Monday, August 24, 2009

West Tampa Makes Williamsport, 8/20/69

The summer of 1969 continues to loom large in the public imagination. The summer singer Bryan Adams proclaimed were “the best days” of his life featured events of global and regional importance. The Moon landing and Chappaquiddick stand out to some, but ask anyone from West Tampa what they remember about that summer and one thing comes to mind: baseball.

The West Tampa Little League All-Stars, led by pitcher John Tagliarino, took the area by storm as they marched toward the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. An intimidating figure on the mound nicknamed “The Train,” the 5-foot-8, 180-pound Tagliarino pitched West Tampa into the Southern Regional Tournament in St. Petersburg on August 13. His first-inning home run and 11 strikeouts were enough in a 2-0 victory over Nashville, Tennessee.

In the regional finals, West Tampa sent to the mound the second-half of its killer 1-2 punch, Larry Rodriguez. In front of 4,000 fans at Al Lang Memorial Stadium, the West Tampa boys survived a thrilling seven-inning affair with a 1-0 triumph against Charleston, West Virginia. Herbie Arroyo scored the winning run from third as a ground ball hit by Nelson Garcia went between West Virginia hurler Greg Hansen’s legs.

Rodriguez pitched a gem for West Tampa, striking out 16 and allowing just two base runners. The victory, West Tampa's ninth straight tournament shutout, propelled them team to the big dance in Williamsport. The appearance would mark the second in three years for 12-year-olds representing West Tampa. This edition hoped to fare better, however, than the 1967 team that fell in the tournament’s opening round.

Arnold White, the Southern Regional Little League director, predicted a big tournament for the West Tampa team, citing the combination of physical size and the approach taken to the game by manager Emilio Echevarria’s squad.

“If they continue to play the type of game they are capable of,” White said, “I see no reason why they can’t go all the way.

If the boys had any nerves going into the tournament’s first game, they were put on hold for a day by a rainout that canceled the opening day of competition. So instead, West Tampa took to the field a day later on August 20 against a team of Americans – primarily the sons of military personnel – from Wiesbaden, West Germany.

In front of 7,000 fans, “The Big Train” pitched as if unfazed by the extra day between starts, fanning 16 batters and no-hitting the team from West Germany. Tagliarino came within one strikeout of the tournament record for a single game, and chipped in at the plate by adding a home run.

West Germany scored its only run of the game following a walk to leadoff hitter Paul Weissenborn. A combination of passed balls and a wild pitch allowed the runner to reach the plate for their only run of the game.

Dennis Valdes broke the 1-1 tie with a game-winning home run for West Tampa in the fifth inning to give his team its decisive 2-1 lead. Cuban-born outfielder Raul Gonzalez made perhaps the catch of the tournament in the sixth inning for West Tampa, with a running grab of a line drive to preserve the victory.

“That catch,” Echevarria said, “saved the day.”

For his part, however, Echevarria expressed concern with the lack of hits by his squad, which produced just four on the afternoon.

“We need to hit like we have in the past if we expect to get by California,” he said.

Unfortunately for West Tampa, they actually produced fewer hits (3) in the ensuing showdown against the team from Santa Clara, California. Santa Clara, sparked by a leadoff hit by future major league All-Star Carney Lansford, touched starter Larry Rodriguez for two runs in the first, but West Tampa rebounded with three runs in the third inning to regain the lead by one.

The wheels fell off in the fourth inning, as an fielding error at short by Randy Ferlita allowed two runs to score, giving Santa Clara a 4-3 lead. Ferlita turned in two defensive gems in the third inning, but fell victim to a tough hop off the bat of Jerry Hinkle. Still, the damage had been done and West Tampa would not threaten the rest of the way.

If the boys were stung by their defeat, they didn’t show it in the consolation game against Elyria, Ohio. Tagliarino – denied the individual game strikeout record in his previous start – shattered it against Ohio by striking out 22 batters. He homered again in what turned out to be West Tampa’s only run in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie
after nine innings.

West Tampa finished the tournament tied for third, at the time the best finish by a local team at Williamsport. A parade through Ybor City and downtown, as well as a banquet at the Sweden House restaurant, awaited the team upon their return.

Mayor Dick Greco even proclaimed August 26 “Welcome Back, West Tampa Day.”

“West Tampa did a great job in the world tournament and has made Tampa very proud,” he said. “Tampa’s name has gone all over the world because of their achievements.”

This would not be the last time kids from the Tampa area would make it to Williamsport, but their run forty years ago has proven to be a lasting highlight from a very memorable summer.

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