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Monday, July 4, 2011

Why All-Star baseball is better than TOC ball anyday

Little League All-Star games are seemingly long if not played well. Tournament of Champions games? Don't ask.

Just don't.

TOC teams are not All-Star teams. And unless you have an amazing team that ran roughshod through the league competition to win the season title, pack a lunch and maybe a dinner appetizer. Those games don't go quickly at all.

And that was the case on Saturday, July 6, 1985 when our New Jersey Little League district, District 18, hosted the Senior League and Little League championship games just hours apart from each other.

The first title game was a scheduled 1 p.m. Senior League battle at Toms River East Little League's complex on Windsor Avenue. It was the Toms River Orioles against the Brick National Cubs. Now being a coach with my father on our own Senior League team at Toms River Little League, I knew how good the Orioles of manager Paul Cavallaro were.

As a matter of fact, if you weren't sure how good the Orioles were, Cavallaro, a neighbor of ours, would let you know.

At the top of the lineup was his son, Paul, the table-setter. He would get moved along on the basepaths by hitters such as Mike Hildick, Brian Pietrewicz, Pete Petrizzo, Marc Pappalardo and Aaron Ford. And if they had enough runs, that was good for pitchers like Pietrewicz, Petrizzo and Pappalardo, a fiery 15-year-old right-hander who brought brashness and attitude to the hill.

Brick National's Cubs had no idea what it was about to get involved in. In three games in the TOC, the Orioles had outscored their three opponents, 39-2. Even as National's manager was sending Sean Foley, the son of then-Brick High baseball coach Pat Foley, to the mound, it was highly unlikely the Cubs were getting off that field unscathed.

And so the first inning began: Cavallaro singled and stole second. An error moved Cavallaro to third. Another error on a Pappalardo grounder brought in Cavallaro. It got worse in the second as Hildick singled home a run. In the third, Pietrewicz laced an RBI double and Rob Gallo had an RBI single.

But Brick National bounced back against Pappalardo. RBI singles by Mike McCormack and Sean McPhee made it a 4-2 game. Now we actually had a ball game going into the fourth.

Naaaaaaaaaaah! That's because the Orioles decided to end matters with nine runs off Foley. Pappalardo and Rodney Ruby had RBI triples. Pappalardo would add a two-run single and Ruby a two-run double in the same frame.

At 13-2, the competitive portion of this game was over. The Cubs, though, decided that torture was a better element of death. They weren't going down without a fight. They weren't going to give the impression that they were there just to show off their keen-looking uniforms.

Actually, it turned into a hit-a-thon. By the end of the game, the Orioles had own their championship in far-from-beautiful fashion, 19-10, as the two teams combined for 34 hits, Toms River claiming 21 hits.

But what made it worse was the game dragged on for over three freakin' hours! No, I wasn't relieved it was over ... I was pissed. Welcome to the ugly side of Little League baseball, and I'm not talking about the overbearing parents.

I grabbed my neighbor after his team won and said, "Look, this just dragged on. I got to get going," in which he took offense as he gave me a look like I had no idea of what I was talking about.

Pappalardo went the entire way to claim the TOC title for the Orioles. He walked six and struck out 12 -- but he also gave up an unimpressive 10 runs on 13 hits, eight of which came off the bats of Foley and McCormack.

"Marc was tired," Cavallaro explained. "He didn't have a sore arm, he was just tired from pitching."

Yeah, I still scratch my head on that one. A tired pitcher gets yanked regardless of him hurting or not. Not many pitchers I know of would last with 10 runs and 12 hits given up. Good thing the offense was cranked to 11 and scored 19 runs that day.

It was about 4:15 p.m. and I had to be at a 5 p.m. game ... at Barnegat Little League, the southernmost Little League complex in the district. Jumped into my '73 Chevy Chevelle and pushed it for everything it had down Garfield, then Route 37 and onto the Garden State Parkway.

Once off the Barnegat exit, I had to wind my way around until I got to the Barnegat field. One thing that always stood out about the old Barnegat Little League complex was the size of its fields.

Pop-ups were home runs. Literally. It was a simple 180 feet to dead center field. And this Lakewood Mets team had some boppers on it, including a hulking 12-year-old left-handed hitting and left-handed throwing monster named Ricky DeJesus. DeJesus got to play first base on this day.

