How a generational love for baseball molded a dedicated coach
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
When we think of champions and Las Vegas in the same instance, it’s usually along with heavyweight prize fights. One may wonder how did our little town of Hemet capture the headlines by winning a national tournament in Las Vegas? I will tell you why. And how this wasn’t discovered by any other “big shot” newspapers goes to show that when you’re climbing up the ladder towards the top, you may forget to pay a bit more attention to “minor” details.
Minor’s Gold, a local team of 12 year-old boys, indeed conquered Las Vegas when they came home with the national championship in the Veteran Day Challenge tournament held in the always lit up city of Las Vegas Nov. 11-12 of this year.
It all began with a 31 year-old young man named Justin Speir who manages C&C Carpets factory on Ninth Street in San Jacinto. The main headquarters of C&C Carpets is located on East Florida Avenue in Hemet, which is managed by his older sister Candace Renteria. Their parents, Craig and Cindy Speir, began the business years ago.
“My entire family is or has been involved in sports activities long before I came along,” says Justin. “My father encouraged me into baseball as a kid.” To tell the truth, Justin at 31 looks more like a high school senior than a grown businessman.
He continues, “I became interested in coaching because of my son, then went on to coaching.” He admits to a love for playing but, “As much as I loved playing the game, I much prefer coaching. Teaching baseball to these younger boys gave me an opportunity to help develop young players. So when the opportunity to coach a local traveling baseball team, I jumped at it.”
In the beginning, it was more training for a tournament than actually participating in one. “I remember in 2016, we went down to San Diego to play and that seemed like a big thing. It was at the time, but we were still connecting the nuts and bolts of a decent team. The kids were full of pep and anxiety which was a big encouragement to me,” said Speir.
He recalls learning about the baseball diamond by Larry Minor’s house on Park Hill. “A friend told me they were having open practices out at Larry’s place. Mike Lynch was coaching a team and invited my son to come and play for him. I was involved in that for about a year, coaching half older and half younger kids. It was 10-U and 11-U [team ages], so actually two teams merged into one. Then, as more players were recruited, we managed to become two full teams.”
Josh Trout, a man most locals will remember for his many years coaching the baseball team at Hemet High School, and Justin took on the younger team as co-managers.
“We played in a local travel league for a while,” says Speir, “which led to tournaments in Beaumont, Temecula and Perris. Local stuff. That’s what we were doing when we got an invitation to participate in the Las Vegas Tournament that included teams from all over the United States. That was a big deal.” Indeed it was. The Vegas tournament came under the unified rules of the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) national organization.
At the beginning of the season this year, it didn’t look too rosy for the Minor’s Gold. “We lost four players this year within two weeks,” he explains. “It happens in travel leagues for one reason or the other. Many leagues charge as much as $150 a month to participate. We are a non-profit league. We pay all our own expenses, including entry fee.” In any event, the team managed to pick up four new players. “They seemed to merge together right away and played well together,” said Speir.
Nineteen anxious and excited young teams from around the country settled in Vegas for two days of tough competition. “Our team was now into the thick of it,” Speir says, still as excited as one of his players. Maybe he was a little too excited on opening day because they lost their first game.
He continued, “That was scary but the first two days of the tournament were what they call ‘seeding,’ so it was not the end of the line. We never lost another game. The last game was sort of a rubber match, because the team we played from the Garciaparra Baseball League had beaten us once and we had taken them the second time. Actually, they were favored over us. We may not have had the best players, but we sure were the best when it came to teams. We performed well. That’s why we won.”
There were strict rules about the use of pitchers. In the six-game tournament, an individual pitcher could only pitch in nine innings. If a pitcher pitched to even one hitter, that was considered an inning pitched. Any of the team’s ten players might be called on to pitch, so it was truly a time for strategy in selecting what pitchers played and when.
Minor’s Gold was the home team and it was the bottom of the sixth inning of the sixth game. “We had our backs against the wall. Score was eight to eight, so we had to do something. Ramon De La-O, one of our hitters came up to bat and whamo – a walk off double to win the game. And first place in the tournament,” explained the coach.
I asked if he was coach of the year. “No, it doesn’t work that way with us. Josh and I liked being co-coaches. We enjoyed talking to each other during the games, planning strategies.”
I asked if I could take his picture for the story and he replied, “No. This is not about me. I’ll give you a photo of the team. It was their championship.” Spoken like a real champion in my book. Being in a year-round traveling league, they enter two tournaments a month. It is easy to see how much Justin loves that. He shows excitement just talking about it.
There’s an old saying I used to hear from my grandma, “You can turn a boy into a man, but you can never take the boy out of a man.” Just sayin’
Rusty Strait is a senior reporter for The Valley Chronicle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org