By Beatrice Rosen
Skill, dedication and discipline, along with one coach’s raw love for the game, has proven to be a winning combination for this Culver Marina Little League baseball team.
The Washington Nationals finished this past spring season in the minor division, comprised of both male and female players ages 7 through 12, with 20 wins, zero losses and one tie – a dominating record that no other team has achieved in the past 10 years.
However, their run is not over. The Nationals clinched the Culver Marina Minor Division Championship May 31 when they came back from an early deficit to beat the Braves 4-3, propelling them into the Tournament of Champions. Made up of 11 other teams from West Los Angeles, all of which are also champions of their Little League minor divisions, this one-game elimination tournament began for the Nationals on Saturday, June 8 on the North Venice Little League Field.
Head Coach Danny Banuelos has been coaching Little League baseball for over 15 years and has taken previous teams to the Tournament of Champions, but believes this particular group of players has “a better shot” because they “are real dedicated, they have fun, they love it and they just love playing together.”
“The other teams I’ve had in the past, you know, there wasn’t too much dedication and focus,” Banuelos acknowledges. “But on this team everybody pays attention, they follow through with what they’re told to do, and everybody is on the same page.”
Coupled with the coachable players and overarching team chemistry, parents and spectators also noticed the Nationals’ respectful sportsmanship on the field throughout the season. Yvonne Arango, team mom and wife of Banuelos, recalls moments when their pitcher would apologize to the batter if he hit him, or how their team “never rubbed wins in any of the other teams’ faces… they always told the other team ‘good job’ and cheered them on.”
Yet it was Banuelos who, along with assistant coaches Leo Santos and George DeLuna, not only demonstrated an enduring commitment to the improvement of each individual player, but also helped shape the Nationals into more than just a team with an undefeated record.
According to Paul Riojas, a parent whose son is on the team, “our coaches showed a great deal of patience and were good examples of how to be, and I believe that it really rubbed off on our children’s conduct.”
In particular reference to Banuelos, Riojas remembers moments when “our parents would comment on how we were glad that we had a coach that never lost his cool, even when other coaches would vent their frustrations on him… he would always be a gentleman and never be offended.”
Banuelos also serves as a role model for 15- and 16-year-old players by coaching a team in the Little League senior division. He only has a son on his minor division team, but simply can’t get enough of the timeless American game.
It all started when he joined the Playa Vista Little League, now the Culver-Marina league, at 7 years old, and he continued playing until he was 16 when he graduated out of the senior division. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Banuelos picked up a glove again, stepped out of the dugout and onto the freshly cut, dew-covered grass. Only this time, he was playing a different position: coach.
Banuelos admits that he feels pangs of regret in his decision to stop playing baseball past Little League, so he not only started coaching as a volunteer because he missed the sport, but because “these kids have a lot of talent, and I’d hate to see them throw it away. They can go somewhere, and I don’t want them to quit just like I quit.”
When Banuelos first began coaching in the Playa Vista Little League, there was no junior and senior division, so the players would move to a different Little League after they graduated from minors. Motivated by the desire to give back to the kids and help them, and “keep that Little League going,” Arango and Banuelos decided to re-launch the divisions.
In 2001 the couple travelled to Mar Vista Gardens, a housing project in Del Rey, and gathered kids to form the teams.
“Their parents weren’t too involved, and never forced them to go out and do anything for themselves,” Arango recalls.
Arango also says that during the first few years there was not much help in getting the league going, so not only did they buy each player their entire uniform, including cleats and socks, but Banuelos also mowed and watered the expansive field by hand every day.
The first teams in the junior and senior divisions were formed by 2002, and the new league, renamed Culver-Marina, truly solidified in 2005. By then, Banuelos had a 9-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, and was coaching a promising junior division team.
Banuelos says 2005 was the year that he genuinely realized he was born to coach. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the admiration he received from his players that led him to such a conclusion. Rather, it was a bullet.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I got shot,” Banuelos recalls with a mellow voice. The bullet struck through his skull, sending him into immediate brain surgery to take out the fragments.
Yet life’s deadly curve ball was not enough to strike out “Coach Danny;” he was back out on the baseball field, cap on and glove in hand, just in time to coach his junior all-star team to a division championship.
“His will to live, to get back to the field, to get back to those kids, was just so strong,” Arango says.
“I was constantly thinking about baseball while I was in the hospital. I don’t know what it was, but I wanted to get back to coaching,” Banuelos remembers. “It helped me get through the rehab and everything, it motivated me.”
His overpowering love for baseball and coaching not only strengthened his will to live, but has proven contagious. Banuelos infects almost every player he coaches, says Arango, who has seen “many kids whose passion turned to baseball because they played with him, and they were kept off the streets from doing nothing. There is a possibility Coach Danny did save their lives.”
Banuelos’ coaching abilities have no doubt played a role in the success of the Washington Nationals. Combined with the teamwork, skill and discipline demonstrated by each player, this team may even have a shot at winning the Tournament of Champions. Yet no matter what happens, all of the players and their families can reflect positively on the astounding season. After all, not only were they undefeated, but they were coached by Banuelos.
“He’s a great coach; he’s patient, motivated, he makes it fun, and the kids always want to be with ‘Coach Danny,’” Arango says.
‘Coach Danny’ and the Nationals knock it out of the park
By Beatrice Rosen