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CROWE'S NEST

This girl played like a boy -- and still does

August 18, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Her time in the sun as the first U.S. girl to play in the Little League World Series is long past, but Victoria Ruelas still loves mixing it up with the boys.

Known as Victoria Brucker when she helped a team from San Pedro's Eastview Little League reach youth baseball's ultimate destination in 1989, Ruelas never stopped competing or breaking down barriers.

Even as a 31-year-old mother of three, she still plays recreation-league soccer and flag football with her husband on otherwise all-male teams.

"There was always something about playing with guys that made it more fun," Ruelas said during an interview at her home near Wilmington Banning High, where she teaches biology. "If guys have a problem with you, they'll tell you straight out, whereas if girls have a problem, you'll hear it through the grapevine two days later; it's all chit-chat behind everybody's back.

"That wasn't me."

Ruelas was always more about action than affectation.

"She was always a go-getter, always wanted to be the best," said Joe DiLeva, a San Pedro insurance agent who was Ruelas' All-Star coach.

Ruelas was a competitive swimmer, good enough to reach the Junior Olympics, before she tried baseball at 9. Two years later, she made the All-Star team. As a 12-year-old, she made it again, batting cleanup and hitting 18 home runs -- nine during All-Star competition -- on the way to Williamsport, Pa.

Though Ruelas wasn't the first girl to play in the Little League World Series -- a Belgian was, in 1984 -- she was the first to get a hit and the first to pitch.

Her appearance in the tournament -- San Pedro lost in the U.S. championship game to a team from Trumbull, Conn., featuring future NHL star Chris Drury -- made her a media darling, even though she had only one hit in three games.

Later, Ruelas says, she was flown to New York to take part in events sponsored by Sports Illustrated and the Women's Sports Foundation. She appeared on a "That's Incredible"-type television show in Japan and in a Body by Jake commercial. In her hometown, she was honored with a plaque on the Sportswalk to the Waterfront, San Pedro's answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Meanwhile, her love of competition only grew.

At San Pedro High, she says she was asked to try out for the junior varsity baseball team but opted for softball instead "because I told myself I wanted to go to college and I was going to make that my goal."

Though she prefers baseball, the decision paid off. Ruelas landed a softball scholarship to San Jose State after twice leading San Pedro to City titles.

Married right out of high school, Ruelas compiled a school-record .353 career batting average in three seasons at San Jose State, hitting a school-record .408 as a junior, but gave up her senior year of eligibility to try baseball again.

Jumping at a chance to join the San Jose Spitfires of Ladies League Baseball, a short-lived women's pro league, she helped them to a championship. The league folded halfway through its second season, however, and Ruelas joined a professional softball team in North Carolina. She later played for the U.S. women's baseball team before injuries and motherhood cut short her career.

"I'd like to go back," she said, "but it's one of those things where your mind tells you you can do it, but your body says something else."

Still, she's got her soccer and flag football teams -- and her memories, which she shares with her high school students.

"I try to motivate them to get to college," said Ruelas, still one of only 13 girls to have participated in Little League's showcase event. "Being from a low-income family like I was, sports was one avenue; there were others as well, but I don't think I would have gone to college without baseball and softball."

DiLeva, her former coach, says Ruelas' success in sports empowered her, "making her realize she could do just about anything she wanted to do."

The coach remembers one time when boys from an opposing team laughed at Ruelas -- until she pitched a four-hit shutout against them.

"After that," DiLeva said, "they were pretty humble."

At the time, Ruelas had no inkling that she was a trailblazer, no clue that a U.S. girl had never played in the Little League World Series.

Of course, she was 12.

"I was just having fun," said Ruelas, who mostly played first base for the All-Star team. "Most of us had never been out of the state before . . . and we met people from all over the world. And the complex [in Williamsport] was beautiful."

Maybe next year, on the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking appearance, Little League executives will invite her back.

She'd love to return.

And why not?

Said her former coach: "She's been a real good kid."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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