Friday, July 09, 2004

little league article

Little Leaguers taking a big cross-country road trip

By Katherine Sather
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The boys of the Kirkland City Bombers give everyone a nickname.

There is Christian "the Rocket" Pekich on first base, Dean "Little D" Buchanan on second, and the most recent addition to the team: a 40-foot-long land vessel known as "Da Bus."

Today team members were to pile into the 1978 GMC Buffalo, which has been rebuilt into a dormitory on wheels, for a two-week road trip thrown together by team manger Rick Ockerman, or "Captain Rick." He'll pilot the silver bus across the country on a barnstorming odyssey of baseball. The team will visit sites such as the cornfield featured in "Field of Dreams" and the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York, and play pickup games with other Little Leaguers.

The 11 boys, all of whom will start high school next year, said they are elated to see the country and devote long road hours to playing video games. Ockerman hopes they will remember the trip as a celebration of their friendship. His son Steve "Ock-Man" has played with the team three years.

"Next year they'll all have girlfriends, they'll be driving cars and they'll have jobs," Rick Ockerman said. "This is the only time they'll get to do it."

Until a few weeks ago, team members and their parents were skeptical that the trip would even happen. Ockerman, a Kirkland attorney, bought the bus on a whim through eBay last Thanksgiving. In the past two decades, it logged 1.1 million miles as part of Sun Valley Stagelines in Idaho.

Ockerman stored Da Bus in a horse barn across town as he and another parent, Bob "The Builder" Wilson, began nailing in bunk beds and couches.

"My wife initially was opposed — she thought I was crazy," said Ockerman. "Except for the boys, everyone thought I was crazy."

Teammates began making plans. They started out in the Little League senior division, but when Little League wouldn't provide insurance for the planned 6,650-mile trip, the boys joined the Evergreen Baseball Alliance, a Western Washington league. Since then, they have played as both the Reds and the Kirkland City Bombers, playing twice as many games as usual. As of this week, their record is 18-17.

Pekich, the 15-year-old first baseman, quit his Finn Hill Junior High School baseball team this spring to have time for the Bombers/Reds. "I had more friends on this team that I was closer with," he said.

When Ockerman brought the silver bus out for a test trip to Vancouver this month, it had been transformed into a funky motor home of sorts. Teammates found their names stenciled on 7-foot-long bunks, along with a refrigerator and a lounge area with a TV and video games. The boys even have a roll-out putting green that fits in the aisle.

"We were all surprised at the bus," Pekich said. "We hadn't heard about the progress until we saw the bunks. We all sort of pulled everything together this month."

In preparation for the trip, the boys painted flames on the side of the bus as well as their team name and their sponsor's name. Honda of Kirkland is providing the boys with $1,200 to camp at KOA campgrounds along the way and $3,500 for gas. Team members will buy their own food.

The bus handles surprisingly well, Ockerman said. "It's built like a tank," he said.

Ockerman mapped out a route to hit historical sites as well as baseball landmarks. Their first stop is Yakima for a three-day Little League tournament. Then it's off to Montana for fly-fishing near where "A River Runs Through It" was filmed. From there, Da Bus will roll to Mount Rushmore, New York, Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg, Pa., for pickup games and tournaments.

Ockerman looked up teams on the Internet and called coaches to schedule games. The most anticipated game will be an evening match on the Iowa cornfield where "Field of Dreams" was filmed.

"I don't know how many games we'll win, but that's no longer the point," said Wilson, who is going along to help supervise. Some parents plan to meet the team in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the boys will play in a three-day tournament. But for the most part, they want to give the boys some time to themselves. Ockerman has promised to stay in the front of the bus to give his son some privacy.

"At this age, a lot of young men are trying to figure out their lives — who they are and why they're here," he said. "If you get good set of buddies, you can sit and talk about those things."

The teammates will be assigned duties at each campsite, including laundry and cleaning the bus. For the "gutbuster" portion of the trip — tedious hours of driving across Illinois — shelves are stocked with books and movies: "Sandlot," "Field of Dreams" and the Harry Potter series. The team was more excited about marathon video-game sessions, though.

"We'll be playing (Xbox) all the way," said Buchanan, 14.

By the end of the two weeks, the Bombers will have played about 14 baseball games, depending on how well they fare in tournaments. Win or lose, they agree, the point is to have fun.

And there's a chance there could be some other distractions along the way. "One of the players knows some girls from somewhere in the country," said teammate Pekich. "We don't know if they'll be able to come."

Katherine Sather 206-464-2752 or ksather@seattletimes.com

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