As if the Little League All-Star season wasn’t exciting enough, a roster of 20 players from San Mateo had a summer they’ll never forget.
Both the San Mateo American 10-11 and the San Mateo National 11-12 teams advanced to the championship round of the Northern California state tournaments July 27. The next day, seven players from those two teams boarded a fight with 13 other teammates for a trip to Japan as the San Mateo Sister City Association baseball team made its quadrennial trip to Toyonaka, Japan as part of city’s Toyonaka-San Mateo Sister City Association.
There was real concern, however, that those All-Star players in championship games might not make the trip. Both teams advanced to the championship series through the loser’s bracket, meaning they would have to win two straight to take the title — with the winner-take-all game slated for Sunday — the day the SMSCA team was leaving for Japan.
“If they had won and played on Sunday, there would have not been a way to change the flights. It’s never been an issue in the 40 years and it was this year,” said Danny Harris, SMSCA head coach and the program’s director. “Your consolation for losing a state championship game is a (baseball) trip to Japan.”
The two cities have been exchanging baseball trips every two years for the last 40 years. Harris has been involved with the program for, literally, most of his life. He went to Toyonaka as a player in 1990 — and was teammates with Gavin Owen, who was slated to be head coach for the team this year, but had to miss the trip for the birth of his child. Harris then took over as director of the program in 2001 and has now made the trip to Japan five times in total.
While Harris may be an old hand at traveling, for some of the kids on the team, it was their first time on a jet — let alone on a trip out of the country. Everything they experienced on the trip was a first: from the culture to the food to staying with host families.
“The baseball part is the easiest part for the kids. It’s what they know. … Everything else is going to be a new experience,” Harris said. “There were definitely some kids who were homesick. … Food is another issue, all the new flavors. Are they getting enough to eat? The host families are also noticing things, so they would come to us and say, ‘We don’t think they’re eating enough. What can we do?’
“They would give the shirts off their backs to ensure you have an amazing experience. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
After a couple days in country to get adjusted to new weather conditions (hot and extremely humid) and get a taste of Tokyo and Hakone, a small mountain village, it was time to board a bullet train for Osaka and then to the suburb of Toyonaka, where it was finally time to play ball. Originally scheduled to play five games and then an exhibition, San Mateo and the two Toyonaka teams — Blue and Red — managed only four games, with each program winning two.
The first game, scheduled for July 31, was limited to just three innings as the heat and humidity actually had a more adverse effect on the home team, which forced the postponement of the game with Toyonaka Red leading 5-1.
“They had a couple kids go down (because of the heat),” Harris said.
San Mateo and Toyonaka Blue got a full game in Thursday, with the Blue winning easily, 9-3, a game in which San Mateo was held to five hits. This after mustering only two hits in the truncated game the day before.
“I think they (Toyonaka Blue) played well that first game and we had a little trouble catching the ball,” Harris said.
After a day off, San Mateo finally got rolling as it swept a doubleheader Saturday. It got a strong starting pitching performance from Robert Wolfgramm, who threw four innings, allowing two runs on two hits while striking out six in a 4-2 win over Toyonaka Red in the morning.
In the afternoon game, San Mateo put everything together in a 10-4 win over Toyonaka Red. San Mateo trailed 2-1 going into the top of the third inning, but it closed the game by scoring two runs in the third, three in the fourth and four in the fifth. Ilonzo Montiero and Nabhan Singh each drove in a pair of runs, with Singh clubbing a two-run home run.
“We played really well,” Harris said. “We did all the things right.”
In the series finale this past Sunday, Toyonaka Red picked up the host city’s second win, 14-3. Ian Chang belted a home run and drove in two runs to lead the San Mateo offense.
“By then, there was camaraderie between both teams because some of the kids we were playing against were also host families,” Harris said. “There was a lot of mingling (between the players for both cities).”