The Mets were playing the Toms River Giants, who were being managed for the last time by the iconic Henry Ostermann. Ostermann had been in the league since 1970 and even after his son, Henry, had gone through the league, he stayed as co-manager of the team along with another staple of the league, Ed Scharnagl.

And it looked like things would come easy for the Giants. As I got to the field in the top of the first, Greg Patterson, the Mets' pitcher, was having a problem finding the plate. He walked the first six batters he faced -- the first six batters. When abouts do you take the pitcher out of the game if he hasn't got it?

Six walks and it's 3-0 and suddenly, he was gone. The Giants had a 4-0 lead in the first, but the Mets bounced back with a run on, of all things, another bases-loaded walk.

Toms River bounced back in the second inning, scoring four runs to make it 8-1. But in the bottom of the second, the Mets got a run off an error and with the bases loaded, up stepped manchild DeJesus. DeJesus got a hold of a pitch and drilled it to the opposite field. It easily cleared the fence 170 feet away for a grand slam.

Not it was 8-6 and we weren't one-third of the way into this game.

Oh no, not again. Somewhere about that time, I started questioning my career choice of writer. I love being at the ball park just like anyone else. But I'm not a fan of overstaying my welcome.

If I had a seat belt, I would've been buckling up for a bumpy ride.

The Giants scored a run to make it 9-6 in the third, and it stayed that way until the bottom of the fourth. Dave Gottschalk, the Giants' pitcher who relieved starter Jamie Allee, was having trouble with the strike zone walking the first three batters he faced.

Out went Gottschalk. In came Graig Fantuzzi, the 11-year-old son of Ocean County College baseball coach Al Fantuzzi. He promptly walked the first batter he faced in the inning to make it 9-7. He got the next two batters out, but guess who stepped up to the plate again?

Yup, Mr. Manchild.

Fantuzzi made the mistake of throwing a pitch in the same spot that Allee had thrown it two innings earlier. Mr. DeJesus said, "Thank you."

If the first one was questionable about how far it went, this one was a no-doubter. It easily cleared the fence in left-center field and bounced by parked cars into some woods across the way.

Lakewood had come all the way back to take an 11-9 lead, eight of those runs supplied on two swings by the same hitter.

Tony Cloninger, move over. You had multiple grand slam company in this 12-year-old.

Now Lakewood needed to protect that lead with two innings to go. In the fifth, though, the Giants rallied. Fantuzzi's sacrifice fly came after an Allee RBI single and it was 11-11. We were heading ultimately to extra innings.

We didn't have a winner in this game yet, but I had seen 51 runs scored in two games. I had enough. Please, no more long innings!

In the seventh, Allee delivered another big hit, a single to score Chris Peto, who had started the rally with a double. Allee would come home on a Fantuzzi single and Paul Mauro would knock in Fantuzzi with a hit.

But at 14-11, nothing seemed safe. Remember -- one swing, four runs in this bandbox of a field.

The Mets scratched out a run on Fantuzzi, but they would go no further.

And just like that, the team of Ostermann and Scharnagl went out a winner in their final games as co-manager, winning the District 18 Little League TOC in a 14-12 barnburner.

Though they had been long revered at TRLL, the championship in their final game would be the first TOC title for both men.

"This is a great going-away present," said the always affable Ostermann. "I was just happy to be here, but to win it for the first time is very special."

Scharnagl went on to be the head administrator for District 18 two years later and ran it for 11 years where he became my go-to guy on anything I had a question for on the tournaments. As for Ostermann, I may have seen him once or twice after that, but never again after that. I don't even know if he's even alive today.

The day/night was over by almost 8 p.m. and just moments before darkness ascended on the Barnegat field for the night. Back at work by 8:30 p.m., I had to describe 56 runs on the day and put quotes in the middle of all that description. Tough degree of difficulty for an 18-year-old.

But by 10 p.m., I was done with both stories and out the door by 11 p.m.

Now not all TOC games were quite like those two in the same day. And I don't wish anyone to ever cover back-to-back TOC games like those two. As a matter of fact, after that day, the good, the bad and the ugly wasn't just the name of a classic Clint Eastwood movie.

But it gave me a good idea as to why I enjoy Little League, Junior League and Senior League All-Star ball much more. It's just cleaner play.

Still, for as bad a day as that July 6, 1985 was, I had enough material to write as many inches as there were runs in the two games combined.

Which I didn't. Thank goodness.

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