by Kyle Koso
SCOTTSDALE, AZ – In the moments before a championship game, preparing to do well might be just as important as it is to play well.
For the Port Hueneme Drillers (Ventura, CA), being aware and sharp right out of the gate paid huge dividends Sunday for the Arizona Spring Championships 13uD2 title game, as the Drillers grabbed a 4-0 lead after the first inning and rolled to a 9-0 victory over the El Monte Dukes (CA).
While the Dukes will certainly look back and wish for better fortune next time after some early hiccups in the finale, the Drillers were rock-solid, taking advantage of errors and opportunities to grab immediate control of the contest. And with four runs coming across in the top of the seventh inning to seal the deal, the Drillers (seeded No. 2 after pool play) could reflect on a very impressive Sunday that also saw them 10-run their opponent in the 13uD2 semifinal.
“We like to jump on the first-pitch fastball and we love to run on the bases. We like to jump on them; for the other team it’s too late after that and they’re playing from behind,” said Drillers head coach Hector Ramos. “That’s our goal, to do that from the beginning.”
After the first three batters reached, Jordan Raya crushed a pitch to the right-center fence to make the score 3-0, and Raya scored on a groundout from Richard Pacheco to cap the early burst.
“This team has been together a long time; we had a week off during the spring and we decided to play Triple Crown and let the boys have some fun,” Ramos said. “We’ll definitely be back; we love the tournament.”
Raya backed up his work at the plate with three impressive innings in taking on the starting pitcher assignment. In the third, the Dukes (top-seeded after pool play) loaded the bases with one out, but Raya answered with a strikeout and a flyout to right field.
“It felt good, pitching with the lead. Knowing my teammates will back me up with the offense, and then on defense, is huge,” Raya said. “I don’t always hit my spots, but the defense was there and I felt good.
“On (the triple), it was a 3-2 count, and I saw a couple fastballs before, and I thought he’d throw me a curve ball there. He hit his spot, but I ripped it.”
Johnny Perez cooked up another run for the Drillers in the fourth, reaching on a single, stealing two bases, and then scoring on an errant throw from catcher to third base.
Johnny Gonzales pitched two crisp innings in relief of Ray, also getting out of a bases-loaded moment, and Gavin Ramos swept it up with two more spotless innings that included four strikeouts. The Drillers’ staff rang up nine strikeouts.
“One thing about it, everyone on the team can pitch,” coach Ramos added. “We limited everyone’s pitching, so when it came to the championship game, we had everyone available. It showed in this game, and we had two pitchers left who we didn’t need to use.”
Elijah Lopez wrapped it up for the Drillers in the seventh with a two-run single to make it 9-0.
by Kyle Koso
PHOENIX, AZ -- Over time, athletes ideally appreciate that it’s wise to look at the work required to play sports at a high level as not a grind or burden, but as an opportunity. The hours can be long, and the pressure of expectations can sit heavily on your shoulders, but how many others would love to have chance to take their swings?
Making the most of it all – that’s a mindset that works in the world of umpiring as well.
During the 2023 Triple Crown Arizona Spring Championships, umpire Andrew Joyner has maintained his standard policy of encouraging players and sharing laughs with families while devoting full focus and energy on the tasks at hand. It’s created a powerful feedback loop, where people have stopped Joyner, reminded him of moments in the past where they bonded and been sure to grab an updated photo or even just a fresh conversation that proves umpires should be included when you think of what makes baseball great.
“This is my happy place now. I look for the connection with the boys and the parents, talking with them,” said Joyner, 56, retired now after a career as a police officer, and who learned the game while becoming a two-time All-state pitcher in New Jersey. “Calling games at the high school or college level, different leagues all over the country, I see a lot of players. People ask me what level I like, and this here (ages 9u-14u), you just don’t know what they are going to do. It keeps me on my ‘A’ game, my partner, too.”
Joyner, who is in the New Jersey High School Hall of Fame, played minor league baseball from 1988-90 and joined the National Guard before starting his career as an officer. With 15 years under his belt, he umpires about 300 games a year.
“He’s the best partner I’ve ever had. He is on his toes; we both love the kids, he’ll talk to the parents,” said Andrew LaPlante, who might do 100 games a year together with Joyner. “He makes sure everything is all right, and we never have a problem.”
