Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Like Papá, like hijo
Panama’s Jose Murillo Jr. follows in his father’s footsteps, all the way to Williamsport

By Mike Lipka

Sure, the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree.

But two consecutive apples falling 2,219 miles from home to the exact same spot? That doesn’t happen every day.

When Jose Murillo, Jr. arrived in South Williamsport this week from Panama City, he was taking the same trip his father, Jose Sr., took exactly 20 years ago, when he was part of Panama’s first-ever World Series team from the Willys R. Cook Little League in Bethania, Panama.

And having always known his father had been here, Jose Jr. said it was a dream come true to actually do the same thing and become what is believed to be just the third father-son combination to both play in the Series (Randy and Matt Keen of Tallmadge, Ohio were the last to complete the feat in 2003).

“I was able to emulate my dad, and reach the same series that my dad did,” Jose Jr. said through translator Luis Sanchez. “I thank my dad and my coaches for helping me develop and get here.”

What makes getting here even more amazing is that the Murillos don’t come from a World Series fixture like Chinese Taipei or Japan. But while this is only the fifth time Panama has been represented in South Williamsport (and only the second time Jose Jr.’s Curundu Little League has made it), the Murillos’ accomplishment still demonstrates the baseball tradition in a country that has produced dominant Major Leaguers such as New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Chicago White Sox slugger Carlos Lee.

“It is admirable the great achievement for a father and son to both make it to the World Series,” said Panama manager Carlos Mosquera through Sanchez. “It speaks a lot about baseball [in Panama]. Also, I thank God that it happened.”

One thing that couldn’t happen is that Jose Sr. couldn’t make it to South Williamsport this week – he is the director of a different league that is having its national championship in Panama right now. Jose Sr.’s undoubtedly proud mother, however, is here to cheer on her grandson this week – something she couldn’t do for her son in 1984.

But just because Jose Sr. couldn’t make the trip doesn’t mean he didn’t help his son to get here. The elder Murillo coached the younger one in the regular season of Panama’s Little League, before the Curundu All-Stars were selected. And he had some advice for Jose Jr. before he boarded the plane.

“He told me to work hard,” said Jose Jr., who knows his father is watching every Panama game he can on ESPN (and if it’s not on TV, he’s listening on the radio). “[He said] ‘If you work hard, you will win the championship.”

Winning the championship was something his father’s team couldn’t accomplish in 1984 – the farthest a team from Panama has gone was in 1993, when the Chiriqui All-Stars fell in the World Championship to a team from Long Beach, Calif. that featured tournament MVP and current San Diego Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs.

But both Jose Jr. and Mosquera are confident that this team – which is already 2-0 with 12-2 and 9-0 wins – will be different.

“We have had to overcome a lot of hurdles, mainly injuries and illness from the start until now. In different tournaments, different people have been unable to play because of either injuries or illness,” Mosquera said. “Now, everyone is healthy and the team is a very hard-hitting team and there is very good defense. If the bats explode, there is no reason they shouldn’t win.”

Jose Sr.’s team lost its opener to the eventual champions from Korea, but performed impressively the rest of the way for a fourth-place finish. Jose even tossed a no-hitter against the United States East squad from Bristol, Conn. for a 1-0 victory.

And Mosquera, who knows both Murillos very well, said that Jose Jr. – a second baseman and a pitcher, just like his dad – certainly carries some of that same swagger.

“They are very similar in looks, physical attributes, the way that they walk, the way they feel, the way they hit,” Mosquera said. “They both hit to the opposite field very well.

“[Jose Jr.] is a very smooth fielder,” he added. “He brings a lot of assurance to me at his position.”

He’s also stood out at the plate, going 2-for-3 in his first two games, though he hasn’t been handed the ball yet on the mound. He could get that chance as early as today, when his Panamanian team plays Chinese Taipei for first place in Pool C.

But even if they fall this afternoon, the Latin Americans will still advance to the International Semifinals, a road that wasn’t always so easy for them. Curundu was just 1-3 in the Latin American preliminary round – good enough for the fourth and final seed in the regional semifinal, even though they didn’t make a single error in the tournament.

Still, they eked out one-run victories when it mattered most, knocking off top seed Colombia 4-3 in the semifinal and second-seeded Chiriqui (from Panama) in the championship to punch their ticket to South Williamsport.

Overcoming that adversity is how Jose Jr. knows he will be different from his father.

“This team has better hitting and better fielding,” Jose Jr. said. “We hardly make any errors.”

There are, however, some things that aren’t so different. For example, Jose Jr.’s favorite part of South Williamsport so far?

“The fans – the girls,” he laughed. And would his father feel the same way?

“Sí,” he said confidently.

That leaves only one more, much harder question. Which Jose Murillo is the better ballplayer?

After a long (respectful) pause, Jose Jr. answered the question with the confidence necessary to make it this far.

“I am.”

© 2004 Little League Baseball Incorporated