SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- You think it was hard for you to return to school after summer vacation back in the day? Consider the Petaluma National all-stars, who are spending the tail end of summer being treated like 13 Justin Biebers in cleats.
"They can't walk 50 feet without a group of kids, and girls, coming up and asking for their autographs and stuff," assistant coach Trevor Tomei said, sitting on a shaded bench outside The Grove, the compound that houses all of the Little League World Series players and coaches. "It's unbelievable. They're signing everything from the shirt somebody's wearing to hats, to baseballs, to programs."
It's a life to which these until-recently typical kids are gradually becoming accustomed. They played in front of big crowds while winning the West regional tournament at San Bernadino. Now they get a line of fans, mostly kids, draped along an outfield wall -- to watch them take batting practice.
"A whole group of girls followed us around for like 20 minutes," pitcher Quinton Gago said. "They were asking us our names and stuff."
No wonder Gago offered this assessment of the overall experience: "It's paradise here."
The fame will continue to grow if Petaluma National keeps winning. The next opportunity comes Sunday at 11 a.m. Pacific time when the West representative faces Goodlettsville, Tenn., the team that won the Southeast region.
And yes, it will be a difficult test. Five hours
Four Goodlettsville players hit home runs in that game. But it was the starting pitcher, hard-throwing Brock Myers, who really got Petaluma's attention. Myers gave up just one single in 4« innings. He left the mound when his pitch count hit 50, meaning he is allowed under Little League rules to throw again Sunday.
"We're not really too concerned about their offense. They have a shut-down pitcher on their team," Tomei said.
"Is he the guy that can come out and shut a team down? Absolutely. Can he shut us down? I don't know. But I'll tell you, Eric (Smith, the Petaluma manager) and I have been coaching this team for four years. We'd much rather see a kid throwing hard than a kid that's throwing soft. And that's just how we are. We're a fastball-hitting team."
Still, the Petaluma coaches had the pitching-machine operator goose up the velocity a little during batting practice Saturday morning. They've been practicing, for the most part, twice a day -- perhaps an hour in the batting cage and an hour to 90 minutes on the field.
The kids have been having tons of fun in South Williamsport. They rode in a parade Wednesday, toured the Little League Hall of Fame on Friday and have spent a great amount of time swimming and playing Ping-Pong with other teams at The Grove. But Smith and his assistants (Mike Slate is the second coach) have their players on highly regimented schedule. The coaches tell them when to eat, when to relax and when to go to sleep.
Sometimes, the kids listen.
"We pulled a couple kids into Eric's room last night," Tomei said. "I won't mention any names. But it's always the same ones we're having to talk with at 11:30 at night. Eric and I laugh about it, but we have to play Mr. Tough Guy when it happens."
The all-stars got some much-needed family time Friday. Many of them really hadn't gotten to hang out with their parents for four or five days. Over the weekend, the interaction will be brief, though after today'sSunday's game the families will be allowed into a VIP tent to help celebrate or console.
One thing everyone in Petaluma should be happy about: The boys are finally healthy. Several arrived in South Williamsport feeling sick after an epic trip from Los Angeles. Smith played it down early this week, but kids like his son Hance Smith, Kempton Brandis, Logan Douglas and Danny Marzo were considerably less than 100 percent for Thursday's win.
"And Hance was pretty much a game-time decision," Tomei said. "We felt that even if he was at 75 percent, he was still gonna be beneficial for us to get him out there."
Sunday's game will be broadcast on ABC, another milestone for the Petalumans, and 14,000-seat (not counting the vast lawn seating) Lamade Stadium is sure to be packed. That's getting to be old hat for this team. And as Tomei pointed out, the atmosphere here manages to be nurturing despite its magnitude.
"It reminds me of Disneyland," he said. "Everybody's happy. There's not a grumpy person in the house. ... It's Disneyland for the people that love baseball."
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com. ------ (c)2012 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com Distributed by MCT Information Services