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San Diego's Stickball Tournament

<font size=-1>Players and fans enjoyed the weather and the great games in this year's tournament</font> Click for bigger picture
Players and fans enjoyed the weather and the great games in this year's tournament

By Jim Strickland

With a spring in his step, Tom DiZinno stepped up to the microphone at the beginning of the 2003 Labor Day weekend. "Welcome to the Fifth Annual Little Italy Stickball Tournament" the public address speakers boomed into the quiet Saturday morning air at the cross-streets of Cedar and Columbia. A loud cheer rose from the crowd of players who had gathered for the Opening Ceremonies in San Diego, CA.

After a few words honoring those who had traveled from New York, New Jersey, Florida and Puerto Rico to compete in the stickball tournament, DiZinno asked God to bless the event. A few minutes later, "Play ball" echoed through the streets as the traditional words started three days of stickball competition among the best teams in the United States.

Two days later, after playing six games and umpiring in three more, every player was worn-out. The physical stress of constantly running on asphalt and the mental fatigue, which resulted from competing at this skill level, quickly took its toll. Ibuprofen tablets were in abundant supply in the backpack of every player over 25 years old. Gallons of bottled water were gulped down along with delicious sandwiches from the Dancing Dog Deli, the official deli of the tournament.

Sunday night seemed to arrive much too quickly. The round robin portion of the tournament was over after two days of intense rivalry. The tournament directors, Jim Strickland and Willie Blas, tallied the results. They examined win-loss records, runs scored and runs allowed. Eventually, the numbers produced a list of the best teams, seeded one through eight.

The San Diego Knights were the number one seed followed by Remix, The Gold and Clean Machine, all of whom were East coast teams. The remaining seeded teams were Dikaioo, Cafe Moto, Caffe Italia and the Bronx Emperors. Based upon a high seed versus low seed bracket arrangement, a single elimination tournament began on Monday morning. The winners continued playing while the losing teams were blessed with the opportunity to watch many talented stickball players. A final four was quickly generated. Those teams were reduced to the two best teams after the San Diego Knights defeated Clean Machine and The Gold snuck past Remix in the semi-finals.

The championship match between the San Diego Knights and The Gold brought together two teams who had done battle on several previous occasions in San Diego and New York. The Gold, an outstanding team from the Bronx, had always walked away with the trophy. However, this year the Knights planned for a different outcome. Strategy was discussed between the coaches and players. The groundwork was laid for a successful outcome. Experience favored The Gold. Youth, experience and the hometown crowd favored the Knights.

The All Star umpire crew, individually selected from the other teams, took their places on the field. The roar of the crowd, which delighted the television news crews, ignited the Knight's players as they trotted out onto Columbia Street. The home plate umpire commanded, "Play ball."

It didn't take long. A flurry of hits by The Gold brought the crowd to their feet as two runs sprinted across home plate in the top of the first inning. The Knights answered weakly with a couple of hits of their own, but failed to score a run. The Gold picked up where they had left off after the first inning by sending another player around the bases and across home plate. The score was now 3 to 0. The Knights fought bravely. They were strong in spirit and refused to quit. Many of their batters found first and second base, however a double play here and a mental error there cost them every opportunity to score until the sixth inning.

With the score still 3 to 0, the San Diego Knights capitalized on several excellent hits and drove their swords deep into the heart of The Gold. A base runner galloped across home plate and the score was suddenly 3 to 1 in the bottom of the sixth with only one out and a runner on first base. It was looking dark for The Gold. A thunderous shot was sent into the trees in deep right field. The base runner tagged up as the ball dropped onto the street. He sprinted toward second base. An outfielder picked up the bouncing ball and fired it to second base for the force out. The next Knight batter was the third out. The game moved forward to the top of the seventh inning. It was do or die time as a stickball game only has seven innings.

The Gold huddled together and began chanting. They could smell the proverbial blood. The prize was easily within their grasp. They could feel the victory. They could taste it. They lusted for it. Breaking from the huddle, The Gold was on fire. Unfortunately for them, their enthusiasm did not translate to hits and runs. Within a couple of minutes, The Gold were back on defense and the San Diego Knights were desperately gathering themselves together for one final shot at beating their nemesis.

In the end, people made the usual consolatory comments about how the Knights had "tried hard," "had played well" and had "given it their best shot." The players lamented the loss of yet another tournament to The Gold. On the field however, The Gold players were deliriously jumping up and down as they rejoiced with delight in their victory over the Knights. Their elation was matched only by their fatigue, which became readily apparent as they gathered around the Lombardelli Award for the champion's photo session. Flashbulbs stuttered and blinked as everyone with a camera maneuvered for a shot of the winning team from the Bronx.

With the graciousness of someone who knows both the sweet smell of success and the bitter taste of defeat, Ritchie accepted the First Place trophy on behalf of his team. He then honored each of his players individually by presenting them with their own smaller trophy.

The Gold, as always, were a class act. They had played well and had earned the right to be the 2003 Little Italy Stickball Tournament Champions.

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