They were the loudest team in the room.
At a dinner welcoming the six competing teams to the California American Legion baseball championship, it was revealed that each team’s jersey would represent a branch of military service — Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Space Force.
Then it was revealed to the unwitting players that they would perform their branch’s official song in front of the entire Clovis Veterans Memorial District ballroom.
When The Marines’ Hymn began playing, a loud roar erupted from two tables near the front stage. The boys jumped up, howled in approval, ran to the stage and belted out the song. With arms draped around each other, the Post 28 Leghorns of Petaluma High School sang and embraced the seven gold letters on their jersey: “Marines.”
“Our buddy, Chris Young, is from San Diego and he’s a Marine,” said Petaluma head coach Spencer Finkbohner. “When he stood up and got us ready to rock and roll during the dinner, I said, ‘It’s going to be all bad for these boys. They don’t know what’s coming.’”
Patriotic spirit ran high among the six teams who took turns singing their branch’s song. At the end, Petaluma was picked as the most spirited by Mark Gardner, a former Clovis High and MLB pitcher who spoke at the dinner.
The Leghorns won the first “competition” of the state tournament. Four days later on a warm Tuesday morning, they won the final competition, defeating Post 113 Napa Valley Baseball Club, 13-0, at Buchanan High School. The five-inning rout secured the Leghorns’ third California American Legion baseball title in four years.
“It’s just the 707, Petaluma and Sonoma County, and all the good ball players that come out of there,” said Leghorns designated hitter Jake McCoy. “It’s young talent, it’s the cream of the crop, and every time it’s going to be this way, so we’re just going to keep going.”
McCoy went 3-for-4 with a double and three runs batted in Tuesday. Petaluma played with power and speed, stealing 11 bases in the championship game. Leadoff hitter Gabe Henschell swiped two bags in the first inning alone, including a steal of home plate to score Petaluma’s first run.
“I saw the first baseman go off towards his glove side because the [back-pick] wasn’t very good,” Henschell said. “I saw that and started breaking toward home. Luckily I got around the tag.”
Petaluma won four games at the state tournament in a variety of ways — by a game-tying bunt single and walk-off win Saturday; by strong pitching and defense Sunday; and by sheer power on Monday and Tuesday, when they combined for 29 runs in 10 innings between the two games.
“One through nine, every guy can do a job, lay a bunt down and get the next guy up,” Henschell said. “We hit through the lineup probably five times today in five innings so it’s just a great job.”
The Leghorns’ offensive dominance on the diamond made their off-the-field antics all the more amusing.
For one, Petaluma has carried around a large wooden pencil along with a necklace made up of enlarged paper clips. Attached to the paperclips is a drawing of the popular SpongeBob SquarePants character “DoodleBob” with the character’s catchphrase written above it.
After his game-tying bunt Saturday, Elvis Zarco proudly wore the necklace.
“It’s our rally DoodleBob,” Zarco said. “Whenever we get a double or home run or big hit, we always throw it up.”
Then there was the issue about Zarco’s first name.
He went by “Mario” to coaches, teammates and even the public address announcer over the first three days of the tournament. Petaluma went to MB2 Raceway in Clovis after a game, and “Mario” needed to type in his first and last name. That’s when “Mario” revealed his name was Elvis.
“The lady at the counter didn’t believe him, so he had to get his ID out,” Finkbohner said. “Ever since then, we said we’re going to start calling him Elvis, and I made it a point to tell the announcer it’s not Mario. It’s Elvis.”
Clovis makes it as tournament host city
Elvis Zarco announced his real name to teammates and coaches while exploring the attractions and things to do in Clovis, the American Legion state baseball tournament’s newest host in over 40 years.
After spending decades in Yountville, the tournament plans to return to Clovis next year and wants to progress to bigger markets such as the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego.
“We’re looking for places where baseball is supported at a large level and Clovis, obviously with the success of the Buchanan teams, is that,” said Autrey James, Commander of the Department of California American Legion.
“What better place to start your tour of California, if you will, than a home of national champions. Being here on this field means a lot to us.”
Moving the tournament from small-town, rural Yountville to a metropolitan area like Clovis was an ambitious task for state tournament director Ray Flores. The transition was made easier with help from Clovis Veterans Memorial District, who hosted the welcome dinner and sponsored the event, as well as volunteers from American Legion posts across California who helped run the event.
“We had already been talking with the good folks here at C.V.M.D,” Flores said. “For five years, they’ve been asking, ‘Can we host the program?’… We took a look at it. We built the business case and we said we can do this.”
The tournament also offered a chance for Clovis and the Central Valley to reflect on its history with American Legion baseball. Tom Sommers, who played for the 1960 Roosevelt High American Legion state championship team before playing professionally, spoke at Friday’s dinner.
“I think American Legion taught me a lot of lessons,” Sommers said, “that we had to be tough, we had to be in great shape, and we had to play our very best every game.”
Gardner played American Legion baseball in the summer of 1979, and he remembers the informalness of the game back then.
“I don’t even know if we got a hat or anything, but it was just a t-shirt with a post number on there and we went out and played,” Gardner said. “The key word is opportunity. It gave me an opportunity to play and in the summertime, it’s hard to find people to go out and play. This organizes it and gets them out there.”
Gardner went on to pitch for Fresno State and four MLB teams before coaching in the Big Leagues for 15 seasons. American Legion was a pit stop on his journey.
“It was funny watching all of the kids line up at the dinner to get a photo with Mark Gardner,” Autrey said. “Here’s a kid who came to Clovis when he was four years old, grew up in baseball, played American Legion baseball, made it to the Majors and now has three World Series rings. You know what that tells these kids? If he can do it, anybody can do it.”
While Clovis offered an opportunity to look at what American Legion has delivered in the past, it also allowed local veterans to watch the next generation of Legion ball players.
Bruce Thiessen, former CEO of the Clovis Veterans Memorial District and U.S. Army veteran, appreciated the loud singing at the dinner from the Petaluma Leghorn “Marines”.
“You can’t beat it,” Thiessen said. “That’s what you’re trying to instill in young people today — team spirit.”