Petaluma National ready to play ball at Little League World Series

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The dreams of the Petaluma National Little Leaguers turn to reality today when they take the field in South Williamsport, Pa., for their opening-round game in the Little League World Series.

If the current setting is straight out of a Disney movie, the road there was a little bumpy.

The Petaluma players and their three coaches flew out of Los Angeles at 3 p.m. Sunday, less than 24 hours after wrapping up a berth in the World Series with a taut, perhaps even controversial, victory over a team from Waianae, Hawaii. But United Airlines lost a bag, and Petaluma National wound up driving the 180 miles from Newark, N.J., to South Williamsport in the wee hours.

“It was pretty long,” said Blake <HY0>Buhrer<HY1>, one of the players. “It was 5 in the morning when we got there. I only got about a half-hour of sleep.”

It wasn’t just the transportation woes that kept the Petalumans awake, of course. It was the excitement of making it to one of the highest-profile youth sports events in the world.

To get there, Petaluma National had to survive a late rally Saturday by Nanakuli of Waianae in the West Region championship at San Bernardino. It looked like the Hawaiian team had cut the score to 7-6 with two outs in the top of the sixth (and final) inning, but Petaluma ended the game on an appeal when third-base umpire Steve Bailey ruled a Nanakuli runner had failed to touch third base on his way home.

Replays and freeze-frames of the runner’s footwork looked inconclusive to most viewers.

Petaluma National head coach Eric Smith said he had seen only one or two replays on his iPad, not enough to form a clear opinion.<NO1><NO>

“An appeal is not uncommon in Little League,” Smith said. “But to end a game with one certainly is. And with the magnitude of the moment — it was crazy.”

Things have been pretty hectic for the team since then. Perhaps 20 minutes after the big victory, the Petalumans were whisked into a meeting where a Little League official explained the logistics of what would happen next.

Since arriving in Williamsport, the kids have gotten goodies from the Easton sporting goods company, did some skills testing with the Baseball Factory, a firm that focuses on player development and college placement of high school baseball players, and sat down to tape individual spots for ESPN in which they stated their names, positions and favorite players. (Buhrer said his is Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner.) They were supposed to practice Tuesday morning, but the session was rained out.

All 16 teams — eight American, eight international — are housed in dormitory-style accommodations with a common cafeteria. Petaluma shares a floor, and a bathroom, with the Canadian representative from Vancouver, British Columbia. One floor above them are the teams from Uganda and New Castle, Ind.

Coaches stay in separate rooms in the same complex. Smith said his balcony overlooks Lamade Stadium, one of two fields on which games will be played.

Petaluma’s first test will come at noon Pacific time today when it plays the New England representative. The team from Fairfield, Conn., is formidable; like Petaluma, it cruised through its regional undefeated. Fairfield played in the World Series two years ago, and considering it’s just 4½ hours from South Williamsport by car, promises to attract a lot of fans.

If Petaluma National loses, it will play Saturday. If it wins, its next game will be Sunday. If it loses that game, its World Series will be over. Either way, it promises to be a rarefied experience for the young players.

“Some of these kids were in elementary school three months ago,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘OK, they’re junior high kids.’ But really, just out of elementary school? They’re on about their 16th day away from family, and what they’ve been able to accomplish is really something.”

Which is why all of Sonoma County seems to be watching these Little Leaguers.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.