Victor Juarez went first. He and the other San Nicolás Gallos representing Mexico in the 2016 Little League World Series were standing on the grass hill overlooking what's known as the "Original Field" on Fourth Street in Williamsport. That's when Juarez decided to roll down to the bottom of the berm. After the initial cries of "You're crazy," player after player began following suit, some pulling their shirts over their arms to lessen the resistance.
They were a bunch of teens and tweens having fun two days before the start of the LLWS, but it wasn't just about that. They were also rolling in history. On that very field, back in 1957, a band of boys from Monterrey, the Industriales, became the first team from outside the United States to win the World Series. On the diamond on the other side of the fence Angel Macias threw a perfect game in the final 4-0 victory against La Mesa, California, before an overflow crowd of 10,000.
To this day, it remains the only perfect game in LLWS title game history. And now, 49 years later, these kids from a suburb of Monterrey were communing with Los Pequenos Gigantes, the Little Giants. "They look so small," says catcher Luis Nuncio, peering at the team photo from '57 which hangs in the mini-museum at the "Original." Indeed, at 5-foot-10, Nuncio would tower over any of the Little Giants.
To get to Williamsport, that 1957 team had to walk across the border at Reynosa and hitch rides to McAllen, Texas. Over four weeks, they won 13 games to take the Texas state and then the South regional championships -- at one point, their visas expired and the State Department had to come to the rescue.
The 2016 representatives from Mexico haven't had it nearly that hard. But the trip hasn't been a piece of cake, either. They had to fly from Monterrey to Dallas, then Dallas to Newark, where they boarded a bus for the four-hour ride west on I-80. The air-conditioning on the bus broke down in the stifling heat, but fortunately, Juarez shortened the ride by leading his teammates in renditions of romantic ballads.
As with every one of the 16 teams in the LLWS, San Nicolás had to run the gantlet of a regional tournament -- 7,000 teams from 81 countries played 16,000 games to get here. Mexico's test was especially tough: 14 teams came to Monterrey, including Guadalupe Linda Vista, the last Mexican team to win the World Series in 1997. In the championship game, San Nicolás prevailed in a 6-5 thriller over Norte de Hermosillo, a team that had beaten the Gallos just two days before. No team from San Nicolás had ever made it to Williamsport.
During the week-long tournament, they watched a special screening of "The Perfect Game," a 2009 theatrical release based on a book by William Winokur about the '57 team. What made it truly special was that two members of the Little Giants were in attendance: lifelong friends Pepe Maiz and Angel Macias.
"It was a great inspiration for the kids," says Antonio Rodriguez, the head coach of the Gallos when he's not teaching computer science at the Technical Institute of Nuevo León. "They had seen the movie before, but to see it in the company of those great men really lifted their spirits."
Cinema aficionados might find fault with "The Perfect Game" as an unevenly acted, somewhat cliched film. But Jake T. Austin is convincing in his portrayal of the ambidextrous, 88-pound Macias, and Cheech Marin enlivens the picture as the priest who helps coach the boys. And there's a nice scene of the players rolling around in the real grass of a baseball field -- something they had never seen before. The movie manages to capture a sense of the obstacles the Industriales had to face: poverty and resistance at home, and prejudice and resentment across the border.
Much has happened -- in both Williamsport and the world -- since then. The site of the World Series was moved across the Susquehanna River to South Williamsport in 1959 at what is now Howard J. Lamade Stadium. Little League participation has grown from 475,000 and just a few countries in 1957 to more than 2 million in more than 100 nations today. The Little League complex is now a small city that includes an impressive museum, a second stadium, practice fields galore and "The Grove," where the players and coaches live, eat and mingle for the two weeks of the Series. Once restricted to just boys, Little League now hosts a variety of tournaments in baseball, softball and the Challenger Division. And ESPN now provides full coverage of the games, starting with the very first one, which happened to be Mexico vs. Panama at Volunteer Stadium.
The team from Aguadulce, Panama, drubbed San Nicolás 10-2 in the opener. It was close for a while, with Juarez striking out 12 batters in the first five innings, but the wheels came off when Panama scored five in the top of the sixth inning. The Little League World Series is a double-elimination tournament, however, and Mexico has battled back, beating Italy 12-7 and then Canada 7-1, as Juarez pitched three no-hit innings and Jose Angel Leal hit a two-run homer. Leal took the mound against Australia on Wednesday and struck out 10 of the 11 batters he faced in a 10-0, five-inning win.
If San Nicolás is to follow in the footsteps of the '57 team, though, it will have to pull off a miracle nearly as big. The last team to lose its opener and go on to win the title was Sierra Maestra, Venezuela, back in 2000, when the Little League World Series had only eight teams. The Gallos next play South Korea on Thursday at 3 p.m. at Lamade Stadium. Jaurez will start. Should he and Mexico win that game, they will advance to the international championship -- and a rematch with Panama -- on Saturday.
Though the World Series seems to get bigger and bigger each year, the world seems somehow smaller for those two weeks, as Williamsport opens its arms. For one thing, the kids are welcomed with all manner of swag. Upon arrival, each player is given a bat, a glove and shoes by Easton, sunglasses by Oakley and a breakdown of their mechanics by the Baseball Factory.
