Monday, August 25, 2008

Belmont Heights Hits Williamsport, 8/22/73

This week, the Tampa Bay area sent a team from Citrus Park to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The boys from Citrus Park joined a long line of successful youth baseball teams from this area to play on the national stage. Win or lose, they have earned an esteemed place in local history.

Another group of youngsters representing Belmont Heights in East Tampa had their shot at Little League glory this week in 1973. Their journey to Williamsport began by winning the state title at a tournament in Auburndale, followed by the Southern Regional Tournament at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. The Belmont Heights All-Stars entered the tournament on a seven-game winning streak, and won their first two games over teams from Texas and Kentucky before facing South Carolina in the final.

Belmont Heights used a four-run outburst in the sixth inning to hold off South Carolina, 7-3. Their berth in the Little League World Series was the third time in seven years a Tampa area team advanced to Williamsport, but the first time a local team from somewhere other than West Tampa advanced. Following the game, shortstop Barry McNish made a bold prediction: “I really feel we can win the World Series,” he said. “But we will have to give 100 percent.”

Belmont Heights’ manager Zeke Thomas called them the best all-around team he ever coached. Officially the best Little League team in the South -- and the region’s first ever all-black squad -- the Belmont
Heights youngsters now had a chance to prove themselves against the best Little League teams from around the world.

Their first challenge was against the team from Canada, whose catcher, 160-pound Jerry Scramstad, opened the scoring by clobbering a hanging curve from Belmont Heights starter Darryl Mitchell for a two-run home run in the first inning. In an early hole, Belmont Heights answered in its half of the first inning with two runs to reverse the momentum.

Belmont Heights went on to score 11 unanswered runs in the 11-2 triumph over Canada. Outfielder Quinton Kincy’s fifth-inning grand slam put an exclamation point on the game, in which he had a total of 6 RBI. After allowing two runs in the first inning, Mitchell settled down and gave up only one hit the rest of the afternoon while striking out 10 batters in six innings.

The triumphant victory earned Belmont Heights a date in the semifinals with powerhouse Taiwan. Zeke Thomas put on a confident face in assessing his team’s chances against Taiwan, whose teams had won the previous two Little League World Series titles.

“[Taiwan] has a great team,” he said. “But I think we can win. We’ve played teams of their caliber before. It’ll just be a case of one good team playing another.”

After the game, neither Thomas nor his team could say they had ever seen a team of Taiwan’s caliber. Taiwan opened its tournament with an 18-0 rout of Germany, Europe’s best. Pitcher Huang Ching-Hu recorded just the third perfect game in LLWS history. He so dominated the German team that only two batters managed to put the ball in play - both weakly hit infield grounders.

On August 22, in his first news conference since March 15, embattled President Richard Nixon announced to reporters that his critics “want me to fail. I’m not going to fail. I’m going to do the best I can.”

Like the president, Belmont Heights would need to do their best not to fail. What happened the next day against Taiwan, however, can only be described as merciless. Despite overwhelming love from a crowd that cheered their every move while often booing Taiwan, no amount of support could have helped. By the end of the second inning, Taiwan had scored 10 runs off pitchers Bobby Graham and Bryce Mattox. Thomas, so optimistic before the game, quickly realized his team simply could not compete with Taiwan.

“As soon as I saw them at bat,” Thomas said, “I knew there was no way we could win.”

Taiwan hit a LLWS-record five home runs in a 20-hit onslaught. Pitcher Kuo Wen-li threw a no-hitter, allowing just one base runner on a walk to second baseman Marlon James. A 13-run sixth inning in which 17 Taiwan batters came to the plate turned the rout into a farce with a final score of 27-0.

Thomas provided the understatement of the day when after the game he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before and I hope I never see anything like it again.”

Despite the loss, Belmont Heights still had one more game to play with a chance at third place on the line. In a game more resembling baseball than a circus, Belmont Heights showed the heart of a champion against Michigan. Third baseman Lemuel James scored the winning run in the top of the seventh to break a tie, and Darryl Mitchell scattered three hits while fanning 13 to lead Belmont Heights to a 2-1 victory over Michigan. With the win, Belmont Heights could proudly claim to be the second-best team in the country behind only Arizona, victimized 12-0 by Taiwan in the championship.

The whirlwind experience for the kids from Belmont Heights -- many of whom had never been outside Florida -- continued after the Series. Visits to Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and a Baltimore Orioles game rounded out their memorable week. The team returned to Tampa as heroes, receiving a parade from Al Lopez Field to their home park in Belmont Heights. A dinner banquet that night attended by more than 500 people at the Sweden House restaurant capped the festivities.

Belmont Heights may not have come back to Tampa with the title, but the heart and dignity they showed in the face of adversity has made them an enduring source of pride in a community steeped in rich baseball tradition.

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