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All for the Love of Little League

The adults involved use unpaid leave, vacation time and their savings to travel with and support the youngsters in the annual World Series.

August 24, 2004|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The closed sign is up at the Owensboro, Ky., pawn shop that Matt Evans opened five months ago. "Gone for Personal Business," it says in bold letters.

Evans knows that being away is costing him money, but he's chasing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no young coach or ballplayer can really plan for -- the chance to participate in the Little League World Series.

Evans is an assistant coach for the team representing the U.S. Great Lakes Region. His brother Keith is the other coach on the staff of Manager Vic Evans, their cousin. They are among the many who have cashed out savings accounts and taken unpaid leaves from work to coach and support players in their quest to reach Williamsport, home of the World Series.

Sixteen teams from around the world -- half of them from the United States -- are here for 10 days of play on the clay and grass of Volunteer and Howard J. Lamade stadiums. The tournament for 11- and 12-year-old all-star players is widely recognized as the premier team event in youth sports.

Play concludes this weekend with U.S., international and world championship games expected to draw crowds of 40,000 and a nationally televised audience of 8 million to 12 million.

Each team's journey started with a local tournament and advanced rapidly from there. The U.S. West representative, Conejo Valley East Little League, won 17 consecutive games in a seven-week stretch to get here. The stops along the way: its hometown of Thousand Oaks for district competition, Goleta for sectional, Long Beach for divisional and San Bernardino for regional.

It's an exciting -- but taxing -- road for the players and the adults around them. "I'm just going to ... hope my business is there when I get back," Matt Evans said.

Added Vic Evans: "After spending a week at the state tournament and a week at the regional tournament, everybody is hurting pretty good."

The Evans brothers are volunteer coaches in the truest sense -- neither has a son on the team.

A salesman for an industrial filter company, Vic Evans used the last of his paid vacation time to guide the team through the state tournament. Since then, he's been on unpaid leave.

But at least his boss is a baseball fan who has told him he will have a job when he gets back. Others haven't been so lucky.

"We heard a bunch of horror stories from other coaches when we were in Indianapolis," Vic Evans said. "Some of their bosses were calling, demanding that they come home."

The coaches and teams get something the families of the players don't: help with expenses. Little League covers the travel expenses for the World Series teams, flying them into Williamsport Regional Airport in small, propeller-driven planes from Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

The players are put up in dorm-style rooms near the field. The manager gets a private room; coaches share. All are fed in a cafeteria with room for 250.

As for everybody else, they're on their own.

Little League has a six-year TV deal with ABC and ESPN through 2006 that's reportedly worth $7 million, but it will spend about $1.5 million this summer to defray some travel expenses for teams that advance past the opening district tournaments, spokesman Lance Van Auken said. That expense, plus the cost of sponsoring eight large-scale, age-group baseball and softball competitions in different parts of the country, prohibits the nonprofit group from doing more.

"We're talking about 70 teams or so that are traveling around the world," Van Auken said. "We're already spending $1.5 million. If you start including families, then you're talking about real money."

And though Lycoming County, where Williamsport is located, isn't exactly resort material, it is an expensive place to be in late August, when the area is saturated with visitors sporting the colors of their teams.

The tournament last year attracted 125,000 visitors to the county -- its resident population is 120,000 -- and generated $9.5 million in revenue, according to the local visitors' bureau.

The demand for hotel rooms has overwhelmed the supply since the series expanded from eight to 16 teams in 2001. Rooms that typically are priced at $50 to $75 a night go for at least twice that this time of year -- for those lucky enough to land one.

As the tournament began late last week, 28 visitors with a Clinton, N.J., team were crammed into four hotel rooms. "I had a bed," Manager Jerry Garcia said, "but every square inch of carpet was covered with a body."

At least they were indoors. Other fans braved the rain and cold and pitched tents at Riverside Campground alongside the Susquehanna River, about eight miles from the ball fields.

Family members from the Southern California team, scrambling at the last minute, managed to secure accommodations. But, said Jeff Francis, whose son Derrick is a Conejo player, "my credit card went up $2,000 in a matter of seconds."

Kelli Justiniano, another Conejo parent, said her credit was maxed out. The single mother of three hit her limit about the time her son Adam hit the regionals in San Bernardino. She borrowed money from her parents to make the trip here -- and stretched the limits of a supportive boss.

After taking three days off from her job as an office manager at the start of regional play this month, she commuted between San Bernardino and Ventura County for more than a week.

Thankfully, she said, her boss "didn't blink an eye" upon her most-recent "vacation" request. "He just said, 'You need to go.' "

The same goes for Mike Rubideaux, whose son Nick plays for Northwest Region champion Redmond, Wash. He took off for two weeks from his construction job during the regionals, then didn't hesitate to ask for more time when the team qualified for the World Series.

He said he couldn't think of a better experience for his family.

"This," he said, "is why we play baseball."

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