Thursday August 20th, 2009

Adrian Gonzalez moved from Tijuana to San Diego in the fifth grade, and shortly after his family settled into a house in the South Bay suburb of Chula Vista, they built a batting cage in the backyard. It was 80 feet long, 14 feet wide, 14 feet high. David Gonzalez, Adrian's father, made sure to place the pitching machine precisely 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. "It could throw 95 miles an hour," David said. "It was just like what they had in the pros." Two major leaguers -- Adrian and his older brother Edgar, both of whom now play for the hometown Padres -- were basically raised in that cage.

When the boys moved out, David and his wife sold the house, but stayed in the area. Two years ago, Adrian was back in Chula Vista when he was approached by a man who claimed to have bought his childhood home. The man's name was Andy Rios and he explained that his son, also named Andy, was now hitting every day in the same backyard batting cage. "He told me that if I was ever around, I should stop by," Gonzalez said.

He didn't think much of it. Earlier this season, when asked if he knew anything at all about the kid using his cage, Gonzalez shook his head. But around the end of June, Gonzalez started to take some interest in the All-Star team from Park View Little League in Chula Vista. Former Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund was giving lessons to several Park View players and Padres batting-practice pitcher Ray Krohn was pitching them BP. "Ray told me they had a couple big kids who could really hit," Gonzalez said.

One of them was Andy Rios.

On Saturday, Park View will play in the Little League World Series. Rios is their shortstop and leadoff man. His batting cage, which might as well be designated for landmark status in San Diego, is the team hangout. When Park View is not practicing on a field, they are in the cage. Before the finals of the Western Regional on Sunday in San Bernardino, Calif., Gonzalez called the players and told them how proud they had made him and his friends in Chula Vista. Then he told them to relax, have fun, and get to Cooperstown -- "I kind of messed that up," Gonzalez said. "I meant 'Williamsport.'"

As Gonzalez and his brother watched from the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Rios led off with a home run and Park View went on to win 11-4. In six games at the regional, Park View hit an unfathomable 38 home runs, more proof that there is something special about this batting cage. While Park View clinched its trip to Williamsport, Gonzalez finished a road trip in which he went 19-30, a .633 clip.

When the Padres returned home, they took up a collection in the clubhouse to help parents of the Park View players pay for travel costs to Williamsport. Padres CEO Jeff Moorad pledged $10,000 through the club's foundation. San Diego has sent three teams to Williamsport in the past nine years, but the other two were both from North County, a baseball-rich section of the city that produced Phillies ace Cole Hamels and promising A's pitcher Trevor Cahill. Park View is the first recent entry from the South Bay, a heavily Latino area that sits just above the Mexican border. If North County is known for pitching and defense, the South Bay is famous for sluggers like Gonzalez who bludgeon the baseball. "There's always been a battle here between North and South," Gonzalez said. "It's very cool for us to have kids from the South Bay make it this time."

As a boy, Gonzalez played about 120 games a year for youth leagues on both sides of the border, but never for Park View. Still, he grew up in the Park View neighborhood, played on the same fields as the Park View Little Leaguers, and hit thousands upon thousands of pitches in the same backyard batting cage. David Gonzalez, a former first baseman on the Mexican national team, was proud of the fact that the pitching machine he purchased for his sons did not simply spit out fastballs. It unleashed sliders, cutters and curves, so his boys would never be taken by surprise at the plate. David could not have imagined how many generations of talent his machine would mold.

Gonzalez does not know if he will give the Park View players any more pep talks, but he will be watching them from the Padres clubhouse, studying their swings. It is a staple of the Little League World Series that every participant is asked before the tournament to name his favorite major league player. The choice is broadcast on television right along with height and weight. Barring a few rogue Dodger fans on the Park View roster, this may be one team where everybody's favorite player is the same.

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