During the Arizona event, Joyner got a chance to reconnect with Brody Hall, 14, who plays for the Dominicana program based in Ogden, UT – the two had shared wide-ranging laughs and conversation when they met up in Phoenix in 2022, enough that Brody’s mother made sure to get a photo and send a long complimentary email to the event director about Joyner’s approach to his job.
“I caught two or three games with him behind the plate. We were always super-talkative, he’s an awesome guy to have behind the plate,” Hall said. “My mom was sitting back there, being really loud, she loves to get into the game … she and Andy got to talking. It was just a great experience, and when I saw him this year, I just gave him a big hug. We stayed after and got a picture, and it would be great to catch another game with him there. I hope I get the chance.
“The pitcher-catcher-umpire connection is huge. I like to make friends, and being part of that relationship and being comfortable with each other is very important to baseball. It makes the game more fun. Parents can get a bit over-reactive … the umpires are human, and even though we’re only 14 the ball is coming in at 80 mph. It’s not easy to make the calls (in real time) all the time.”
Another interaction with a player and Joyner turned up on social media during the Arizona event when the athlete remembered Joyner working a game fully six years ago, when they were all playing at the Field of Dreams event in Cooperstown, NY. Joyner had given the youngster (an 11-year-old playing up) a ball, a moment celebrated with a photo of their fist-bump, and the two re-created the moment in 2023 with a fresh photo.
Joyner’s mindset and mission to keep finding common ground isn’t going anywhere. During a 14u game during the Arizona event this week, he took a ball off his forearm when the catcher was slow to respond to a pitch – it obviously stung, but after a quick pause, he patted the catcher on the head to make sure there were no hard feelings. And after the game, he held court with fans for a solid 10 minutes, joking around and bringing a little light to the days of younger siblings who may or may not have been trapped at their brother’s game that day.
“Early on, during my playing career, one of my mentors asked me what my goals were, and he told me you have to earn it,” Joyner said. “And another mentor, he talked to me about patience and consistency – being able to wait for what you want while functioning at a steady level in order to obtain your goals. You have to put the work in.”
“You have to have a passion for it and be able to get through the bumpy roads at the beginning,” LaPlante said. “Time goes on, you get better. You have to persevere and keep learning. It’s a much happier place on the other side. There’s nothing like being an official and a kid coming up to you, five or six years later, and saying, ‘Blue! Andrew! Do you remember me? I’m 16u now, I was 11u back then!’ You can leave an impression on them.”
“I tell the kids, you’re out here to have fun. Where else would you rather be?” Joyner added. “That moment I had with Brody … he looked at me, and I know we had that mutual connection. It’s a beautiful feeling, and already at this event in a few weeks I’ve had four of those moments. That just didn’t make my day, that’s made my whole year. Anything else will be just icing on the cake.”
Learn more about Triple Crown's partnership with Officially Human: www.officiallyhuman.com.
Learn more about the Triple Crown Protect the Game initiative, where military veterans train to become youth sports officials: Protect the Game - Home.
The appeal and attractions of the Southwest desert in March are a drawing card for many reasons, and there’s a parade of youth baseball teams excited to make their enthusiasm obvious as Triple Crown Sports prepares to deliver the 2023 Arizona Spring Championships, set over five sessions in metro Phoenix during March of 2023.
Baseball fans have found the recipe for the Arizona Spring Championships to suit their taste for 22 years, as games are scheduled early in the day so teams and their families can check out the action at MLB Spring Training games. There are 15 MLB teams that call Arizona home this time of year, with games played in 10 stadiums around the region.
Triple Crown welcomes 620 teams this year from 28 states and Canada. Session 1 fires up from March 2-5, and the event closes with Session 5, running from March 23-26. TCS Baseball will use more than 50 fields to execute the event, with 40 staffers and umpires pulled in from 15 states to keep things moving forward.
“Every year, more and more teams are wanting to descend to the desert in March to duck the cold, play baseball and watch MLB teams getting ready for their regular season,” said event director Matt Pilcher. “It’s an electric combination and every team should try it at least once.”
“We were really just chasing the sun,” said Mark Tyler, head coach of the Elevate NW squad from Woodinville, WA that won the 13u title in 2022. “We were really happy to come down here and play in the sunshine. Awesome group of teams, great tournament, very well put on… It was all about (our kids) today. I didn't coach very much. I told them, ‘Hey, guys, this is your day. Today is your day to go do it.’ And so they did, and I loved it.”