Big League welcome for Little League U.S. champions

Phillip Brents

Wed October 30, 2013 2:34pm

Life is somewhat starting to return to normal — stress the word somewhat — for members of the 2013 Little League World Series U.S. national champion Eastlake Little League 12-under all-star team.
But how “normal” can life be for a bunch of international sports celebrities?
How do you react when 60,000 fans are cheering for you in an NFL football stadium?
So far, the Eastlake boys have taken their newfound fame in stride despite all the requests for public appearances and autograph signings.
Can you sign this? Can I take a photo with you?
Everyone, it seems, wants to offer their heartfelt congratulations, which has only added to their star power.
“We knew when we came back from Williamsport that the first week or so would be front-loaded with events,” team mom Kim Holman explained.
Shining stars
West region champion Eastlake defeated New England region champion Westport (Conn.), 12-1, on Aug. 24 to win the LLWS U.S. national championship in front of a live television audience on ABC-TV.
It was every little leaguers’ dream come true, even if the team saw its summer-long all-star tournament record dip to 22-2 following a 6-3 setback to Japan in the ensuing LLWS championship final that was televised worldwide.
For all the players, coaches and families involved, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Eastlake was suddenly America’s team; the boys — 12 and 13 — became instant pop culture celebrities.
The city of Chula Vista put on an official homecoming at Sleep Train Amphitheatre that attracted thousands of yellow-clad fans on Aug. 29.
The team made appearances at all the major sporting events in the San Diego region. The San Diego State University Aztecs football team honored them in front of more than 42,000 fans at Qualcomm Stadium on Aug. 31. The San Diego Padres rolled out the royal carpet for them with lavish pre-game festivities on Sept. 7. It was then back to the Q for a San Diego Chargers NFL game on Sept. 9.
The team has also made appearances at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and local schools. An estimated 600 fans greeted them at a special autograph signing Sept. 15 at Eastlake Village Marketplace.
Even more prestigious honors could be in store. Traditionally, U.S. Little League World Series champions have made an appearance on the “Tonight Show” and met the sitting U.S. president.
They remain east Chula Vista’s media darlings — and rightly so.
“Everywhere you go now, people want your autograph, they want to shake your hand,” Eastlake manager Rick Tibbett explained. “The kids have been very good about it.
“They’re having a great time. They’ve always got something going.
“It’s something I’ll always remember. I’m very proud of these kids.”
Golden boys
Team members estimated they signed thousands of autographs at the Sleep Train homecoming alone.
Tibbett said he was surprised at the turnout to welcome back his charges.
Team members clearly enjoyed their chance to be “rock stars for a day,” as several put it.
The visits to Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park were eye-openers, however.
“That was the biggest standing ovation I’ve had so far,” Eastlake’s Nick Mora said.
“It was weird,” ace pitcher Grant Holman confessed, “because we’re just a bunch of regular kids who won a couple of games.”
Well, actually more than just a couple.
Holman, it should be noted, hurled a seven-inning no-hitter in Eastlake’s first LLWS game, hit a walk-off grand-slam home run in its second game and cracked a game-winning three-run home run in its third game.
You do that on national TV and people tend to take notice.
Besides being introduced on the field and being able to meet and interact with professional players during warm-ups, they also got to see how the “other side” of pro sports works.
Players and family members got to watch the Chargers’ season opener from a luxury box at the stadium.
“We had pizza, peanuts and popcorn, and got to see the game from a birds-eye view,” said Kevin Bateman II, obviously impressed. “At the Padres game, the fans applauded us more than the Padres (Major League Baseball team).”
Pride and honor
The Eastlake team has taken all the hoopla and attention in stride.
After posing for a group photo with staff outside Islands’ Eastlake restaurant following a team dinner on Sept. 4, fans in passing cars began to honk their horns at the sight of yellow-shirted youngsters. A few even slowed down their vehicles to snap a photo out the window.
Team members responded with robust cheers to each honk.
“It’s a way to say ‘hi’ and also to show their appreciation,” Mora said, smiling.
Team parents said the community appearances are a reward by the team to repay the support fans showed during its history-making run.
From all early returns, it appears to be a long-lasting love affair.
At the Eastlake Village Marketplace appearance, the team arrived on a fire truck with sirens blaring as members of the Eastlake Middle School choir belted out stanzas of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Fans began standing in line an hour before the event started, with the line eventually stretching halfway down the block.
The first 300 youths received complimentary baseballs to have autographed by the team.
Among those in line were members of Bonita Valley Girls Amateur Softball Association’s 12U all-star team that captured second place in their division at the western nationals championship tournament in Arizona.
“It was really cool to meet them, it was really exciting,” Alyssa Garcia said.
“It’s cool to meet someone who’s famous who’s your own age,” Alyssa Escamilla added.
“We’re totally fan girls,” Alaina Zavala interjected, also smiling.
The Eastlake all-stars signed all the baseballs and posters thrust their way during the two-hour public autograph session, and even signed a few more to be given out at an ensuing function.
Players then posed with banners from various business sponsors.
“I think it’s cool that we’re giving back to the community since they gave us all the support while we were playing,” Grant Holman said.
While catching up on homework has been a priority, baseball remains a year-round passion for many on the team — either playing at school or on travel teams.  
“They have four practices each week and games on Saturday and Sunday,” Tibbett said. “They’re playing baseball six out of the seven days in the week.”
It’s evident we’re not going to hear the last from this group any time soon.
Honk and they’ll cheer!