Whittier, CA may not be the most popular tourist destination in the state — after all, Disneyland is only 15 miles south — but for two weeks, it was the center of the youth baseball universe.
Not so long ago, my son and the rest of the Campbell, CA 13-year-old Pony All-Stars baseball team, hit the road for the Western Zone Regional baseball tournament, in Whittier. These kids had recently won the Northern California baseball championship, which earned them a top seed in the Pony tournament, and if they won there they’d advance to the Pony-13 World Series.
To get all the kids and the gear to all the right places, I rented Saul M.’s clean, powerful Chevy Suburban on Turo. It was a quick and easy way to get a car that could handle carting excited teenagers and tons of equipment around, to nearby restaurants, a batting cage and, of course, the ball field.
York Field, home of the Whittier Pony tournament, is a new baseball stadium, but the beautifully groomed fields, and the grandstand flying flags of all the international competitors gave it a classic, Americana feel. In fact, as we explored Whittier, we noticed that much the city retained vintage architecture and design, like the Five Points Hand Car Wash and the Southern Pacific train depot. Someone mentioned that Whittier felt like a movie location for a film set in the 1950s and, sure enough, Back to the Future and Back to the Future II used Whittier High School for exterior shots of Hill Valley High School.
Between games, some players and fans visited Whittier College, alma mater of the 37th President, Richard M. Nixon, and peeked into the vintage gymnasium-turned-art-studio that evoked the Eisenhower era. Quakers founded Whittier College in 1887 and named it for the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Its Division III athletic teams are still known as the Poets, possibly the greatest collegiate nickname in the history.
But for composite bats, more protective gear, cooler uniforms and, sometimes, longer travel, there’s very little difference between the youth baseball of today and the version 50 years ago. The essential elements — groups of kids playing baseball, parents cheering from the stands, and siblings eating hotdogs and slushies — remain as American and timeless as they come.
As we gathered around, with the eight teams from around the world, there was an intensity in the air. The Campbell boys fought hard against strong opponents in blistering heat, but despite a strong opening game, they fell to El Cajon, from San Diego, and then Hawaii, ending their chances to advance to the Pony World Series.
They had entered the tournament undefeated in the Northern California series, so the loss was tough to take. But the enduring traditions of a post-game handshake and pizza party soothed any emotional wounds. Already they’re talking about going all the way next year which would mean finding the right car for the road trip to Washington, PA.