LIVERMORE -- The smell of freshly cut grass, the ping of aluminum bats and the cheers of support in foreign, far-flung dialects could only mean one thing -- the best of the world's Little Leaguers were back in Livermore.
The 2nd Annual Little League Intermediate World Series -- an international baseball championship for youth aged 11 to 13 -- kicked off Tuesday at Livermore's Max Baer Park, with Latin American champion Pabao Little League of Curacao taking on Canada's Surrey Little League, a team from near Vancouver, British Columbia.
Leading the Curacao contingent in chants while draped in a flag of his home country, Efrain Regales had flown first to Miami, and finally to the Bay Area to cheer on his son Immanuel, an outfielder for the team.
A small island off the coast of Venezuela with a population of less than 150,000, Curacao loves its baseball, Regales explained. All across the island, youth aspire to emulate an impressive number of major leaguers, such as All-Star Andruw Jones, who call the former Dutch colony their homeland.
"You're looking at the talent right here," Regales said. "Their goal is to reach the MLB. They think big."
The island's All-Stars are perennial contenders at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, winning the title in 2004. The league has since instituted an Intermediate (50/70) Division, allowing boys and girls the opportunity to prepare for high school by playing games on a diamond slightly larger than traditional Little League fields. Its first world championship was held in Livermore last year, won by the Asia-Pacific team from Japan.
For this year's Series, Chynusca Gregg traveled from Curacao to watch her son Darwin, who hopes to earn a scholarship to play baseball in the U.S. Back home, she said, radio and websites are broadcasting the contests live to an enthusiastic fan base.
"For us it's very emotional because we are an island," Gregg said. "There's not much to do for kids. If they win the world championship it will be a record for them. It's their opportunity to make it to the States."
Equally enthusiastic were the fans decked out in Canada's red and white, who had to scramble to make travel plans after winning the Canadian championship last Friday.
"It's been three days of craziness," said Harv Kliewer, who made the trip from Vancouver to see his son Andy play center field. "To represent Canada here is just a huge thrill for these kids."
"We'll do our best to help the economy here," he added. "We're hoping to hit some wineries."
Not everybody needed to globe-trot to get to the ball field. Carrie Homa of Livermore walked to the game with her two sons. The competition, she said, was inspiring her older son, Mason Franchi, to return to the Granada Little League next year.
"It's fun for the kids. It's free, you can spend the whole day and have a picnic," she said. "I think it's great for the community. I'd love if it stayed here. It's good to see so many cultures and people supporting baseball."
Curacao prevailed in the series opener over Canada 11-1, the team's faithful periodically bursting into rousing renditions of the disco hit "That's the Way (I Like It)" with each successive run.
Pitching coach Dennis Neuman was pleased with his team's performance after the long trip, but the sweltering heat led him to remark, "It gets hot in Curacao, but not like this."
The series, which culminates Aug. 4 with a nationally televised championship game, boasts nine other teams, hailing from South Korea, Puerto Rico and the Czech Republic, as well as American teams from Michigan, Maryland, Arizona, Texas and West Virginia. East region representative Berlin, Maryland, beat Taylor, Michigan, 8-2 in the series' second game.
District 57 host team Canyon Creek of San Ramon was scheduled to play Barboursville, West Virginia, at 7 p.m. Tuesday
Tournament officials predict as many as 40,000 spectators will attend the games over the duration of the series.
Facing competition from other cities for future World Series, tournament director Dave Wetmore said it's important this year's event, with a financial boost of $10,000 from the city of Livermore, has the support of the community.
"We're hoping it stays here for as long as everybody wants it here," Wetmore said. "We're just trying to make it better and better."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
All games of the 2nd Annual Little League Intermediate Division World Series will be held at Livermore's Max Baer Park daily until Aug. 4. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.intermediateworldseries.org.