mills, a training instructor at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station and president of the Oceanside American League, said that, for the players, "It's just fun, more fun than they've ever had."

Mills knows that there is more at stake as millions watch the games on ESPN (with the final game Sunday set for ABC).

"I remember watching the Super Bowl and hearing [San Diego Chargers linebacker] Junior Seau being described as from gang-ridden Oceanside," Mills said from Williamsport. "That really hurt. It's true, Oceanside has its share of problems, but no city in America has worked harder to make things better."

Indeed, the truth about Oceanside has long surpassed the fighting-and-drinking image of various novels about the exploits of Marines bound for Vietnam, including Gustav Hasford's "The Short-Timers," basis for the movie "Full Metal Jacket."

Oceanside has even felt dissed by its municipal neighbor, affluent Carlsbad, which has been slow to build roads that would connect with Oceanside.

For a decade this racially diverse blue-collar town of 162,500 residents 40 miles north of San Diego has been hip deep in downtown redevelopment.

Oceanside now boasts a gleaming City Hall, new shopping, the California Surf Museum, a 16-screen theater and much more, all within walking distance of one of Southern California's widest, cleanest beaches.

The Marine Corps has also adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward off-duty misbehavior.

"We want everybody to see our team and know that Oceanside has changed a lot," Hernandez said.

One thing, however, has not changed: Baseball, whether Little League or Major League, is a game of disappointments.

As eight U.S. teams vie to play the international champion, Oceanside tonight will face a tough team from the Bronx.

Pitching for the Bronx will be a 12-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic whose speed and poise has impressed even seen-it-all sportswriters. A loss tonight would end Oceanside's dream-filled season.

"Maybe we can score a run or two early and rattle their pitcher," said Bob Vettel, director of a beachfront recreation center where the game will be shown on a theater-sized screen.

If Oceanside were to beat the Bronx team, it would have to win two more games to win the world championship.

"Win or lose," Vettel said, "these kids are still champions and we owe them a lot for what they've done for Oceanside."

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