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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Simply, the most amazing -- and certifiable -- day ever

The day is still an amazing, wondrous blur to me.

Saturday, August 29, 1998. Lamade Stadium. Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

There I was sitting on press row just moments away from the 3:30 p.m. first pitch of the Little League World Series championship between the international representatives from Kashima, Japan and the boys I was covering, the second Windsor Avenue Gang from Toms River East American.

This team wasn't really supposed to be here. But when the favorites of the East Regional, South Shore of Staten Island, N.Y., were upset losers to Georgetown, Del., that gave my hometown boys an unlikely opening. In the regional final, Todd Frazier and Scott Fisher opened the game with home runs and Fisher ended up throwing a no-hitter in a 2-0 victory to advance East American into the World Series for the second time in four years.

And the roll continued -- an 11-inning dogfight that ended in a 10-6 first-day victory over the kids from Jenison, Mich., in the longest Little League World Series game ever, then a come-from-behind 4-2 victory over the team I thought was favored to win it all from Cypress Federal, Calif., followed by a 5-3 win over the Tar Heel Little League of Greenville, N.C. to go 3-0.

Back in the day, it was just eight teams going to the World Series, not the overstuffed 16-team field of current times. The top two teams record-wise in pool play went to their respective finals. East American had its rematch with Tar Heel and with Gabe Gardner bashing a two-run, first-inning home run to spark a 3-0 lead, our guys never looked back. Fisher scattered five hits and East American had a 5-2 victory over Tar Heel, capped by a two-run home run from the star of the team, Frazier, a 12-year-old who could do no wrong when it came to athletics.

And so here we were, Saturday afternoon, an overcast day to start with in the hills of Central Pennsylvania. I was still having a hard time believing that our kids were here, one victory from legendary status.

Then again, I couldn't believe I was here. Yes, me -- the guy who had covered this sport better than anyone ever had at the Jersey Shore was here after 15 years of covering it.

Sadly, though, I was almost not on press row in the hills of Central Pennsylvania on this Saturday afternoon.

Really, I should have been in Kissimmee, Fla., covering the Toms River East American Senior League All-Star team, which for the second year in a row had won the state title. This was the original Windsor Avenue Gang, the original group who made it to Williamsport in 1995 and went 1-2, then went to the Junior League World Series the next year in Taylor, Mich.

I was looking forward to this Senior League team going far. But a funny thing happened along the way.

They choked in a couple of games they shouldn't have for the second year in a row at the East Regional Tournament in West Deptford in South Jersey. Talent-wise, there were few teams better than that group of Toms River East American Senior League All-Stars.

But they simply and unequivocally choked. They had a couple of horrible calls go against them and it affected their play. They never could get out of their own way and it was over ... just like that.

And it left me without a team to cover. And I will always be grateful to my boss, Al Ditzel. In July 1998, Gannett completed the deal with our former company that owned us, Goodson, and we were now part of "the family." I still get awful chills thinking about that. "The family" meant being a part of the Asbury Park Press, our paper rivals for, hmmmm, over a hundred years, and now we were suddenly "brothers/sisters in arms." I didn't like the feeling. I was too loyal to this paper to now have to share with the former enemy. Awkward to say the least.

And it meant while I was down in West Deptford in early August, they sent their own guy -- a correspondent at the time -- to Bristol, Conn., to cover the East American Little Leaguers. Well, when my time was done with the East American Seniors, I had nowhere to go and I wanted to be in Bristol. I really didn't care how it was done, as long as it was done.

After all, I owned this fuckin' jungle, I should have ruled over it.

To this day, I still don't know the lobbying lines Al used to get me into Bristol, but I got there. And I can't thank him enough.

I knew in my heart -- and in my own mind -- that I was better than anything the Press could send up there. If that's being bombastically selfish, self-serving and arrogant, so be it.

Just as long as you call me Mister Bombastically Selfish, Self-Serving and Arrogant.

So I get up to Bristol to cover my first game, which was against Goffstown, N.H., which was their third game in pool play by then. They were 1-1 at that point. And by the looks of the people who were there to follow the East American Little Leaguers, they saw me and thought I had come out of the water miraculously after I had supposedly drowned.

Outside of my own family, I've never seen a group of people happier to see me. They wouldn't tell me what was going on, but after the game -- an 11-4 win highlighted by a nine-run fourth inning -- manager Mike Gaynor, who I had known and covered for four years, including at Williamsport in '95, gave me the lowdown.

