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T.J. SIMERS

Garry Marshall helps bring happy days to young ballplayers

Marshall joins with members of the Monrovia community who rallied to save the city's Youth Baseball League.

March 03, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Actor and director Garry Marshall threw a hard high strike to open the Monrovia Youth Baseball League season Saturday at the league's newly upgraded fields.
Actor and director Garry Marshall threw a hard high strike to open the Monrovia… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

What a fine day.

Hundreds of youngsters in new baseball jerseys and caps are stretched across the infield from third to first. Every kid should have such sweet memories of growing up.

There are green and white balloons strung like a wreath above home plate, which has a new coat of white paint.

They have already served almost 3,000 sausages and pancakes as part of the festivities, with not a gloomy or hungry soul in sight.

A new load of brick dust has been spread across the field, which has been freshly chalked. Parents are seated in the bleachers armed with cameras and waving to their future stars as the Monrovia High School jazz band plays, "America the Beautiful."

So this is the way it is when a community gets it right.

It is opening day for the Monrovia Youth Baseball League, and to think officials worried a few months ago that many of these kids would not be here because of the economy and increased costs to use school fields and pay registration fees.

But then the Monrovia school district rallied, talking about partnering with the MYBL and dropping $18,000 in rental fees in exchange for league volunteers to maintain the fields.

Local businesses pitched in. They now have so many sponsors that they have more than one for each of the 31 teams.

And then they got a call from Hollywood comic genius Garry Marshall, who apparently has this thing about making sure happy days are here again.

Marshall knows none of these kids, lives nowhere around here and he's probably a little worried one of these little whippersnappers will grow up to take his place as starting pitcher for the Indians in his Valley Seniors softball league.

"And it's a nice league, too," he says. "If you get a double, they let you take a nap."

None of these kids know who he is. He directed "The Princess Diaries," "Pretty Woman" and "Beaches." Grandma and grandpa probably love him. He created "Laverne and Shirley" and cast his sister, Penny Marshall, as Laverne.

He's 77 now, and still pitching, throwing a high hard strike to open the MYBL season.

"I have two things I'd like to maybe do in my life," Marshal says. "Either build a baseball field or fix up your daughter."

Marshall read about the MYBL's earlier financial concerns, met with league officials and made a considerable donation to upgrade the fields so that the kids just starting to play baseball might have a better experience.

"If they are busy catching a ball they aren't doing other things," he says. "Look at all these kids, some running, some daydreaming. When my son played, he watched the gopher holes.

"I also see a lot of parents here. That's good."

The kids look good in their new jerseys, an upgrade from their old T-shirts. Shoes and spikes are something else. Here are the players who really do need shoe deals, but right now baby steps in Monrovia will have to do.

"You know, my chosen profession was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees," Marshall says. "It didn't exactly work out."

He was big on "Hollywood Squares," though, and maybe bigger here. League officials don't know it, but Marshall is struggling with a nasty cold. But who better to understand the show must go on. So he sits patiently, beaming and waving as each one of the league's 31 teams passes by.

Apparently this goes beyond just writing a check.

"I think you just have to do something once in a while," he says, while quickly shifting the attention elsewhere.

"I've done some movies with Richard Gere and the highlight of his life was going to a Yankees fantasy camp. He's playing second and he turns a double play with Bucky Dent and he has film of it. He keeps showing it to me, asking me if I've seen it and I'm telling him I have and he's showing it to me again.

"For a lot of people, no matter what they do, sports is that extra dream. Who knows? Maybe one of these kids out here will be playing in Dodger Stadium some day."

The Dodgers have not made a donation to the MYBL, but they have sent along what they call a "Dodgers Legend."

I've never heard of the guy. Dennis Powell pitched two years for the Dodgers in the middle '80s, eight years in the big leagues and finished 11-22.

But then Powell takes the microphone, and while nothing he did on the field might be memorable, the parents here might never forget him.

He brings two coaches forward, painting a picture, as he says, of the way he grew up.

"Two Caucasian coaches and here I was an African American kid," he says, of growing up in racially divided Georgia. "One of them took me to the baseball field, began to take me to his family, taught me how to play, bought my glove and bought me shoes.

"More than that, he started to transfer love into me through baseball … the time we invest in these youngsters out here will run through the rest of their lives.

"Coaches," he adds, "it's not about winning trophies; it's about winning kids. It's about the weakest kid on the team. He might fall down, but our job is to pick him up."

Maybe in the future they will introduce him as legendary Dodgers speaker Dennis Powell. He draws tremendous applause, and it's nice to see a Dodger can still do that.

The ceremony almost over, a league official pulls the name of Adrian Aguirre, and announces Adrian will receive free entry into the league next season.

And with that a 4-year-old dressed in an orange-and-black Orioles uniform comes skipping across the brick dust without seemingly a care in the world to accept his prize.

Jack Taylor, vice president of the league, then says, "Play ball," and it's just perfect.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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