CharlieMC (charliemc) wrote,

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Portland's own cinderfella story - A neighbor leads his team to state victory

I must share the following story. June (my best friend and next door neighbor) just told me that the neighbor across the street had been covered in the newspaper recently. So I went online to read the article I'm sharing here. It's pretty amazing!

I'm going to get a congratulations card and take it right over to him.

Which reminds me that I need to take both a sympathy card and birthday card to the neighbor across the street. It's so hard to keep up sometimes!

Portland's own cinderfella story

Few suspected at the outset that the young boys on Junior Baseball team No. 7 and their unlikely coach had what it took to win games, let alone the state championship

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Oregonian logo

No one came right out and said it. But through knowing glances, in parental code-speak outside the boys' earshot, everyone understood: The kids on North Portland No. 7 were leftovers -- the 9- and 10-year-olds passed over by the neighboring Junior Baseball team.

That's why hearing about the team now from the front porches of bungalows where the clatter of trucks is never far off, hearing about what happened from the coaches, the parents and the pint-size players still wearing their uniforms days after that glorious tournament, the story is all the sweeter.

Because on July 22, these boys -- the ones who started with more fetching than catching -- captured their state title at a shining ball field in Eugene.

Head coach John Goncalves rests a square hand on the wooden plaque shaped like Oregon.

"This trophy has a million stories in it," he says. "It's not one game. It's not one player."

Goncalves (pronounced gon-CAL-vess) hadn't expected to lead a team. He signed on with Junior Baseball of Oregon as an assistant coach for his 10-year-old son Jesse's first organized baseball experience.

They chose Junior Baseball over Little League. Less well known. Somewhat different rules. The teams, for example, stay together the whole time. There's no singling out players for post-season all-star teams. The league fields more than 6,000 players ages 9 to 14 each year, allowing three skill levels in each of three age groups. Goncalves and his son chose the bottom level of the youngest group.

Then came the call from a league leader. There was no head coach for the team. Would Goncalves step up?

Goncalves is 62. He'd played plenty of baseball but hadn't coached since his oldest son, now 40, was 10. Yet he felt compelled.

He remembers the first coaches meeting. It was at a Big Daddy's rib joint. He was years older than everyone else. He could see them thinking: Who is this guy?

He's a former pharmaceutical salesman, nuclear disarmament lobbyist, backyard mechanic, antique refurbisher now semi-retired. He wasn't -- even well into the season -- many people's idea of a coach. He wore button-down white shirts, cotton slacks, his youngest son's black plastic watch and his North Portland district hat. He didn't yell. He called his young players "Gentlemen."

"They didn't push us that hard," says left fielder Anthony Lewis of Goncalves and assistant coach Ed Langlois. "They made us relax."

Anthony dangles his legs from his family's front stoop. It's where he sat that spring day when Goncalves first rode by on his bike. At season's start, the coach had only nine boys on his roster. He needed 12.

He spotted Anthony on the porch. He hesitated but kept pedaling.

Anthony called out: Nice bike, Mister.

Goncalves slowed and wheeled around: How old are you?

Anthony said: Ten.

Goncalves stopped: Would you like to play baseball?

Way out on the St. Johns peninsula next to a trucking company and an auto parts warehouse, Pier Park unfurls like a faded green rug. Past the groomed Little League diamond, beyond the skateboard ramp and down a gravel path is another ball field that the North Portland No. 7 players weeded themselves.

Clarke Boozer remembers watching his son, Elijah, and teammates at their first practice. Some couldn't catch the ball. Some didn't know right field from left. And then there was this silver-haired coach in a button-down white shirt.

Man, Boozer said to another dad, this is going to be a long season.

But the boys responded to Goncalves.

Goncalves moved some of the boys close together to practice throwing -- underhand -- and catching. This way they'd feel successful. And no one would get hurt.

The boys loved catching flies. So, for safety's sake, Goncalves started out lobbing tennis balls.

Then he went home and watched a coaching video. At the next practice, he taught several drills. One involved lining up balls at third base. The boys took turns throwing to a player on first. But there was one requirement: The third baseman had to communicate with the first baseman before throwing. Teamwork.

