PICTURED: The 1972 Sunset Little League team, after winning the Western Regional Championship in Madras, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Tom Barber

by Tim Pompey

Baseball is a sport as common as the dirt and grass upon which it is played.

Here in Ventura County, there are many baseball success stories, including Carlos Luis “Charley” Hall (Ventura) aka “Sea Lion,” who pitched in the 1912 World Series for the Boston Red Sox; Fred Snodgrass (Oxnard), who is in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame; and Terry Pendleton (Oxnard), who won the National League MVP award in 1991.

But for most little leaguers, baseball seasons come and go. Kids grow up and move on. One thing, however, remains a common thread among players: baseball builds friendships.

And here is where baseball holds a special memory, particularly in Oxnard’s Durley Park, where the Sunset Little League plays. In July and August of 1972, an all-star team of 14- and 15-year-old boys from a small neighborhood in South Oxnard bonded, played dozens of games, traveled across the country, and eventually won a Little League National Championship. That was 50 years ago. But the friendships built from that experience have lasted through five decades.

Three of those friends met and were interviewed by the Ventura County Reporter at the same park where they played as kids. Durley Park, located in South Oxnard near Hill and J streets, is bigger now, but the Sunset Little League has played there every spring since 1957. And as you might imagine, for teenage boys who won a championship, these friends are still celebrating.

Walter Moody (outfield) teaches English at Hueneme High School and coaches tennis there as well. He started playing tennis after baseball, and is now a certified professional with the United States Professional Tennis Association.

Tom Barber (shortstop) is a quality program improvement specialist at the Oxnard Boys and Girls Club. Previously, he owned B&L Baseball Enterprises, which offered instructional baseball camps at Durley Park.

Mike Olivera (outfield) is retired from the County of Ventura Juvenile Hall, where he was a correctional officer for more than 20 years.

These friends comprised a team of 13 boys plus their coach and manager. The Sunset Little League all-stars played 29 games, beginning in Oxnard, Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley, then on to the western regionals in Oregon, where they played teams from Arizona and Hawaii. They flew from Madras, in Central Oregon, to Gary, Indiana, with a regional title under their belts. They played and lost to Puerto Rico, which meant they had to play more games in the tournament’s losers’ bracket. Their backs against the wall, they successively beat Florida, Germany, Mexico, Indiana and, finally, Pennsylvania for the championship. For the world title, they played and lost to Taipei, Taiwan.

Remember this was 1972. No cell phones. No computers. No Internet. No cable TV. This meant that baseball was the sport of choice for kids playing at Durley Park during the spring and summer, and they played a <em>lot<.em> of baseball. They spent all day during the spring and summer at the park. They ate, slept and breathed the game.

A rite of passage

“I started playing when I was 7 years old,” said Olivera, “and I played until I was 18. Baseball was a rite of passage.”  

Describing their common backgrounds, he added: “We were the boys of the neighborhood. That’s what made this team unique. We all grew up together. We were innocents. We had Black people, white people, Mexicans, Asians, all living in the neighborhood.”

Barber had similar memories. “I grew up with baseball,” he recalled. “As far as I can remember, from the time I was 4 or 5 years old, I played baseball. It was just something that was ingrained. We spent all day out in the park. We were all together.”

“Baseball meant everything to me,” said Moody. “We played baseball in the street. We played at the base. We played with Wiffle balls, rocks. We literally ate, slept and drank baseball. I think that’s one of the reasons why we were such a good team.” 

Playing baseball was the highlight of their summers together.

“Other than when my kids were born,” Moody remarked, “that was the best time in my life. Shagging fly balls out there in the outfield.”

Formative experience

Of course, during the tournament, kids and coaches from the other teams did not think of them quite so fondly. As Olivera recalled: “They laughed at us. They didn’t think we were serious.”

1972 Sunset Little League team Members Walter Moody (left), Tom Barber and Mike Olivera at Durley Park in Oxnard with current Sunset Little League President Andrew Arreola; March 2022. Photo by Tim Pompey

“They saw a bunch of Black kids, Mexican kids and two white kids,” said Moody. “The perception was these guys don’t know what they’re doing. But then, we played between the lines. We left it on the field, and you had to beat us.”

How did this baseball experience, especially winning a championship, shape their lives?

“It made me a better person,” said Moody. “It showed me the importance of camaraderie, and no matter what happened, these guys had my back.”

“Sports, the experience, the adversity we went through,” Barber noted. “In each of those tournaments, we could have just folded up. But just that will, that determination. So when I have faced tough situations in life, I just think back to that adversity, the circumstances we were up against, and I remember that I’ve been here before.”

Of course, out of these experiences, some memories remain special.

For Olivera, it was not a game. It was a chance encounter with another baseball fan.

“We lost the first game in Gary, Indiana to Puerto Rico,” he recalled. “During our day off, I met a Black man in a wheelchair. I remember it vividly. He came up to us and told us: ‘You guys represent America.’ That memory has been with me all my life.”

For Barber, it was winning the western regionals in Oregon.

“After we won, it hit me,” he said. “Wow. We’re going to the World Series. We always talked about it, but it’s actually happening. That was the moment for me.”

“We are brothers”

Of course, boys being boys, they had a lot of fun.

As Olivera recalled: “From Chicago’s O’Hare airport to Gary, Indiana, Barber led us in singing ‘Amen.’ All the way to Gary.”

For Moody, it was about a particular type of celebration.

“Trying to get out of the sectionals in Oxnard, I remember our team being behind, and we would get together and say, ‘Okay, we gotta win because we want to go honking.’ We’d get in the back of somebody’s pickup and drive through town as they honked their horn.”

But the best part of playing was the friendships, which are as strong today as they were 50 years ago.

Barber insisted that “the experience with these guys will forever be etched and entwined. We’ll always be connected.”

Moody said it clearly in a short sentence: “We are brothers.” 

For Andrew Arreola, current president of the Sunset Little League, the story of the 1972 championship continues to inspire Sunset Little Leaguers today.

“Their stories have given us hope that a championship is possible, even today,” he stated. “It’s an honor to be a part of such a historic time and to hear these stories. It has a similar feel to the movies The Sandlot or The Perfect Game. It inspires me to encourage our players to bring another championship to Oxnard and the Sunset Little League.”

So, 50 years later, what does it mean to be a champion?

“We just had fun,” Olivera said. “And to be champion, we had to work hard, and your teammates were your brothers. You had to pick each other up.”

For Barber, it meant “accomplishing something that no one can take away.”

Indeed, their championship plaque remains nailed to the league’s main office wall. As long as there is a Sunset Little League, that championship will be celebrated.

For Moody, it had to do with accomplishing something bigger than themselves.

“It was something that Russell Wilson said: Why not us? When you were playing with these guys, you knew you had to be on top of your game. You knew you had to give a hundred and ten percent. Having these guys for teammates. That’s what made me a champion, and it always will.”

Sunset Little League, 500 Hill St., Oxnard. For game schedule and more information, visit www.sunsetlittleleague.org