Monday, August 30, 2010

Belmont Heights Plays for Title, 8/30/80

In the 1973 Little League World Series, a team of 11 and 12-year-olds representing Belmont Heights in East Tampa ran up against a baseball-destroying machine from Taiwan. The final score of their semi-final contest – 27-0 in favor of the team from the Far East – put a damper on what had been a spectacular summertime run.

The Belmont Heights bunch took third place overall in the series, but this would not be the last appearance in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for this organization. In 1975, Belmont Heights sent a team all the way to the finals, losing 4-3 to a team from Lakewood, New Jersey. The summer of 1980 produced yet another memorable Belmont Heights squad, one that would again prove to be among the elite in the nation.

“This team is way stronger than the ’75 team,” said manager Vernard Felder. “We’ve got better pitchers and more hitters. We don’t have to rely on one man. All these guys hit the ball.”

If future potential alone were his criteria, Felder would be proven quite prophetic. Future major leaguers Gary Sheffield and Derek Bell – along with Team USA standout Ty Griffin – patrolled the diamond for Belmont Heights that summer.

At the Southern Regional Tournament in Gulfport, Belmont Heights opened the action by topping the team from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 7-1. Behind three home runs and eight RBI from Sheffield, Belmont Heights spanked the team from Logan, West Virginia, 17-2 to advance to the finals.

Against Clarksville, Tennessee, it was pitcher Kirk Walker who did the dominating. The ace of his team’s staff, Walker allowed just two hits and recorded 15 strikeouts in a 2-0 blanking of Tennessee to capture the South Region title.

The manager of the West Virginia team, Roger Gertz, predicted great things in the World Series for Belmont Heights.

“I went to the World Series last year,” he said, “and this team is on the same level as Taiwan. I tell you what, I look for them to beat Taiwan in the finals.”

Belmont Heights certainly had a team built to beat the perennial favorites from Taiwan. First, however, they had to knock out the East Region winner from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This turned out to be no problem.

On August 26, Belmont Heights emphatically lived up to their reputation as “Taiwan South” by demolishing Pawtucket 20-3 in a five-inning massacre. In this game, Belmont Heights just missed trying the record for most hits in a game, 21, which had been established against them in the 27-0 loss to Taiwan in 1973.

In the U.S. title game against the West Region representative from Kirkland, Washington, Belmont Heights continued their assault on America with a 16-0 lashing. Sheffield and Griffin combined for two homers and nine RBI between them, and Andra Mack pitched six shutout innings for the victory.

“I just don’t know how much better we can get,” Sheffield said after the game.

Despite scoring 36 runs and recording 40 hits in two games, Belmont Heights would face the ultimate test against the team from Taiwan. They were in the midst of their own dominating run, having spanked the Canadian champions 23-0 in the semifinals. These were clearly the only two Little League teams on the planet capable of slowing down the other.

The long-awaited showdown took place on August 30 in front of a crowd of better than 30,000 – which included Republican Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush -- at Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

A one-hour pre-game rain delay and the magnitude of the moment might have triggered some nerves in the team from Tampa. A shaky first inning, which featured three fielding errors, put Belmont Heights behind early 2-0.

“I didn’t expect those errors in the first inning,” Vernard Felder said after the game. “That’s not like us.”

Ty Griffin responded, however, with a solo shot in the bottom of the first to cut the lead in half.

Down 2-1 in the third inning, Belmont Heights’ starting pitcher Kirk Walker gave up back-to-back home runs to Shuh-Shin Li and Sheng-Dean Chen, putting his team in a 4-1 hole. Belmont Heights rallied for a run in the fourth, and Walker kept Taiwan at bay for the next three innings to give his team a chance heading into the bottom of the sixth.

Trailing 4-2, Sheffield scored from third on a controversial call to cut the margin to one run. To many, it appeared as though Taiwan’s first baseman took his foot off the bag before throwing the ball home to try and gun down Sheffield. The umpire called Derek Bell out at first base for the second out of the inning. The following batter, George Hornsby, then struck out to end the dramatic game.

During their amazing run, the team from Belmont Heights picked up some fans in high places, including Tampa resident and New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner.

“What a job they did,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll treat them right. The Belmont kids are champs in my book.”

Thanks to his generosity, the players and staff of the United States champions were treated to a whirlwind trip to New York from September 20-21. The weekend began with pre-game festivities on the field at Yankee Stadium prior to a game between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The players lined up with their professional counterparts during the national anthem and posed for a group shot with slugger Reggie Jackson.

The team also toured Yankee Stadium, and capped the day by dining in elegance at the top of the World Trade Center in the Windows on the World restaurant.

Ben Rouse, president of the Belmont Heights Little League, could not have been any prouder of his team.

“Our kids distinguished themselves,” he said. “They played well and they were gentlemen. We would liked to have been champions of the world, but we can’t complain about being champions of this country.”

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