"That other guy was not so good," Gaynor told me about the guy the Press had sent up to cover the team. "None of the parents didn't like this guy."

To be honest, I don't pull punches when describing a game involving 11- and 12-year-olds. If you make a key mistake, I mention you and your mistake, plain and simple. It's not wildly popular, but then again, I wasn't there to win popularity contests. I was there to report what was happening.

And I don't know what prompted East Americans fans to not like the guy -- personally, I didn't think he was a bad guy myself -- but I'm guessing they missed my familiarity. By the end of the tournament, I was being joined by Joe Adelizzi of the Press. Joe's as good a guy in this business as you will ever get. So I enjoyed his company.

But I was still having a hard time being a team guy with new teammates. I was so used to doing things by myself, covering stuff by myself, that organization was never a part of what I was supposed to do, yet now here I was having to do stories and coordinate with Joe and other writers who were there from the Press and have to deal with our new crappy 10:45 p.m. deadlines.

All this at once. I still don't know how I survived it. What should have been one of the greatest times of my life was slowly turning into this nightmare of never-ending hours of work because of the planning involved. One day, I literally worked a 17-hour shift, starting with the early morning Little League breakfast in which Dr. John and Ginger McGwire -- the parents of slugger Mark McGwire -- were honored as the Little League parents of the year. I had to do a daily notebook and try to do a side story and cover that U.S. final on that Thursday night and try to make deadline.

This experience was sucking the freakin' life out of me. And I still had about another 10-hour day ahead of me on the Friday I would normally be off from work because of the Observer not having a Saturday paper, but because we were now brothers/sisters in arms, that meant I had to write stories for the Press that day, too. It was coordinated where I got to do the Japanese team press conference and story. I still remember a couple of hours after the press conference, seeing the manager of the Kashima team and I simply asked him, "Sugata?" throwing my right arm in a pitching motion to ask if No. 2 ace hurler Tatsuya Sugata was the starter for Saturday's final.

This kind man looked at me, smiled and bowed his head to say "yes." So I told him, "Domo ata gato," which means "thank you very much" in Japanese. If not for Styx's "Mr. Roboto," I would not have had a clue of any Japanese whatsoever.

So on the morning of the game, I'm ready to go to the stadium to make my 18-mile trip up US-15, a ride I had been so familiar with since '95. In the hallway of the hotel, I see Lucy Cardone, the mother of reserve outfielder Chris Cardone. And she looks worried as anything.

"You all right?" I asked.

"Just nervous," she said. "This is such a big game."

That was certainly the understatement of the decade. This was the biggest game in District 18 Ocean County Little League history. In 1975, Lakewood won the Little League World Series, but international teams were not allowed to participate that year.

So these East American kids were actually going further than the '75 Lakewood boys were going.

As I got to the stadium parking lot on the grass below the fields, I took a walk over to see the Japanese team work out on the plot of land ultimately built for what is now Volunteer Stadium. They looked like a machine in fielding practice. Very few flubs. They were making throws and gobbling up grounders like a professional team. As I passed by, the manager saw me and smiled. All I could say was "Good luck" to him and I think he tried to say "Thank you" in English, though it didn't sound that clear.

It was 1:25 p.m., overcast and two hours before the first pitch. I had promised to do four stories on this day -- FOUR!! For the Observer, I had to do a main story, a sidebar and a notebook, while for the Press, I had to rewrite the main story so the stories weren't reading the same in two area papers.

See how asinine this situation was?

By the time the first pitch was thrown, the sun was peaking out. And as customary in Gaynor's time as manager, he chose to have his team bat first. At the top of the lineup was the thunder-and-lightning duo of Frazier and Fisher, while Gardner hit third and 4-foot-something, 85-pound second baseman Joey Franceschini was the cleanup hitter.

Hey, it takes a lot of creativity to come up with a lineup like that one.

Brent Musberger and Jim Palmer barely had time to get into the flow of the game for ABC when Frazier drilled the game's second pitch over the left-field fence off Sugata to make it 1-0.

It didn't end there. Fisher and Franceschini walked and No. 5 hitter Casey Gaynor singled to bring in Fisher to make it 2-0. Franceschini ultimately scored on a passed ball to make it 3-0.

And eight batters into the game, Sugata was gone, relieved by left fielder Takashi Kato, who got No. 9 hitter Brad Frank looking on strikes to end the frame.

