Sports

Boys of summer making mark for BHS

The Little League heroes of four years ago are reaching

the varsity level.

Robbie Stevenson never thought the Bainbridge 11-12-year-old All-Stars would make it as far as they did.

“We were just average,” Stevenson said. “I played on the same team the year before, so that year, it didn’t feel any different.”

But for he and Michael Heald, and 11 other island kids, the summer of 2001 proved to be the experience of a lifetime.

Dubbed the “Mini-Mariners” by the local media, they captured the hearts of a community that summer, riding a hot streak that took them and their families to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.

There, they nearly made it to the championship game, falling to one of the tournament’s best teams – a squad that eventually had to forfeit its wins, in perhaps the biggest scandal in youth sports history.

Stevenson, now 15 and a sophomore at Bainbridge Island High School, stands in the dugout on a dreary Western Washington afternoon, watching the Spartans go through their drills.

The team’s first baseman, he suffered a hairline fracture of his right ankle during a practice earlier in the year, and is stuck in a protective boot for a few more weeks.

He tries to find the words for those nine days in Willamsport, but the enormity of it was too much for him at the time.

“That was pretty much just a blur,” he said of the experience. “I don’t remember that much of it.”

But Heald, now 16 and the starting catcher for the Spartans, remembers quite a bit. He sat out for most of the series due to a foot injury; from the bench, he was able to take it all in.

“Sitting there and watching the game, I learned so much more about baseball,” Heald said. “I actually had a lot more memories from each game, and I can pretty much play it through my head.”

He also remembers how he nearly missed playing in the Western Regional tournament leading up to the series.

After sitting out of the district tournament with his foot in a cast, the team got a call the day of their eventual victory over Mill Creek from officials there. They were told that if Heald didn’t play at least one game, he wouldn’t be eligible for regionals.

Unable to find a cast-cutter in Walla Walla, they had to resort to other measures.

“We had two doctors of one of the sons on our team take me to the local morgue and use a bone cutter to crack open my cast,” he said.

He was glad they did. The All-Stars, already winners of 10 out of 12 pressure-packed contests in district and state play, won six straight at the tournament, beating state champions with the same ease the Seattle Mariners did that year against the American League.

Stevenson, the number one starter for the All-Stars, pitched a five-inning perfect game in the first contest against a team from Billings, Mont.

He also pitched in the Western Regional final, a heart-stopping 5-4 win over West Salem, Ore. to send Bainbridge to the Little League World Series. That game, which was broadcast on ESPN2, was exciting for both players.

“We still have all the tapes from that,” Heald said. “We kinda knew that we were going to be on TV, but we didn’t know that it was as big as ESPN.”

“All the cameras were zoomed in to us, and we were just piling on top of each other,” Stevenson said. “It was awesome.”

They didn’t get to celebrate for long. After returning to the hotel, they packed and got on a plane at 3:30 a.m. to fly to Williamsport for the chance to be champions of the world.

It was there the All-Stars eventually encountered the team Rolando Paulino of the Bronx, N.Y., and its star pitcher, Danny Almonte, who dominated the tournament with 70 mph fastballs and even pitched a perfect game.

Bainbridge won its opener against Davenport, Iowa, then lost to Apopka, Fla., and needed a win against Rolando Paulino to keep their hopes alive.

Although Almonte didn’t pitch against Bainbridge – he played in centerfield that game – they were shut out on four hits by Rolando Torres.

After the series, Sports Illustrated discovered that Almonte was actually 14 years old – two years too old to compete in the tournament. Discredited, the Bronx team forfeited its games.

But before that revelation, Stevenson remembers how huge Almonte’s presence loomed in the series.

“During the times when we weren’t playing and in the rec-room, there was always someone interviewing him,” said Stevenson, who actually defeated Almonte in a game of ping-pong. “He just had an incredible amount of media around him at that time.”

Heald recalls that conversations about Almonte dominated the dorms where the teams were staying.

“There was a lot of talk about it,” he said. “We had heard a lot of rumors that he was older, and when we looked at him you could pretty much tell (that he was 14), but we weren’t going to say anything except to ourselves and the coaches.”

Despite the scandal, Stevenson said they felt they just got outplayed that day, not because Rolando Paulino had older players on the team.

“We were extremely happy that we had gotten that far,” he said. “I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference. We lost fair and square that game.”

When they came back to the island, they were local celebrities. About 150 people were waiting for them at the SeaTac airport. They were honored with a parade down Winslow Way, and were feted at a Mariners game, where French threw out the first pitch and the big-league players talked to the kids.

Stevenson said John Olerud talked to them for a few minutes, “which was really cool. We liked him a lot.”

Heald and Stevenson are the first players from the 11-12-year-old All-Star team to crack the Bainbridge High School varsity program.

While several have gone on to star in other sports, five of their teammates from 2001 – Adam Beck, Tal Glass, Jesse Colkitt, Rudy Sharar and Taurean Yamada – are playing baseball at the JV level this season, destined to move up.

Their focus is on helping the Spartans win a state title. The precedent is there; a Juanita High School team, led by Cody Webster and several others from the Kirkland squad that won the 1982 World Series, claimed Washington’s 3A state title in 1987.

Can Bainbridge do the same?

“I definitely think it can happen,” Stevenson said.

“I think we even have a chance this year,” added Heald. “Whether Robbie or I help or not, we’ve got a good team. But as the years go by, I think we’re going to just keep improving and help this team win a lot of games.”

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