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Chula Vista, Tijuana teams are bordering on Little League title game

The two teams, located just 20 miles apart and separated by an international border, could meet for the Little League world title.

August 23, 2013|By Tony Perry and Richard Marosi

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — The hundreds of fans inside the Eastlake Tavern and Bowl groaned when the local boys seemed doomed to defeat.

But when star pitcher Grant Holman hit a three-run home run Wednesday night, giving his Eastlake Little League team a lead over the team from Westport, Conn., fans watching on 28 big-screen televisions erupted in cheers of "Eastlake, Eastlake Eastlake!"

Hours earlier in Tijuana, supporters of their hometown team had gathered in the league's cafeteria, eating burritos and tamarindo ice pops and pounding the tables at home runs.

"Se fue! Se fue! [It's gone! It's gone!]," the crowd cheered when Brandon Montes hit a homer against Japan.

As the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., enters its final weekend, four teams are left — including two located just 20 miles apart, separated by an international border.

Tijuana plays Japan on Saturday for the international division championship and Chula Vista plays Westport for the American. If Tijuana and Chula Vista both win, they will meet Sunday for the World Series championship.

Teams from Mexico and Southern California have met before in the title game — in 1957, Monterrey vs. La Mesa, Calif., and in 1997, Guadalupe vs. South Mission Viejo — but never before have the teams been from communities in such proximity.

Despite their locations, the Chula Vista and Tijuana baseball programs are worlds apart.

In Chula Vista, the playing fields are crisp and well-groomed — owned by the Eastlake Little League, about nine miles north of the border. In Tijuana, the dirt field is so close to the airport that a fly ball could seemingly strike a low-flying airliner.

But the two share a passion: the joy of kids playing baseball.

"We're on the map now," Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said of the Eastlake team's success. "It's good to escape San Diego's shadow every now and then."

The field where the Tijuana team plays — named after former major leaguer and Tijuana native Benji Gil — has chipped paint bleachers and a teetering, termite-infested left-field fence.

Sharply hit ground balls occasionally take bad bounces and hard slides uproot the bases, but the challenging conditions have only improved the players' skills, supporters say. 

"We don't have the great facilities of the other teams, but we're scrappy and hungry for victory," said Luis Miguel Acosta, a league manager, pointing out ongoing repair work on the outfield fence. "It's what all people from Tijuana have. We don't give up."

Eastlake has a similar motto: "Find A Way."

Though separated by a border, the Eastlake and Tijuana leagues, in part, draw from the same pool of players and baseball-loving families.

Mexican immigrant parents living in Eastlake can jump-start their children's baseball career by signing them up for Diaper League in Tijuana at age 3 and then switching them to the Chula Vista league to play in better facilities.

One Eastlake player, Giancarlo Cortez, was playing in the Tijuana league as recently as two years ago. Meeting Tijuana in the final game would be special, he told a Tijuana newspaper.

Fundraising for travel expenses has been an issue on both sides of the border, although admittedly more difficult in Tijuana, where some families had to borrow money to make the trip to South Williamsport. One family sold a car.

Tijuana's star pitcher, Brandon Meza, was denied a visa to enter the United States. His father, Francisco, believes it was because he had been deported from the U.S. years earlier. The day before the team's flight from San Diego, Brandon was granted a 30-day visa to enter the country.

When the Eastlake all-star team of 12-year-olds won the regionals, fans swapped the blue Eastlake T-shirts, with the names of the league's corporate sponsors on the back, for gold-and-green ones signifying that the team had won the West.

"As much as I want us to win it all, we're just so proud of getting this shirt," said Denise Stephens, an accountant and past president of the league.

Eastlake's organization, facilities, parental involvement and corporate support are the envy of other leagues.

The league has 560 players, in major, minor and T-ball, and a program for 6-year-olds. The league owns its own fields, five on two sites. The water bill is $3,000 a month, maintenance several thousand more.

Eastlake, a neighborhood inside the city limits of Chula Vista, draws from a well-groomed area of planned communities with upscale housing and large shopping centers. Built in stages over three decades, Eastlake has attracted retired military families, immigrant families from Mexico and families whose breadwinners work in San Diego, among others.

When another Chula Vista team won the world championship in 2009, the team was invited to the White House. In one of those superstitions that baseball players acquire, the Eastlake team refuses to discuss or even think of receiving such an invitation.

In Tijuana, Francisco Meza propped up a television set atop his washing machine and squeezed a crowd of 30 people into his tiny patio. "Mexico, Mexico, rah rah rah!" they chanted. More people from the tough east side neighborhood trickled in when their cable feed went down.

And at the Eastlake Tavern and Bowl, Kathy Hernandez, a dental assistant married to a retired Navy Seabee, made an observation about the local team, but she might as well have been talking about the Tijuana team too.

"You have to love these boys," she said. "They've earned it."

tony.perry@latimes.com

richard.marosi@latimes.com

Perry reported from Chula Vista, Marosi from Tijuana.

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