In this big game, Gaynor opted to pitch his son Casey, an 11-year-old member of the team. Fisher was unavailable because he had pitched in the U.S. final and Mike Gaynor wanted to save Frazier in case there was any trouble.

Gaynor got the first two batters out on strikeouts. But up stepped No. 3 hitter Tetsuya Furukawa. PIIIIINGGGGG! The ball took off like a laser over the center field fence to make it 3-1. Then Sugata came up. PIIIIIINGGGG! Another laser show over the left-center field fence and it was 3-2, just like that.

Breathe in, breathe out. Casey Gaynor survived the first inning and the team was still ahead.

East American loaded the bases in the second, but Eric Campesi grounded into a force play to end the inning. And in the bottom of the second, a Gardner error at third base on a Kazuki Ishikawa groundball allowed Kenta Komatsuzaki, who had doubled to start the inning, to score and tie it at 3-3.

Kato took East American down in order in the third, and in the bottom of the third inning, Furukawa blasted his second home run of the game to put Kashima in front, 4-3.

But Kato had to face the thunder-and-lightning top of the order to begin the fourth. Frazier hammered his third hit of the game to left field for a single. That brought up Fisher.

Now where I was located, I was practically next to the platform where the television perch was, not far from where Musburger and Palmer were situated. Because of that platform -- and because the stadium overhang was in the way -- I could barely see beyond the fence in right field.

On an 0-1 pitch, the left-handed hitting Fisher smacked the ball so far, it challenged landing over the hill's slope in right field and rolling onto US-15. Fisher crushed the pitch a good 300 feet. It was a no-doubter. Suddenly, those in the stands rooting for the East American kids were on their feet, hollering and having a good time as East American had the 5-4 lead.

At the banquet held in the team's honor over two months later, master of ceremonies Kevin Williams claimed he and I ran to a television monitor to see where that ball landed. I don't remember it happening that way and I remember a lot of things. But I guess it made for a great story to tell when he had to introduce each kid individually that early November night at the Garden State Arts Center banquet hall.

One out later, Franceschini reached on an error, bringing up Gaynor. Gaynor got a hold of Kato's first pitch and blasted a shot over the center field fence.

What made this home run unique was that I can still see it landing on the dirt over the center field fence and this huge black paw reaching out to grab the ball on a hop. That black paw belonged to league member Rich Cunningham, who was dressed up in a gorilla's outfit. During the team's run to the title game, they went to Lake Compounce in the Bristol, Conn. area and while there, they bought a small stuffed gorilla and that gorilla went with the team everywhere, so the gorilla became a mascot. And just like something out of a cheesy 1970s movie, Cunningham dressed up in a human-sized ape's outfit and admitted to me later he lost over 20 pounds in that thing during the summer heat.

Once down a run, East was now ahead 7-4 and looked to have things in control with six outs to go.

By the top of the fifth inning, Mike Gaynor still had one more player to get into the game. He had started with Mike Belostock in center field, but Belostock never had a chance to have an at-bat or take the field because he was having trouble with irritated eyes. So he was done. Chris Crawford came in and batted for Belostock and played center field.

Now Gaynor was getting Crawford out of the game and sent the only player not to hit or play the field to this point up to bat.

It was Chris Cardone, Lucy's son. Cardone was no threat in the East lineup the way Frazier or Fisher or Gardner were. If he could get a hit, great. If not, so be it.

With Cardone up first, followed by catcher Frank next, I was anticipating Frazier and Fisher again and what damage they could do against Kato, who had to be tiring by this point.

It was nice to get Cardone into the game and have him lead off the inning. Get your at-bat and get ready to play the field, like nothing great was expected.

Then all of a sudden -- PIIIIIIINGGGG!!

The ball sailed over the center field fence for a home run, making it 8-4.

As John Sterling once said about the wacky Mets-Braves Fourth of July battle in 1985 after pitcher Rick Camp had hit his first-ever home run in the 18th inning to tie the game up, this game was now certifiable.

I could see Frazier and Fisher and Gaynor hitting home runs. But Chris Cardone? Little Chris Cardone? Little Chris Cardone, whose dad, Bill, told me he had hit only one home run in his entire baseball career up until this game?

Really? Seriously?

This just isn't happening. What other pleasant surprises could be in store at this point, I'm thinking. East American was in cruise control and the least likely of suspects had just hit a home run.

But this Kashima team just battled and battled and battled. They had no quit in them. And against Gaynor, they were about to flex more muscle with their thunder and lightning portion of the lineup.

