The price of Petaluma National's glory

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. —  For now, the parents of the Petaluma National all-stars live in a suspended world of baseball, TV cameos, congratulatory text messages and more baseball.

When they return home to Petaluma, which would be Monday if everything goes according to the Disney script, is when reality will set in — the piled-up work, the unopened mail, the attention-starved pets, and for at least one woman, an employment search.

“I lost my job during the San Bernardino thing,” said Billie Ann Tomei, mother of Cole and wife of assistant coach Trevor Tomei.

Billie Ann had been working as an office manager for a CPA. She had vacation time, but the West regional tournament in San Bernardino came at the wrong time. Her boss was out of the office and needed her to keep things running.

“He wouldn’t let me take time off,” Tomei said Wednesday, on the eve of a game that could send Petaluma National into the United States championship round. “He told me, ‘If you go, write yourself your last check.’ So I wrote myself my last check.”

Tomei’s experience might be the most dramatic, but all of the parents here at the Little League World Series are enduring hardships in the wake of their boys’ wild ride.

That’s not to say they aren’t cherishing the experience, or grateful to the folks back home who have raised money to finance their trips. It’s just that 11 days in San Bernardino, followed by a harried trip home and a quick ricochet to central Pennsylvania for who-knows-how-long has left many of them cash-poor (they will be reimbursed for many out-of-pocket expenses), lonely for separated family members and a bit disoriented.

It’s hardest for those who left other kids at home, like the Gagos (parents of Quinton), the Moores (parents of Dylan), the Slates (parents of Porter) and the Buhrers (parents of Blake).

School started Wednesday in Petaluma. It’s bad enough for the Little Leaguers to miss their first few days, especially Quinton Gago, who is transferring to Petaluma Junior High this year. Some parents decided it would be too much to ask siblings to do the same.

Being three time zones away from a child on her first day of school has proved to be an emotional absence for Heather Slate. Her daughter Kendall, starting her freshman year at Petaluma High, is staying with close family friends. Heather’s mom jumped in to take Kendall to an orthodontic appointment.

She’s well taken care of, but the Slates have hardly seen her for three weeks. Kendall didn’t make the trip to Southern California, either.

“I definitely miss the mom-daughter thing right now,” Heather Slate said. “I promised her a mom-daughter trip after we all get back.”

Jessie Moore, Dylan’s father, can relate. His son Tyler, a sophomore at Casa Grande, joined the family on the trip here, but flew home by himself Monday.

“We always take a picture of our kids on the first day of school,” Jessie said. “Now I guess we’ll have to do it the second week this time. It was a little tough dropping him off at the airport.”

Kids aren’t the only ones being temporarily abandoned.

“Our poor cat,” Tina Stevens, Bradley Smith’s mom, said with a laugh. “It's just Bradley and me, and he’s our only child. Oh my God, we sincerely love our cat. We send each other pictures.”

As the World Series has progressed — today is Day 8 of 11 — all the parents have had to perform a tricky calculus to decide whether they can last the entire tournament. Becky Smith, mother of Hance, headed for home Wednesday, leaving the baseball in the capable hands of her husband, Petaluma National manager Eric Smith. She left to be with their daughter Indya, who is starting sixth grade at a new school, Petaluma Junior High.

Billie Ann Tomei came here with her elderly mother, who could not stay more than a few days. Tomei didn’t want her mom flying alone, so she accompanied her home Sunday, then turned around and flew right back. But she couldn’t secure a rental car in Philadelphia. Desperate to see Tuesday’s game, she hired a taxi to drive her the 185 miles to South Williamsport.

“I gave the taxi driver $400 and told him to take me as far as he could take me,” Tomei said. “It was all the money I had. Fortunately, he was really kind and brought me all the way. I owe him $150.”

Tomei arrived at Lamade Stadium in time to see exactly one play — the final out of Petaluma National’s 5-0 victory over Fairfield, Conn.

Though the TV face time has been a rush for players and family members alike, the life of a World Series parent is not glamorous. These people have been living out of suitcases and pining for home cooking for three weeks now.

They cope, in part, by relying on one another. Most of the Petaluma players have been friends and teammates for years, and the parents have grown quite close. Some of them pooled resources to share rental cars here. Two of the moms have run together on a levee trail next to the Susquehanna River. A few of the dads have golfed to fill the downtime.

The other big support group, they all know, is back home in Sonoma County. Friends and relatives have teamed up to make sure their domestic lives don’t come off the rails. And, Tomei’s experience notwithstanding, most bosses and co-workers have been exceptionally forgiving.

All of that allows the Petaluma National parents to zero in on baseball. They can repay their debts when they re-enter normal life.

“We owe ’em,” Alexie Buhrer, Blake’s mom, said. “By the time it’s all over, we’ll really owe ’em. But we’re living the dream of a 12-year-old.”

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