August 3, 2005 - It's midway through their practice at Tucson Electric Park, and the boys of The Show baseball team have a break after infield drills. The 13-year-olds use the time to do what they do best: voluntarily practice some more.
This particular drill puts them in a circle where a ball batted between them using the back of their mitts can't touch the ground, a virtual game of hardball hot-potato.
For these 15 hand-selected players chosen from various leagues from around Tucson, baseball is life. And they'd have it no other way.
Between Aug. 6 and Aug. 13, the squad will take its show on the road to compete in the California Competitive Youth Baseball World Series - a tournament they enter as returning champs.
The tourney will be held on the Cal State University Fullerton campus and will feature 20 teams from California, Alabama, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Created in 1991 by Jeano Savard, The Show originally was the name of his batting cage and driving range on Tucson's east side. A professional scout and current player agent for Arizona Sports Enterprises, Savard worked with some of the city's top baseball talent for years before he and one of his initial students, Lou Ciurca, founded The Show's first traveling baseball squad in 2001. Since then, The Show has developed into one of the most feared traveling youth baseball teams in the Southwest.
"We want kids to have it better than we ever did," said Ciurca, who played and coached at Mountain View High School. "It's great to watch them grow."
Ciurca and Savard have been working with this group, starting when the boys were 9 years old. Although only one member of that original group still remains, The Show has created not only a baseball powerhouse but a squad of young players that have gelled both on and off the field. The core of today's players joined the team after the first season.
Originally, the team was formed simply to teach some of the best players in town how to play. Eventually, they got tired of practice and decided to start playing games.
"The first year, we weren't good at all," said Mike Bregante, 13, the lone original squad member and student at La Cima Middle School. "The last three years we've been really good."
So good, in fact, that over the past three-plus years The Show is a combined 200-36 overall, competing against some of the best teams found in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Nevada. Playing up a level this year against 14-year-old squads, The Show has yet to lose a tournament.
Through July 18, The Show was ranked No. 3 in the state according to the Arizona Baseball Network.
Savard and Ciurca, who don't have any players of their own, scour Tucson looking for talented ballplayers that fit the mold of their program. Their vision of the team is to provide players with the experience and training to compete for a varsity role as freshman in high school.
"I don't think there is a pressure situation these guys haven't seen," said Ciurca, who believes each of his players not only will challenge for varsity roles but will someday go on to play college baseball.
Savard and Ciurca plan to coach this team straight through to the Junior Olympics the summer before they enter high school. Both coaches know what it takes to get to the next level. Savard played in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and Ciurca played college ball before a torn rotator cuff shelved his playing career.
Before The Show was formed, notable players who trained under Savard included D.J. Carrasco (now with the Kansas City Royals), Chuck Carr (Mets, Cardinals, Marlins, Brewers and Astros), and Chad Curtis (Angels, Tigers, Indians, Dodgers, Yankees and Rangers).
When not assisting with The Show, Ciurca is managing the Knickerbockers, a Marana-based team of 9-year-olds who will replace The Show when the current kids enter high school.
With a team of 15 all-star-caliber players on The Show, spreading around playing time is a challenge.
"These kids are all stars, but they can't all play," Ciurca said, referring to cramped playing time. "They've got to learn to stay focused throughout a game. Coming off the bench is one of the most important things in baseball and one of the toughest."
Nobody embodies this principle more than Bobby Verdugo. Two years ago, Verdugo didn't play a single inning in the championships. When the team returned last year, he won the tournament's MVP award.
To find competition on par with their level, The Show often has to travel outside of Arizona where it encounters all-star teams coached by the likes of former major leaguers Mark McGwire, Kevin Seitzer, Rich "Goose" Gossage and Doug Drabek.
The Show's biggest instate rival is the Arizona Mudcats team from Phoenix.
Just like in the big leagues, pitching is a premium, and much of The Show's success can be attributed to an arsenal of hurlers. Team captain Mario Sanchez and pitcher Jake Cole have each amassed about 40 of the team's 200 wins. What makes this team unique is that every player doubles as a pitcher. By stockpiling arms, the squad will be better prepared for the larger tournaments, such as the Junior Olympics, where they will play 10 to 15 games in as many days.
The exposure to such a high level of competition sometimes causes problems when the kids return to the Little League ranks. When Bregante signed up to play for the Continental Ranch Little League, a bitter battle raged between coaches for the right to land The Show's third baseman and pitcher - the ultimate compliment to a hard-nosed player.
Other times it works out for the better. Sanchez last year almost single-handedly took his Little League squad to within one game of a birth in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Although the core of the squad has been together for three years now, new talent is always welcome. Whereas Bregante holds the team's longest tenure at four years, his fellow teammate at La Cima Middle School, Eric Gutierrez, is the squad's newest addition at not quite four months.
Gutierrez, who was discovered by coaches on a trip to watch Bregante play, was thrown into action in his very first game in a Show uniform. In that game, an outing that Ciurca described as an "initiation," the team's only lefty hurled three scoreless innings as The Show rolled to a win in a 14-and-under tournament held in Lake Havasu City.
Each kid on the squad has his own nickname, a moniker that the team members earn over time. Gutierrez, the new guy, hasn't gotten his yet, although speculation is that it will be "E.G." or "Easy-E." Bregante goes by "the gamer," Sanchez "the Hammer," and Cole "Slap Shot."
Being on the road year-round keeps the kids close, but the bills tend to add up. Playing for The Show can cost a family between $5,000 and $10,000 a year in travel and other expenses. To help alleviate some of the cost, the team will hold various fund-raising events, including its upcoming golf tournament.
"Without the support of the parents," said Ciurca, "we wouldn't exist."
Parents who shell out the money for their kids to play at such a high level are banking on a return on their investment in the long run. Three of the team's players, including Gutierrez, are working with the Pima Community College baseball program, and it is Savard's and Ciurca's goal to see that each kid advances past high school to college.
A growing problem for the team is trying to figure out what to do with all the hardware it has accrued. Savard and Ciurca won't keep any of the trophies the team earns. They usually dole them out to the tourney MVPs. What they have kept is their National Championship rings from last year. Everyone on the team was given a ring, specifically designed by the team and the same kind annually awarded to the NCAA baseball champ, for the efforts in winning the title.
This year, the quest will be the same.
"I want to get rings for the guys that weren't around to get one last year," Sanchez said.
Spoken like a true team captain.