With one out, Furukawa came up. PIIIIIIIING! Another rocket launch over the center field fence to cut the lead to 8-5. Yes, this was Furukawa's THIRD home run of the game. Didn't end there. PIIIIIIING!! The next rocket launch was courtesy of Sugata, his second shot of the game, to make it 8-6.

Then Gardner, who was having an atrocious time up to this point of the game, threw a Yutamo Okawa groundball away to put him on second with one out. Sayaka Tsushima -- the first girl to play in the Little League World Series final -- then hit a laser shot, but right at Frazier for the second out. That brought up Komatsuzaki with two outs.

PIIIIIIING!! Once again the sound of aluminum bat making square contact with the ball. But this one didn't go out of the park. It went to the left-center field gap to score Okawa, making it 8-7. And when left fielder Cardone threw the ball errantly back in, Komatsuzaki was at third base.

Mike Gaynor figured that was enough for his son. He came out to relieve him. After the game, Gaynor told the media that he had never seen his son look that frustrated before. He had given up seven runs, five of which were on solo home runs.

These Kashima kids were pesky.

But Mike Gaynor had saved Frazier for this moment. Get the final out of the inning and then save it from there. But it took one pitch to get Kashima all even again as Frazier's first offering bounced past Frank and to the backstop. Komatsuzaki raced home. Frazier got a groundout to end it, but the damage was done.

These East American kids had exerted so much of themselves for five innings. How much more was left in the tank against a Kashima team that was obviously in the middle of its second wind?

Kato was gutting it out as we headed to the sixth. A run, any run, would help at this point for our side.

Casey Gaynor, who was now at first base, started the inning. He worked out a walk. Campesi struck out and R.J. Johansen sacrificed Gaynor up to second.

With two outs and the go-ahead run on second, the batter was Cardone.

Again. I looked down the way to see if Crawford -- or even Belostock -- was coming out of the dugout. Nope. This was all on the smallish Cardone, one shocking home run into the Little League World Series final. Mike Gaynor was riding his fifth-inning at-bat -- and a hunch -- to see what Cardone could do in the sixth. Maybe a bloop base hit somewhere could get the plodding Casey Gaynor home to give East the lead.

What a story this would be if Chris Cardone turned out to be the hero of the biggest game in Ocean County Little League history. The count got to 1-1 when Kato put one over the plate.

Cardone didn't miss.

PIIIIINGGGGGG!! It was that sound again.

The ball just sailed until it cleared the right-center field fence.

Was this really happening? Chris Cardone?! This could not be happening. If you had money that the only Toms River East American player to hit two home runs in the Little League World Series final would be little Chris Cardone, you could have lived comfortably the rest of your life.

Somewhere I was between excitement and shock. I had the story of a lifetime at this point.

Toms River East American was up 10-8 and Chris Cardone was already making plans to never pay for another meal out again as long as he and his family made Toms River their home.

But this top of the sixth wasn't over yet. Frank pounded a single to left field and back again was the thunder-and-lightning duo at the top of the lineup. Frazier, who was 4-for-4, walked. Kato was tiring and no one was warming up in the bullpen.

Fisher singled to load the bases for Gardner.

At this point, Gardner had two errors and was 1-for-4 with three strikeouts. His contribution to this final was nada. Gardner was like Chris Cerullo to the '95 Windsor Avenue Gang -- he could have great moments, like he did against Tar Heel, or he could sleepwalk through a game like he was doing now.

If Gardner could deliver a hit, this game in my mind was over. Gardner got to 2-2 against Kato, then fouled off the next two pitches. Finally, he got a pitch he liked and drove it off the wall in left-center field. Frank and Frazier scored on the double.

East American 12, Kashima 8. This game was all but over.

The Windsor Avenue Gang II took the field in the bottom of the sixth inning. Three outs and they would be World Series champions. They were already capturing the imagination of the country and had planned on trips to Rosie O'Donnell's talk show and to be on the field with the New York Yankees for a September game.

But they still had business to attend to. No. 9 hitter Ishikawa hit a popup to short left field. Cardone started in, but saw Franceschini, who had moved from second to short when Frazier came in to pitch, race back and reach out as far as his 4-foot-something body would allow him to go for the first out of the inning.

But Masahiro Kurbiyashi, the last player on the bench for Kashima, came up as a pinch-hitter and drilled Frazier's 3-1 offering over the fence to make it 12-9 and make it a record-setting 11th home run in the Series final.

