Little League excitement worth the wait

By: Cecil Conley, Sports Editor
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Raymond Garcia remembers the days when he and his buddies would spend the summer playing baseball at McBean Park. In the 1970s, there was not much else for youngsters to do in Lincoln. They would walk or ride their bicycles to the park, carrying their bats and gloves. When it became too hot to play, they would take a break from the diamond and go swimming at the McBean pool. Their bikes and baseball gear were left at the field. When they returned, not a single item was missing. Those were the days. “There was no basketball or soccer back then in the summer,” the 42-year-old Garcia recalled, “so we all played baseball.” All those hours spent at the field paid off in 1980, when the Lincoln Little League Major All-Stars became the talk of the town. Manager Bill Balakin’s team advanced to the Northern California finals. Little League fervor has returned to Lincoln this summer. Garcia is serving as an assistant coach with the 9- and 10-year-old All-Stars, who have captivated the city much like the 1980 squad did. Manager Charles Middleton’s talented team is the city’s first to advance to the Section 4 tournament in 30 years. Lincoln is the section host, so hundreds of fans are flocking to Larry Costa Field. The team has not let them down, rolling to a 19-4 victory over Land Park on Wednesday night to claim the section championship. Little League success is nothing new for Garcia, who was a member of the 1980 team. Little did he know at the time that the bond he formed with his teammates would still exist 30 years later. “Lincoln was such a small town then, so we all grew up together and played together,” he said. “We were like sandlot kids. There was this tightness. Being on that team has given me lifelong friendships.” Garcia was a surprised Saturday night before Lincoln’s section opener when he spotted Balakin at the field. Balakin paid a visit with his wife to lend his support and take a moment to reminisce. His 1980 team was indeed special, but Balakin never imagined the squad would go as far as it did. “They were all good kids,” he recalled. “They all wanted to play ball and they all wanted to learn. That’s what you want.” Garcia sees the same traits in the current team, along with a “never say die” attitude. In the District 11 tournament, Lincoln trailed 12-1 against Rocklin before rallying for a 15-14 victory. In Saturday’s section opener, Lincoln erased a 5-0 deficit in the fifth inning against West Sacramento and won in the sixth when Leo Martinez hit a double and scored on a single by Charles Middleton Jr. “It came from our hearts,” Martinez said. Garcia knows that feeling all too well.