Amidst a whirlwind of shouts, hugs, tears, and raised arms in triumph, Birmingham Community Charter High Coach Matt Mowry stood silent, looking for an especially familiar face.
Then he spotted a silver-haired gent being assisted by friends and family, and using a cane to make his way onto the field at Dodger Stadium. Once he got there, Mowry wrapped his arms around the man — his father, Irv Mowry — for an elongated embrace.
They had both gone through one heck of a journey during this 2019 baseball season.
Immediate reflection would not have been possible. Yes, Mowry did revel in his team’s 9-5 victory over Palisades Charter High of Pacific in the LA City Section’s baseball Open Division final on Saturday, May 25. He was genuinely overjoyed for his senior-laden roster.
But Mowry and the Patriots had gone through so much on the field to win a third straight LA City Section championship, as evidenced by their overall 20-16 record. And Mowry had gone through even more off the field with Irv, 87, who is recovering from colon surgery.
“It is easier to breathe today,” Mowry would say a day later. “This was just a long, emotional, draining year all the way around for me on the personal side and on the field side. It’s definitely been a testing year.”
More on that in a moment.
Streaks are made to be broken, but this is one bordering on ridiculous. The last non-Valley team to win the top level City baseball championship was San Pedro High, in 1992. Valley area teams have now won 27 straight, even with the section’s efforts to expand the title opportunities to more teams, first through Invitational and Small Schools titles, and the current Open and Division I through III formats.
West Valley League teams have wedged out a small corner of that dominance, having won the last six titles since San Fernando’s 2013 championship run.
The number Birmingham can most appreciate is three. The Patriots became the third team in City history to win three straight titles, matching the feat previously accomplished by Fremont High of Los Angeles (1946-48), and Chatsworth High (2007-09).
But a “three-peat” was the last thing on Mowry’s mind before the season began in February. Irv was seriously ill and, including surgery, was hospitalized for 20 days.
Mowry spent 19 of those days at the hospital, keeping watch.
“I’d go to work, go to practice, come back and spend the night,” said Mowry, Irv’s youngest son. “I never left his bedside those nights he was in the hospital. And he was in the ICU for about eight of those days. At one point he felt he’d had enough and said he wanted to go home — ‘I’m not gonna pass away in the hospital.’ I am his caregiver, that task was given to me, and I said okay.
“I talked with the doctors; they said there was really nothing more medically they could do for him there, and it might be the best thing for him. We brought him home in hospice care and he started coming around.”
Irv’s weight had nearly dropped under 100-pounds — “His normal weight is between 140-145,” Mowry said — but slowly, steadily, he built back up enough strength, went through rehab, and was able to attend playoff games.
The trauma on the field was different. Being a two-time defending section champion made the Patriots a target. And Mowry had put together as difficult a schedule as he could. During the regular season, the team never won more than three games in a row.
But once the Open Division playoffs started, Birmingham had its mojo in place. Although an eighth seed, the Patriots — after edging San Fernando in the first round — would take out top seed San Pedro and fourth seed Poly in successive games to reach the final.
“Our guys really get focused come playoff time, and understand it is not about their personal success; it’s about team success,” Mowry said.
On the 51st anniversary of City championship baseball games being played at Dodger Stadium, the Patriots-Dolphins contest ricocheted relentlessly between riveting and exasperating for seven innings — and more than four hours.
Pitching at this time of the season can be diluted by injury, inexperience, hot playoff bats or big-game nerves. On Saturday, the pitching was downright sketchy, as both sides combined for 13 walks and six hit batters. (Birmingham’s Erik Rivas was plunked three times in his four at-bats.)
The combined hit total for the teams, in contrast, was only 10; the batters simply did not have to work that hard to get on base. But it also provided a backdrop for drama, because there was almost always somebody on base. Birmingham only had one inning, and Palisades had two, where the sides were retired in order.
The Pats jumped on Dolphins starter William Coquillard for three runs in the first inning and had crafted a 5-0 lead after batting in the fourth. But Palisades (26-7), the third seed, rallied for five runs in the bottom of the fourth, chasing Patriots starter Alex Ballesteros, to tie the score.
It’s important to note the Dolphins only tied the score — they never got the lead. And when the Patriots retook the lead in the fifth on — what else — a bases-loaded walk to Massai Dorsey, they never gave it back although they helped their cause by tacking on three more runs in the sixth.
There are a couple of other significant contributions to acknowledge.
Relief pitcher Sebastian Cueva, a transfer from Murrieta Mesa High in Murrieta, hadn’t been on the mound for Birmingham since May 9 against El Camino Real. But he was brought into the game in the bottom of the fifth, after Palisades had loaded the bases against Chris Romero with one out. Cueva struck out Dolphins catcher Julian Jacobson looking at a 3-2 pitch, retired Jakob Nadley on a pop fly to first, then finished out the game by giving up no runs and just one hit.
“I knew I needed to come in and throw strikes, and pick up my teammates,” Cueva said afterward.
The other key play came when Birmingham catcher Johnny Tincher threw out Palisades’ Kyle Grassl trying to steal second for the final out in the bottom of the sixth. It effectively snuffed out the last Dolphins rally. Apparently Palisades didn’t get the scouting report about Tincher, who threw out two base-stealers and picked off another runner in the Pats’ semifinal victory over Poly High.
“I guess they don’t realize what I’m capable of,” said Tincher, who also unleashed a standing backflip during the team’s postgame celebration. “[Grassl] hesitated (after another Dolphin player was running to third base). I saw him out of the corner of my eye. When I threw the ball, I knew I had him.”
About 10 minutes later, Birmingham had claimed the championship.
“Winning three straight titles is crazy to think about,” Tincher said. “But we managed to do it.
While discussing the season and everything that was a part of it, Mowry was reminded of the oft-used quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”
You could almost hear a hint of a smile in Mowry’s voice.
“I can see that, yeah. I believe in that a little bit now.”