Petaluma Little Leaguers awed to join A's on field
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LAND -- They hail from Petaluma, a small, bucolic city north of the bustling Bay Area. They've traveled to Williamsport, Pa., and back, soaking in the baseball experience of their young lifetimes.But it's hard to compare anything to stepping on the field with a Major League team, blending right in with their green-and-gold jerseys as they roamed the outfield during batting practice Friday alongside the Oakland A's.Where does hitting the field next to the A's rank for the Petaluma National Little League team?Quinton Gago, a left-handed pitcher and first baseman, answered that one with his index finger: No. 1."This is awesome," Gago said. "To be here with all the Oakland A's, that's just absolutely insane."Add another experience-of-a-lifetime to a whirlwind summer. Petaluma traveled first to Southern California and then across the country to the Little League World Series, winding up second in the U.S. bracket after a spectacularly wild championship game against Goodlettsville, Tenn., then finishing third overall after beating Panama in the consolation game.The fun isn't over yet. Following Friday's big-league experience, which included an introduction to an applauding crowd before the game, they'll be honored Sunday in a parade through their hometown. The parade will follow the same route where the Butter and Egg Days Parade takes place every April in the city of about 50,000 residents surrounded by pastures and with an agricultural history that dates back to the 1800s.Jonny Gomes, the A's veteran outfielder and designated hitter, knows all about Petaluma -- he grew up there, and over the last several weeks has been one of the team's most vocal and ardent fans."I'm from the area so obviously I'm biased," Gomes said. "But I try not to be far away mentally from my Little League days. I couldn't imagine what it would have been like to come here with Rickey Henderson, Mike Gallego, Walt Weiss and guys like that. I try to still be like a Little Leaguer, so this is awesome for these guys."That they wore Petaluma across their jerseys -- until that was replaced by "West," that is -- wasn't the only reason Gomes liked following the team through the summer."I was telling their manager, you just sit back and watch these guys play and they run the bases well, they play defense, they hit, they're unselfish -- it's not a coincidence. That's why they went as far as they did," said Gomes, who provided a ball signed by all the A's to each of the Petaluma players.Eric Smith, the team's manager, watched the players in the outfield from the sideline during batting practice, wanting to let the kids enjoy their special experience but still eager to coach them. "I'd like to be out there telling them to take better routes," Smith said with a chuckle.The route they took to the big leagues -- for an afternoon, at least -- is something that the kids and their parents will never forget, and they're still constantly reminded of how great it was."It just keeps going," Smith said. "Every time you see somebody new, you get to relive all those experiences, so it continues. It's been a blast. I think the kids are really enjoying the moment."But they think of themselves as baseball players, so to be able to be on the field with these guys is tough to beat."Said A's manager Bob Melvin: "You have thousands and thousands of Little League teams, and for them to accomplish what they have is pretty special. We're excited about having them here, and hopefully they're as excited about being here."Gago can confirm that. As he and his teammates roamed the outfield Friday, he allowed himself to dream something even greater than what he and his teammates have experienced already."For a second, I was thinking maybe, maybe one day I could see myself here," Gago said. "Just looking around and seeing the whole stadium, it was a flashback to Williamsport, but to the next level."Who knows? Maybe it's a flash forward for Gago and his teammates to a brighter future even than the summer of 2012.For now, the 12- and 13-year-olds are back in school and, other than the occasional parade and trip to a Major League field, they're getting back to normal.Or, their new normal, at least."It's not normal yet," Gago said. "I'm signing autographs [at school], too. A kid came up to me the other day and asked me to sign his Altoid. I just put a 'Q' on it."