On paper, there are few similarities between Chula Vista and Maine-Endwell. Chula Vista, Calif., is the second-largest city in San Diego County and home to over 270,000 residents. Maine-Endwell are two hamlets just west of Binghamton, New York, that have a combined population of roughly 16,500.
Chula Vista is where people go for palm trees and year-long beach weather; around Maine-Endwell, people often quip that there are more farm animals than people, and where snowfall comes in abundance – and often.
No matter the disparity in size – or climate – each has one important distinction they bond over: they are the homes of Little League World Series champions – Chula Vista in 2009, Maine-Endwell (M-E) in 2016.
These two towns epitomize the uniqueness of the tournament. During the dog days of summer, 16 teams – eight from the US, eight from across the globe – centralize in Williamsport, Pa., for an opportunity very few 10-to-12 year-olds get to experience. With the 2019 LLWS kicking off on August 15, another underdog could begin its quest to become the next Chula Vista or M-E.
According to Joe Chesna, president of M-E Little League, when teams and their community arrive in Williamsport, everything is magnified, adding to the enormity of the situation.
“Obviously with the [Little League] World Series being on TV now, the sheer feat that [M-E] accomplished in and of itself is pretty phenomenal,” said Chesna. “A small town with a population that’s, I don’t know, maybe 10,000 people – to produce a baseball team that could beat other teams in the country and the world is pretty tremendous.”
According to Chesna, M-E’s LLWS run in 2016 perfectly encapsulates the community’s long-standing involvement in youth sports. Prior to 2016, Maine-Endwell High School had Class A state titles to boast in baseball and football. Other local residents found professional athletic success, such as Islanders’ goalie coach Mike Dunham, former MLB pitcher Jim Johnson and Isaiah Kacyvenski, who was a special-teams captain for the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Every season, the town throws a parade celebrating the start of the Little League season. Whether it’s up-and-coming little leaguers or senior citizens in attendance, Chesna says that everyone in and around Maine-Endwell comes together to recognize the area’s brightest baseball stars – even when they weren’t being shown on ESPN.
While that level of support continues even with a championship trophy, there have been some perks that have come with it. Chesna said that M-E Little League enrollment has been up year-over-year since 2016.
Before Thomas Tull, a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the chairman and CEO of Legendary Entertainment, he was just a local kid who graduated from Maine-Endwell High School in 1988. Then in 2014, Tull donated $2.2 million to the Struble Road Sports Complex, which included a renovation of the high-school baseball field. Months before M-E’s Williamsport triumph, his hometown repaid the favor, and renamed its little-league facility “Tull Field” in April 2016.
“It’s just a really supportive community,” said Chesna. “Since the World Series win, obviously a lot of the kids now – they look up to those boys [from 2016] as obviously leaders and how awesome it was what they accomplished. They now compare what they’re trying to do what they did – ‘we want to be like so-and-so.’”
Many argue that M-E’s magical run was the first great LLWS story since the Chula Vista squad that won it all in 2009. According to Rod Roberto, former president of Park View Little League (PVLL) – the league that won representing the community – success had often eluded the city.
PVLL went over 50 years without sending a team to Williamsport, he said. Then 2009 happened, and Roberto’s relationship with it was forever changed.
After Chula Vista’s championship run, Roberto planned on stepping down as president. In his eyes, witnessing that with his son – who played on that same 2009 team – made retirement sensible. But during registration for the 2010 season, Roberto estimates that 600 kids signed up for PVLL – up 50% year-over-year.
After seeing the rapid growth in his league’s popularity, Roberto felt an obligation to continue as its president. He left the organization in 2015, but interest has not waned under new leadership. According to Johnny Fuentes, who succeeded Roberto as PVLL’s president, membership numbers have fluctuated between 500 and 600 during his time.
Since the championship in the region, expectations have stayed sky high for little league baseball around Chula Vista. Dating back to 2009, multiple leagues in the town have had sustained success – Eastlake Little League finished runner-up in the 2013 LLWS while PVLL fell three wins shy of a 2018 berth.
For Roberto, how the league has performed in youth baseball doesn’t matter to him. What’s resonated is that of the 12 Chula Vista players on that title-winning 2009 team, 10 of them attended college. Eight of those players played college baseball, allowing them to continue playing a sport they’ve known since they were five years old.
“If you look back, some of the opportunities to go to the schools they went to were because of baseball,” said Roberto. “If we hadn’t won [in 2009], I know that for some of them, they wouldn’t have gone to college and pursued the route they pursued. But because of baseball, they were able to get to somewhere that they wouldn’t have went to.”
One of those kids who played college ball was Luke Ramirez, who was one of Chula Vista’s breakout sensations during that 2009 championship run. Although his playing career stopped in college, Ramirez’s heart remained in sports.
Now as a 23-year-old working in San Diego as a digital production assistant at FOX Sports, he remembers the media attention centered around himself and his team after their Little League success. One decade later, he’s grown to be fonder about the attention – and the rarity of what transpired.
“It was obviously quite a ride,” said Ramirez. “I continued playing baseball afterwards but, to this day, it was overall the best baseball experience I had in my lifetime. As great as it was, looking back now – it’s still really hard to believe just how perfectly everything came together.”