For another, the teams are assigned gracious hosts who help them navigate the terrain and logistics. The San Nicolás entrants drew Chuck Snyder and Hess Wentz, who are sitting in a golf cart, watching the team practice in the midday heat on a field that's a long walk from The Grove. Chuck and Hess are old hands at this.
"I like this team a lot," says Snyder, a retired state policeman. "Very respectful and disciplined, but we also felt an instant rapport with them. I've been doing this for 17 years, and they're one of the best teams I've had."
"The truly wonderful thing about the Series is seeing the kids interact with each other, speaking the same language at the ping-pong table, even though the Koreans don't know any Spanish, and the Mexicans don't know any Korean." Antonio Gonzalez, translator for Mexico's team
"You should've seen them last night in The Grove," says Wentz, a retired dentist. "The truly wonderful thing about the Series is seeing the kids interact with each other, speaking the same language at the pingpong table, even though the Koreans don't know any Spanish, and the Mexicans don't know any Korean."
The Gallos come in all shapes and sizes -- from 80-pound Patricio Juarez to 184-pound Rene Villareal -- but it only takes a few minutes of watching them practice to realize that they can really play, and that they are very well-coached.
The non-English-speaking international teams are each assigned a translator, and Mexico's is Antonio Gonzalez, a Little League administrator from Cayey, Puerto Rico, where he is also the city engineer. "I followed San Nicolás in the Mexico tournament, and I was very impressed," he says. "Very good pitching, very good defense, and if they hit, they'll go far. Because the coaches are so young, they relate well to the players."
Rodriguez, the coach, played second base for Monclova in the Mexican League, and he has baseball in his genes. His uncle, Carlos Rodriguez, played shortstop for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and his grandfather, Leo Rodriguez, was an infielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. (During the same year that Macias pitched a game that Hollywood would immortalize, Leo was a member of the Hollywood Stars, along with slugger Dick Stuart.)
"He would tell stories of playing with Roberto Clemente," says Rodriguez. "One of them was about the time they had to bring him his food because the restaurant wouldn't let him inside.
"Hopefully, I will be able to tell my grandchildren stories about this World Series."
The two players the Gallos will rely most on are Nuncio and Victor Juarez. Nuncio is not only a catcher, but also the closer, and his left-handed stroke is a thing of beauty. Juarez, whose fastball would translate to 100 mph at 60 feet, 6 inches, plays shortstop or third when he's not pitching. He and his little brother Patricio are the grandsons of Joel Serna, a second baseman and baseball legend who played in the Mexican League for 21 years.
Victor is also the acknowledged leader of the team. Says Gonazalez, "The other day at the pool in The Grove, he was serenading the lifeguards with one of his ballads ("Que Caro Estoy Pagando" by Los Plebes del Rancho). He does have a good voice."
But they are only two. The Gallos could not have gotten to Williamsport without first baseman Milton Gonzalez. "The unlikely hero of the championship game," says Hector Bencomo, a Monterrey sportswriter who knows the team well. "He came in the game in the last inning with men on first and third and one out, and got the last two outs." They have other strong pitchers in Jose Leal and Isaac Cortes, a sparkplug in shortstop Gael Garcia, and a centerfielder, Fabian Mar, who plays much bigger than his height of 4'11".
"I think they're going to make some noise," says Bencomo. "Some good noise."
Outside Lamade Stadium is a sculpture that says "Williamsport Welcomes The World" above 16 different home plates that name the teams and the distance they traveled to get there -- Nuevo León is 2,010 miles away.
Wherever the Gallos went in Williamsport, they were greeted with warmth and consideration. At the picnic held at the Penn College of Technology on the eve of the Series, they hung out at a huge white rock painted to look like a baseball, signing their names, climbing atop the rock and making new friends.
Then it was time to board the flatbed truck that would carry them through the annual Grand Slam Parade down Fourth Street, right past the Original Field into downtown Williamsport. Because their float was sponsored by Entenmann's Bakery, they got to throw bags of Little Bites to the children and not just candy. But that's not why they had the spectators on both sides of the street chanting, "Mex-i-co, Mex-i-co." They pumped up the crowd by waving their arms and proudly puffing out their shirts.
At the corner of Fourth and Park, the players spotted their parents and relatives, some of whom had driven two days to get to Williamsport. "It really took us 35 years to get here," says Rodolfo Cantu, the father of Diego Cantu, a second baseman and outfielder on the team. "That's how long our Little League has been in existence. But it was worth the wait."
As the float drew abreast of the families, the Gallos and their kin started singing to one another in Spanish -- a special chant that the kids themselves had written. Loosely translated, it went like this:
"Yes sir, I am a Gallo,
I always play with passion,
We respect our rivals,
But we always play to win.
I flew from Monterrey
And I will make it to the finish line.
United till the end
And together we can."
These kids from San Nicolás, Nuevo León, brought their own music to a street corner in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. You had to be there. It was kind of perfect.