SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA. — Marco Espinoza has been a waiter at Celia's Restaurant in El Centro, Calif., for nine years, but it was clear last week that his mind was not on his job.
As he worked, he couldn't help sneaking looks at the televisions that were showing the action from the Little League World Series.
What about that kids' baseball game interests you so much, patrons wanted to know.
My son, Espinoza replied. Victor Bejarano is an infielder on the team from Mexicali's Seguro Social League, Mexico's representative.
So why aren't you with him in Pennsylvania, the customers asked.
Can't afford the plane ticket, Espinoza said.
But within hours, his situation changed for the better.
Two customers -- they wish to remain anonymous -- paid for Espinoza's airfare, and now he's at the Series cheering on his son, whose team is unbeaten in three games and will play for the championship among international teams Saturday.
It was last Saturday that Espinoza boarded flights that took him from San Diego through San Francisco to Philadelphia. He arrived Sunday, just in time to see Mexico defeat Japan in a well-played and hard-fought game that went into extra innings.
"I still can't even tell you what's in my heart," a grateful Espinoza said a couple of days later, as Mexico prepared to play Venezuela in what was another tough battle.
That Espinoza found benefactors -- and had a boss willing to give him unscheduled time off for travel -- placed him among the lucky.
Making it to the Little League World Series, the pinnacle of youth baseball, is a dream come true for the players and their families. But it can come at a huge sacrifice.
There are stories each year of coaches putting their jobs in peril in order to accompany their teams through the playoffs.
For example, the United States' West representative from Ocean View Little League in Huntington Beach had to survive four playoff levels -- district, sectional, divisional and regional -- before reaching Williamsport.
That meant travel around Southern California and then more than a week sequestered in barracks during West Regional play at San Bernardino. The players are required to bunk there, and so are the coaches.
Jose Martinez, an Ocean View coach, has been scrambling for about a month to be with his son, Anthony. During the regionals, he drove 150 miles round trip to work as a lens grinder for a Westminster eyeglass store.
Then came the toughest part. When Ocean View won and qualified for the World Series, Martinez asked his boss for a big chunk of unexpected time off.
"She wasn't too happy at first. It's a retail business. People have to be at work," Martinez said. "I explained how this is every 12-year-old's dream to be here in Williamsport. She finally accepted it. She wasn't happy about it necessarily, but she accepted it."
Even with the job secure, Martinez said he and his wife, Amber, have maxed out some credit cards. Amber works for a doctor, Charles Hasse, who, Martinez said, has been supportive.
"He has every single game on in his office," Martinez said. "So we're fortunate."
Mark Groh, administrator of Little League District 62, where Ocean View plays, said several Huntington Beach families struggled to get to Williamsport. One family, he said, refinanced their house to raise the money. Others asked credit card companies for extensions on their credit limits to buy plane tickets that pushed $1,000.
It's not cheap when they get here, either.
Rates at even modest hotels were more than $250 per night and required payment in full in advance -- and the tournament runs over 10 days.
Little League pays the transportation costs for the players and coaches, and it puts them up in the big facility here. But other family members and friends are on their own.
Martinez said he was lucky because a friend donated his airline frequent-flyer miles to get Amber's plane ticket for free.
And, like most parents, he said the experience is worth the sacrifice.
"This will be the summer of all summers in our life," Martinez said. "I wish every single kid got to experience this.
"The hardship financially? We'll handle that. A couple of credit cards maxed out? For this, it's worth it."