The A’s in the Antioch Babe Ruth League major division for 14-15-year-olds aren’t exactly filled with steroidal Bash Brothers like Canseco and McGuire. But they gelled early and often, leading to something rarely achieved in the 50-plus years of the league: an undefeated season – although the A’s do share that distinction this year with the Indians in the senior division (ages 16-19).
Of course, the manager usually sets the tone for the team. Eight years ago Mario Morales, manager of the A’s, had never coached, and wasn’t sure he could do it. But a friend noted that he’s good with kids and should give it a try. “So I started doing it, and started liking it, and I haven’t stopped,” he said. And he’s good at it, as his team’s 21-0 record this season testifies. He also coaches baseball at Antioch High – last year for the JV team and this year the freshmen.
“What’s so special about this (A’s) team is how fast they gelled,” he said. “Real quick. I mean, first game of the season. It was a tough game, but it was almost like they’ve been playing together forever. Almost as little kids. There is a couple of them that I did bring up when they were 7-year-olds. But the way they played, the way they ran the bases, for them to go 21 and 0 – it’s tough to even go 4 and 0. We spent a lot of time together, whether it was on the field or off the field either at the pizza parlor, barbecues. And I think a lot of other teams don’t look into that chemistry thing. It will help you win the most games.”
The A’s players set ambitious goals for themselves this year:
• Winning the championship – check.
• Going undefeated – check again.
• Getting a shutout, or as third-baseman Angelo “Ray” Zuniga put it: a goose egg. “We got two of the three,” he said. “We didn’t get the goose egg.”
Although the goose got to keep its egg, it was definitely an A’s-mazing season, which Zuniga also credits to team chemistry. “We made it as a family,” he said. “Everybody showed up for practice. There were no star players. Our weakest player was just as good as our greatest player. Everybody helped, everybody did it. We worked our asses off.”
In addition to Zuniga, who sacrificed his body all season, Morales noted the play of Devonte Boyd, who, he said, “is easily one of the fastest kids in the league and probably has the most stolen bases. Probably one of the smallest kids here. That’s the amazing thing, is it doesn’t matter size in this game. They are not that big of a team but they act like brothers out there.” The team also boasts shortstop Jacob Astone, who did not strike out in 79 at bats.
And then there’s a player, Matt Smith, who is a strong pitcher and leadoff batter, but also brings a skill that can’t be taught but which can change an entire team. “He’s always smiling,” said Morales. “It’s infective – one kid smiles and they all smile. Even when we were down sometimes by five runs, we were still smiling out there. Most teams kind of lose control. (Our players) almost knew that they were going to stay in the game.”
In between the smiling, however, it was also a long struggle, pressure mounting with every win. “Oh, man, it’s the most stressful thing I’ve ever had to go through, besides my kids,” said Morales with a laugh. Referring to the players’ goal to go undefeated, he said, “to me that’s another level. They really didn’t realize what they were about to do until about the 17th, 18th game. Then they were like, ‘We can do this.’ That’s usually when teams kind of slide when they realize what they can do. That’s what I was afraid of. But these guys held it together very well. It was probably one of the best things I ever had to do, with the exception of having my kids and my family. It is fun for me. I love doing this. It was special.”
The Antioch Babe Ruth League’s complex at 1550 Auto Center Drive is hosting district all-star tournaments starting July 3 at 10 a.m. The championship games are slated for July 9, and the winners compete in the state tournament and a shot at a national crown. “In 1988 we had a team that won the World Series in New York,” said Ed Daviess, the league’s executive vice president. “We are hoping to get a team to repeat like that.”
It costs $180 in addition to passing a tryout to participate in the spring season, and $130 for the shorter fall season, which doesn’t hold tryouts. For more information, call 925-757-1787, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://antiochbaberuth.baberuthonline.com.