By Joe Tash
When the Rancho Santa Fe Little League holds its annual player evaluations on Jan. 26, the league’s volunteer coaches will have some top-notch assistance as they scope out the local talent — former Major League ballplayers who call the Ranch their home.
At least a dozen former Big Leaguers live in Rancho Santa Fe, and many are involved with the local Little League, both because their own children now play, and the fond memories they carry of their own Little League days. This year’s season has special significance because the Rancho Santa Fe Little League was founded 50 years ago, in 1964.
“I got a chance to play Major League baseball for 16 years and to play in five All-Star games, and travel the world playing baseball, but the greatest baseball memories of my life occurred as a boy playing Little League baseball,” said Rancho Santa Fe resident Mike Sweeney, who retired from baseball in 2010.
Sweeney, 40, played most of his career with the Kansas City Royals, but he also played for the Oakland As, Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies. He played catcher and first base, and had a career batting average of .297, with 1,540 hits, 215 home runs and 909 runs batted in.
Both his son and daughter play in the Rancho Santa Fe Little League, and Sweeney has served as a coach and is now a board member. He and his wife are expecting their fifth child in April.
Sweeney, who grew up in Ontario, in the Inland Empire, clearly remembers hitting his first home run, but his best memory was watching his little brother, Richard, get a base hit in the final inning of the championship game and then scoring the winning run.
“It chokes me up to this day to think about it because I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Sweeney said.
While his dream was to be a Major Leaguer from the time he was 5, Sweeney said Little League is a great experience for all kids, whether or not they aspire to be professional athletes.
“I think Little League baseball is so American, it’s so wholesome and pure and fun. It teaches kids life lessons about working together, coming together for a common goal, attitude, perseverance,” Sweeney said. “It teaches kids how to fail, and how to get back up, dust yourself off. As we all know, life does throw us curveballs, the lessons we learn as young boys can stick with us later in life.”
Among the Major Leaguers living in Rancho Santa Fe are former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman; Padres Manager Bud Black; Brad Ausmus, who played catcher for the Padres and other teams and now manages the Detroit Tigers; Mark Kotsay, who retired from the Padres last season after a 17-year Big League career; and Mark Loretta, an infielder and the Padres MVP in 2003 and 2004.
Tyler Seltzer, president of the Little League board, said this is the first time Major Leaguers will take part in player evaluations, where coaches assess the youngsters’ abilities at pitching, hitting, fielding and catching pop flies. The evaluations are used to balance the league’s teams.
The involvement of the professional players offers a unique opportunity for local boys and girls to meet and interact with real Big Leaguers, Seltzer said.
“I’m hoping that when those kids come through there… they realize this is a very relatable person who loves the game as much as they do and that rubs off on them,” Seltzer said.
Seltzer said he hopes to set up clinics for the Little League players during the regular season at which they can receive tips on specific aspects of the game.
The celebration of the Little League’s 50th anniversary will take place throughout the season, particularly at major events such as player evaluations on Jan. 26, opening day on March 8, and a poker tournament/fundraiser in April.
Many of the former Major Leaguers whose children play in the Rancho Santa Fe Little League also help out as assistant coaches, Seltzer said.
“It’s very generous of them to be willing to do that,” he said.
The Little League is open to boys and girls from 5 to 12 years old who live in Rancho Santa Fe, or attend private schools in Rancho Santa Fe, such as Horizon or Nativity, said Seltzer. The youngest players are in T-ball or machine pitch, and work their way up to live pitching by their fellow players.
Players can register through evaluation day, and even after, said Seltzer. For more information or to register, visit the Little League’s website at rsfll.com.
Little League memories from Rancho Santa Fe residents who are former Major League baseball and NFL players:
“My favorite memory is playing against my schoolmates and neighborhood buddies. Whoever won had bragging rights at school or in the neighborhood until the next time we played against each other.”
— Jamie Moyer, pitcher, MLB“I’ll never forget the time with my Dad. He was always my coach and despite a busy business schedule, never missed a practice or game. That still sticks with me today!”
— John Lynch, safety, NFL“I’ll never forget the inside-the-park home run I hit. I missed third base, and was tagged out in the dugout. Cried for an hour. I was never destined to be a home run hitter.”
— Brad Ausmus, catcher, manager, MLB“My favorite memory of Little League was having my mom help in the snack shack because I used to get all the goodies like chips with chili, red vines, Now & Laters and soda. I never got that stuff at home.”
— Travis Lee, first baseman, MLB“I loved playing (Little League) baseball in Indiana wearing jeans and a T-shirt as a uniform and fighting to see whose house we were going to play wiffle ball at all afternoon after the games at the Little League field.”
— Rick Mirer, quarterback, NFL“My favorite was a teammate named Tommy who had trouble making contact and got a brand new glove for fouling one off midway through the season... We were all fired up for him....”
— Jeromy Burnitz, right fielder, MLB“I will never forget having to attend my cousin’s wedding instead of playing in the championship game and then she got divorced!”
— Mark Kotsay, outfielder, MLB“My favorite memory was hitting a game-winning grand slam off a left-handed pitcher who went on to win the Golden Spikes at CS Fullerton and got drafted by the Marlins in the first round. He ended his career with the Padres last year. His name... Mark Kotsay!!! We played in the same Little League and he was always the best player!!!”
— Rod Barajas, catcher, MLB“My favorite Little League memory was opening day; walking out on the fresh-cut grass with your teammates as all of the teams are introduced. Getting to put on your new uniform was the best!!!”
— Trevor Hoffman, pitcher, MLB