To some, the Nakai family's annual six-hour drive from Shiprock, N.M., to Phoenix every July may seem like a long trip for a baseball tournament.
For others, it's actually one of the shorter overall commutes.
This past weekend, more than 850 participants from 58 teams representing 46 Native American tribes from across the country made the pilgrimage to the valley to participate in the Inter-Tribal Youth Baseball & Softball Tournament, sponsored by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In its 14th season, the tournament featured teams from Arizona, California, Oklahoma and Oregon playing at the D-backs' Spring Training home at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (the first professional sports venue built on tribal land), as well as at Salt River High School, Salt River Recreation Center and Luis Gonzalez and Matt Mantei Fields in Tempe.
For some of the families in attendance, it was the first-ever trip away from their tribal reservation. For all, though, it marked the tournament's largest turnout to date.
"People say this is a long way to go for a tournament," said Penny Nakai, whose son Taylor was playing on the 4-C Regulators squad. "But this is unique, because no other MLB team hosts an inter-tribal tournament like this. It's a wonderful experience for the kids. They're playing on these beautiful fields, and a lot of our communities don't have anything like these kinds of facilities with the grass and the nice infields. For them to play under the lights and have multiple fields going at once .... We've been coming to this tournament for 12 years, and I love this game. I love coaching, and being a part of that is a really good feeling."
For many of the teams, finding local opponents to play the rest of the year can sometimes be as challenging as staying well-stocked in baseball equipment. Self-described "team mom" Nakai and many of her fellow coaches rely on sponsors to help offset the costs of playing, including travel, uniforms and even the little things, like bat tape.
Nakai's husband, Tulley, and their eldest son, Tyler, who used to play in the annual tournament when he was younger, both serve as team coaches. They and the rest of the adults in attendance treat each ballplayer with the same high level of respect to honor the overall culture and forge special relationships -- both with their own players and the ones on rival teams.
"We are all respectful of each child because we don't know what each family brings into the game," said Nakai. "That makes every team unique, because you have so many kids from so many different family backgrounds. They do come together and develop quite the friendships. We picked up a few kids from another team we knew from a few years ago. They were shy at first, but now I see them kidding each other in the dugout. They're taking care of each other and encouraging each other. That's what you want to see with these boys. That's what makes you feel good inside, knowing something good is coming out of this. Even today, Tyler's old teammates will come up to me, and the feeling you get going to these tournaments is such a good one. You know this is something positive in their lives.
"Anything is possible through hard work. We have two boys that are 30 miles from our community. One got signed by the San Francisco Giants and the other by the Colorado Rockies. You are from the same community, and you play in the same league. It's there. It's possible. It's one of those things you wish every kid would grasp and run with, because it's a wonderful sport for them."
The tournament's emphasis wasn't so much on winning, but rather fostering good will amid a love of the game -- something that was certainly evident by the teen participants.
"This is what this tournament is all about," said Tournament Director Tara Trzinski, pointing to a group of rival players. "You've got teams from California and New Mexico that played each other last night. They found each other now, congratulated each other on the game and are having a whole conversation on how great the game was when they played. What teenagers really do that?"
With each team playing a minimum of four games over the four-day tournament, personal highlights on the field were plentiful. The Tota Warriors' Kyle Thompson and Lakota Lloyd of the So-Cal Warriors each pitched one-hit shutouts in the later rounds. Last year's softball division MVP Siera Phillips didn't give up an earned run all week, but saved her best for last, tossing a perfect game for the championship. All teams were then recognized before Saturday's D-backs-Astros game at Chase Field highlighting Native American Recognition Day, presented by Gila River Casinos.
"It's a wonderful game and these players look forward to it," said Nakai. "You develop friendships regardless of how spread out you are geographically.
"Every March and April, you look forward to getting that big yellow packet in the mail from the Diamondbacks. 'It's tournament time. It's baseball time.' It's something we enjoy as a family and as a community."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.