The thought of Francisco Fimbres and his Pablo Sandoval body sledding down the hill on a piece of cardboard on the hill beyond the Lamade Stadium outfield made his players smile and giggle Thursday night.
The Tijuana, Mexico, team Fimbres managed into Saturday's Little League World Series International title game had just beaten Panama to advance on Thursday night, and Fimbres told his players he'd go sledding if they won. Team interpreter Sergio Guzman was supposed to shave his head, too.
Neither had happened as of Tijuana's 3-2 loss to Tokyo, Japan, on Saturday afternoon. So instead of the fulfillment of these promises adding to the players' joy, they'll instead help them cope with defeat.
"They're not well. They're a little mad at themselves and a little sad, I think, naturally," Fimbres said through Guzman's interpretation after Saturday's loss. "As soon as I leave this room, the one thing I need to do is work with the adults, pick my boys up and it's my responsibility to cheer them up. This is the first time Tijuana was here and I'm proud of my team."
Fimbres wanted to make the games here fun, through wins and losses. A big test came in the bottom of the fifth inning Saturday when Brandon Montes missed a chance to score the go-ahead run on a tag-up from third base. With runners on first and third and one out, Saul Favela hit a fly ball caught by Kouyou Mizushima on the center-field warning track.
Montes took three steps toward home, but then stopped and returned to the bag. Mizushima made a quick throw back to the infield, but it's doubtful Japan could have tagged Montes at home.
Had Montes scored, Mexico could have been playing for the game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning instead of the game-tying one after Takuma Gomi's home run gave Japan a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth.
"I think nerves got to (Brandon)," Fimbres said. "It was a play we'd practiced throughout the entire season and we knew right away it was the perfect setup for a sacrifice fly.
"We're human, we make mistakes, but I'm very proud of him," Fimbres said.
Japanese manager Masumi Omae thought his team would be down a run once he saw the ball head toward the fence.
"In that situation, I automatically thought they'd touch up and go home," Omae said. "All I can think is how lucky we were."
Mexico's consolation prize today still is a game at Lamade Stadium, albeit the third-place game against New England Region champion Westport, Conn., at 11 a.m. and not the championship vs. West Region titlist Chula Vista, Calif., at 3.
If along the way Omae had proposed something as fun as letting his players watch him slide down the hardpan on the upper hill beyond the stadium with a piece of cardboard fished out of a dumpster somewhere, he hasn't publicly announced it yet.
But Fimbres owes it to his players to follow through on this one, and he made it sound like that won't be a chore after he made the point many coaches do here that this is just one level of baseball, one age group, and one tournament, albeit a pretty well-renowned one.
"It's still fun for the kids and fun for me," Fimbres said. "There's lots of things to learn from this. We are all learning from it and I believe we've learned more from defeat than victory."
Though here's one tip for Fimbres to avoid having his sled ride turn into one of those agony of defeat moments, the kind that ABC's Wide World of Sports used when introducing the LLWS telecasts all those years ago.
Pick a sled line away from any of the concession stands or TV towers at the bottom of the hill. Speaking from experience, those sleds can be tough for an adult to stop.
- Brigandi is the Sun-Gazette sports editor and may be reached at email@example.com