It was only worth one run, but this next batter was important to get for Frazier. It was No. 2 man Tomoyuki Okawa. He was 0-for-3 and if he made an out, it limited what Furukawa and Sugata would do at the plate. On a 2-2 pitch, Frazier dropped his hammer -- a curveball that made Okawa look like a statue -- for strike three.

One out to go. Frazier could have thrown a lollipop to the plate for Furukawa and he could have belted it 500 feet over the fence and it wouldn't have mattered, other than it would have been a record-breaking fourth Series final home run for the No. 3 hitter. Instead, Furukawa laced a single to left field. He would get to second on another Frazier wild pitch.

Frazier had gotten to 2-2 on Sugata. He had mixed his fastball and curveball throughout the at-bat. He decided to see what one more curveball might do. It was unhittable ... should've been ball three.

But that's "should've been." The ball bounced in the dirt as Sugata swung and missed and Frank could not cleanly come up with the ball.

Didn't matter under Little League rules what happened to that ball that bounced past Brad Frank.

It was over.

The team that wasn't supposed to do this? They just did it. In front of 41,200 fans, most of which came from the Jersey Shore and Ocean County, East American had won the Little League World Series.

The kids grabbed the World Series championship flag and paraded it around Lamade Stadium, waving to the East American family and friends as they got back to home plate.

At just after 6 p.m., the ABC cameras and telecast were done rolling. And I had interviews to do after the game.

A ton of them. For anyone involved at Toms River East Little League, this was a day they could not believe ever would come.

But it did.

For those involved in District 18 -- like District 18 administrator Mike Hreniuk, who was stepping down that year after working for the district for 15 years -- it was the culmination of a dream they never believed could be real.

But it was.

And after 15 years of covering the sport, I had finally seen the greatest moment in my Little League career as a reporter.

Actually, the biggest ever period. It was never going to get bigger than this.

The problem with getting a ton of notes from a lot of people is that after you're done talking to them, you have to decipher the notes and figure out what you want to use and what you don't use. I called up Al after 6:30 and he told me to do the Press main story first.

So I did. And after that, I wrote the main story for the Observer and then the sidebar. By the time I was done, it was just around 9:30 p.m., just 15 minutes from deadline on a Saturday night.

That night, I headed across the river to downtown Williamsport and to the TGI Friday's to get a burger. I was exhausted from the week I was there. And on the television, "SportsCenter" was showing the highlights of the final again. I smiled.

It was real.

But this wasn't over yet. Long after the flag ceremony, there was still a ride home the next day and a celebration like no one had ever seen before. I saw Mike Gaynor's parents in the hallway of the hotel as I left to head back on I-80. "Red" Gaynor was a happy man. His son had done well. So did those young men who played for him.

Anyway, back on I-80 and back into New Jersey on the Parkway until I got home. Stopped at the house to pick up a notepad and headed over to Windsor Avenue and the complex. The team was not back in town yet and it was a mob scene.

It was estimated that over 40,000 people were at the East complex to meet the team and there were thousands more who were lining Route 37 on the parade route home. They arrived at the complex as heroes as the sounds of the cheering fans and friends and family were practically deafening. Once inside the complex, they got to enjoy time with the people there to honor them, and to go inside the field clubhouse where very few people were allowed to go in.

I was one of the lucky ones. I can still see the stunned look on assistant coach Ken Kondek's face as this thing had reached its pinnacle.

"Just amazing," he said. "For us. For what we did."

The whirlwind tour would last quite some time afterward. All the way into 1999 actually. And they were all together for the 10-year 2008 reunion. These days, Frazier is a member of the Cincinnati Reds as a left-side infielder.

Kenny Kondek was right that day after the championship.

It was just amazing. August 29, 1998. The day of the greatest 20th century sports moment in Ocean County history.

And I almost didn't see it happen in person.

Thank you again, Al.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The "almost heroic grand slam" at the Little League World Series

It had been six days since the Toms River East American Little League All-Star team had dispatched of the entire East Regional bracket, hammering a "happy-to-be-there" Brandywine team from Delaware, 11-0, to take the title and become the first Ocean County, New Jersey team to head to the Little League World Series in 20 years.

After being in this business for 11 years, covering Little League that long, I had finally realized "The Big Time." The national stage. The original Windsor Avenue Gang was going to "The Big Time."