Langlois, the assistant coach, a soft-spoken reporter at The Catholic Sentinel, signed on. He worked with each boy to decide their strongest position. His son, Andy, played pitcher and first base. Anthony started at third base and later left field. Deion Robertson played shortstop. Eric Gregg played catcher.

"I'm good at it," Eric says, reclining in his family's living room after the championship, "and I like it."

Their first pre-season game was against Gresham, a team so strong that it later moved up to a higher skill bracket. It was at this game that Jesse Goncalves realized this team might have something.

"I was pitching," recalls Jesse from a lawn chair on his family's wisteria-shrouded porch. "Deion dove and caught a pop-up."

Then, Jesse says, a ball went over Marco Poot-McDonald's head in center field. Marco ran for it and Jesse got in range. Marco threw to Jesse. Jesse threw to Eric. Eric got the guy out at home.

They lost the game. But only by one run.

North Portland No. 7 started winning at its final pre-season game. Then, going into the regular season, the team could scarcely be stopped.

It was time they got a real name. The players chose the Yellowjackets. They liked the manly sting. And it worked with their black and yellow uniforms.

They went into the district tournament July 7 with a 9-1 record and won. The Yellowjackets were among 15 teams headed to state.

Elijah Boozer peers from beneath his black cap on his sun-warmed porch and describes Bethel Park, the Eugene ball field where the team played in the state tournament July 20-22. They sprayed down the dirt every few minutes. They mowed the field between games.

The 9-year-old also remembers his fear when he got up to bat.

Another player "threw a ball at me one day and I got scared and I had a dream about getting hit by the ball," says Elijah quietly.

In their fourth game of the tournament, the Yellowjackets played Gaston. If they won, they'd advance straight to the championship game.

When Elijah got up to bat, the bases were loaded. There were two outs. Gaston was ahead, 2-0. And the pitcher was throwing hard.

Goncalves walked Elijah out to the batter's box. Elijah stood just outside of it. He eyed the plate. He didn't move.

Goncalves bent down and put his arm around Elijah's slight shoulders. Players and officials craned their necks.

He suggested Elijah stand at the edge of the batter's box so the pitcher wouldn't hit him. Even if he got a walk, the team would score.

Elijah was still scared. If he hits me, Elijah told Goncalves, he might kill me.

Goncalves knew what he had to do. You don't have to bat, he told Elijah. You can walk back with me to the dugout.

OK, Elijah said.

Goncalves accepted the out for his team.

Elijah worried about the team's reaction. Some of the boys later admitted frustration. But before heading for the outfield, they rallied around Elijah, giving him Gatorade and a fan even though he wasn't sweating.

"I said, 'You don't want to bat? That's your own personal choice,' " remembers catcher Eric Gregg. "We'll cheer him on because he's one of our teammates."

The coach knew all too well how Elijah felt. He experienced the same paralyzing fear as a ballplayer as a boy.

"I was Elijah," he says.

The next morning, July 22, the Yellowjackets were playing for the state title. They'd managed to win that fourth game -- by two runs.

They faced Gaston again in the double-elimination tournament. By the top of the second inning in this five-inning game, the Yellowjackets narrowly led, 5-4. Anthony Lewis was up. He'd had a rocky tournament. Lots of strikes.

From his porch, Anthony relives the moment for his mother, father and younger sister:

Assistant coach Langlois called him and another boy aside.

"He told me to imagine like he was pitching to me at practice," explains Anthony. "It helped me relax."

And then: "I hit the ball."

He singled, scoring teammate Asher Finkelstein and fueling a four-run rally. The team went into the next inning with a comfortable five-run margin and maintained it. They won 9-4.

As Anthony tells his tale, his father stares at a photograph that the coach gave him. It's of Anthony in the batter's box in Eugene. Andy Lewis, who buys and sells cars while Anthony's mom trains as a medical assistant, couldn't attend the state tournament.

He admits he hadn't thought Anthony would be so good. Now he sees his son anew.

"Just the game face," his father says. "He looks so serious."

Anthony doesn't say anything, but his eyes dance. He fingers the team's medal still looped around his neck.</hr>

I love that. I really do. Go, John!

Tags: 2007, july-2007, neighbor, the-oregonian

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