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Pizza Parlor Is 'Little League Central'

Fans swarm into Thousand Oaks restaurant to cheer on the home team.

August 27, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

There are 29 television sets at Thousand Oaks Stuft Pizza & Brewing Co. and Thursday afternoon, nearly all were tuned to ESPN2 and the Little League World Series.

More than 100 fans of the Conejo Valley All-Stars crowded into the pizza parlor to watch as the home team beat out South Caroline of Preston, Md., 3 to 1 in the semifinals in Williamsport, Pa., to advance to Saturday's national title game. The world championship is Sunday.

Many of those gathered were wearing either "CV" baseball caps or T-shirts commemorating the team's state title or its victory at the Western regional tournament two weeks ago. The cheers -- frequent and loud -- grew more intense whenever the team made a good catch or scored a run.

"You look at their faces and even when they're losing they have fun," said Art Gladstone of Simi Valley, an assistant coach in the Conejo Valley League. "They play like little men, but then you realize they're just 12-year-olds."

One of Gladstone's players, his godson Zack Wallace, 9, said watching Conejo Valley's winning season has encouraged him to continue playing this fall to get better for next year's regular season.

Despite a slow start -- both teams were scoreless until the top of the third inning when Conejo advanced a runner to home -- there was plenty of confidence among those who came out to show their support.

"I don't think we're going to have too much trouble with this team, but you never know in baseball," said Randy Work, a board member for the Thousand Oaks Little League organization. "Conejo Valley tends to get a slow start. They usually bust it open in the fifth. That's when they come alive."

"For most of these kids, this will be the highlight of their athletic careers," said Thousand Oaks Mayor Bob Wilson Sr., who arrived early to catch the action from a booth near the front door.

Debbie Lessels brought her children Chad, 15, and Courtney, 13, to have a meal and to catch the game. They had been at Disneyland earlier this week, but took time Monday to stop to watch one of the team's earlier games at their hotel.

"They're doing pretty good now," Lessels said. "It's been exciting."

Conejo Valley came into Thursday's semifinal game undefeated in post-season play, having first won 17 games to get them to Williamsport. In a span of three days this week, the youngsters swept three national opponents in the first round and reached Thursday's game as the top seed.

The team's first game in Williamsport was rained out last Friday, but the 12 boys came back Sunday to defeat Morganton, N.C., 9 to 2. The next day, Conejo trounced their opponents from Davenport, Iowa, 10 to 0, in a game ended in the bottom of the fifth inning by the league's 10-run mercy rule.

That first rain-delayed game was eventually played Tuesday morning against Lincoln, R.I., and Thousand Oaks pulled off a 3-1 victory led by pitcher Jordan Brower, who struck out eight players and drove in the winning run.

Conejo gets a day of rest before Saturday's 4:30 p.m. game against Richmond, Texas, for the U.S. championship, to be broadcast on KABC-TV Channel 7. The winner of that game will face on Sunday the winner of the international championship -- also to be played Saturday -- to determine the best young players in the world.

"They're going to have to pull out all the stops to be the most competitive on Saturday and beat Texas, which has been playing phenomenally," said John Short, Thousand Oaks Little League president.

Those who crowded into the restaurant Thursday feasted on pizza, chicken wings and beer as they cheered on the home team 2,300 miles away.

"This is Little League Central," said restaurant owner Mike Lemmo, who has held several fund-raisers to benefit the team. Since Conejo Valley reached Williamsport, Lemmo has set aside 20% of receipts while the games are broadcast to benefit the league. So far, he estimates $1,000 will be donated.

Nancy Frawley, a Conejo Little League board member, said about 70 other fans were two blocks away catching the game at a Chuy's Mexican restaurant on Moorpark Road, which donated $500 to help the team with post-season expenses.

"It's awesome. Everybody's so supportive," Frawley said. "And it's not always the same faces; you've got new people coming in."

Frawley said the goal was to raise about $9,500 to help pay for extra food and ground transportation expenses for team members, souvenir pins and gifts for their hosts in Pennsylvania. The team is also selling collector pins, T-shirts and, for $100, dedicated fans can pick up an autographed baseball and team photo.

Kelli Justiniano of Thousand Oaks said limited finances forced her to return home after watching her 12-year-old son Adam play the first three games in Williamsport. But after she told her story in a brief interview on a Los Angeles television station during Thursday's game, the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Benefits Assn. phoned the restaurant to offer $2,500 so she could return for the remainder of the series.

Thousand Oaks officials have already planned a 6:30 p.m. parade Thursday to celebrate the team's success. The players, coaches and manager will ride in convertibles down Thousand Oaks Boulevard, from Rancho Road east to Dallas Drive, to a community recognition ceremony at Gardens of the World across from City Hall.

Along with commendations from the City Council, school district, park district and Chamber of Commerce, Major League manager Sparky Anderson, a Thousand Oaks resident, is scheduled to attend.

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