They had won the title in Bristol, Conn., on a Tuesday and normally, the rule, according to Little League Baseball headquarters, was that the team was to go immediately to Williamsport, Pa. to get ready for the event. But they were given an allowance to head back to Toms River for a hero's welcome, and after a couple of days back, they were on the road that Friday to go to Williamsport.

As for me, I was staying back for a while in Toms River. It gave me a chance to get some stories written to prepare for the event. It also gave me a chance the day before I headed to Williamsport to hang out in Silverton for the afternoon with Butch Belitrand. For those who don't know Butch, he was co-manager of the Lakewood Little League All-Star team that captured the imaginations of everyone at the Jersey Shore and the country in 1975 when they won it all.

I had known Butch for a number of years and he always invited me to his place to take in the game. I always kept that in mind, but now this was the perfect time. The 20th anniversary was mere days away (Saturday, August 23, 1975). So on Sunday, August 20, Butch and I watched the game at his place.

Obviously, I wanted to hear him add his commentary to the game on certain moments. I was only 8 when the Lakewood team had won in '75, so I did not remember that much of that game, and in 1995, unless you had a videotape of it, which Belitrand had asked for from ABC, very few people had possession of that '75 championship tape.

When we got to the last batter of the game, Belitrand had pointed out that with the final Tampa, Fla. hitter, he had star pitcher Dion Lowe keep throwing fastballs to the outside part of the plate. And the batter kept fouling them off, one after another. So before the very last pitch, he said, "By this point, I'm telling Dion, 'Now come inside.' And the kid didn't know it was coming."

And within an instant, there was the final pitch of the game on the inside corner with the young man from Tampa frozen solid as it went past him and the Lakewood celebration had begun.

My first thought was, "I hope I get to witness that while I'm there." After all, Toms River East American ran rougshod through the double-elimination East Regional Tournament, winning it without a setback.

With Jeff Frazier getting the nod on the mound for East American, I figured it'd be a good start. The key for me though, was getting a good start.

So after working the night before as the assistant sports editor, I was packed and ready to go to Williamsport starting at 7:30 in the morning on Monday, August 21, 1995, figuring I had plenty of time to get to Lamade Stadium for the 1 p.m. start between East American and South Region champion Northwest 45 Little League of Spring, Texas, located on the outskirts of Houston.

Even though I had not been to this part of Pennsylvania before, the easy way to go would be to jump on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and head to the exit for the Northeast Extension, which would hook me up to I-80 and head west.

I had heard about the nightmare driving through I-80 in Jersey and did not want to get stuck in early morning traffic. So into Pennsylvania, it was getting on the Turnpike and then finding the extension. Found it by almost 9:30 and figured I still had time.

But the drive on the extension seemingly took forever. And to make things worse, I missed the exit and the next one wasn't for 10 miles. There went 20 miles I wouldn't have back. It was now close to 11:30 and I still had another hour to go before getting off I-80.

And this is back in the days before XM radio. So whatever radio station I got in the middle of nowhere -- which I was in at this point -- was really all I could get. Somewhere on I-80, I found a radio station that played something resembling Top 40. The song on the radio was Spandau Ballet's 1983 classic "True." And as I'm listening to it on a fading AM station, I start listening to no words to the song.

I realized that the record was skipping and the same few notes are being played over and over and over and over again.

Welcome to the introduction of DJ-less radio stations out in nowhere!

By 12:30 p.m., my nerves frayed from this long trip that I can only blame myself for because I mistrusted my judgment and should have taken I-80 in Jersey into Pennsylvania, I had exited onto US-15 heading north to South Williamsport. I knew it was going to be tough sledding because it was still another 18 miles to go and since I had never seen this place, I had no idea what to expect or worse, where exactly to go.

Thankfully, I knew the Williamsport radio station locally was covering the game, so as I got into the outskirts of town, I had the game on. And of course, as manager Mike Gaynor always did, he had his team bat first.

Frazier singled, but the next three batters -- Colin Gaynor, Chris Cerullo and Danny Gallagher -- all struck out swinging. I knew Northwest 45's starting pitcher, a burly lefthander named Michael Cepeda, was going to be tough. Apparently, he was pretty good.

As Northwest 45 came up, I had finally weaved my way into the parking lot, which is a grassy plot of land located in front of the stadium. It's free to park, but the volunteers ask that you put a donation to Little League in, which I did by giving them a couple of bucks.

I had my press pass, but I would have needed to get to the office to pick my stuff and official Little League World Series press pass up. Thankfully, the nice people running the event allowed me to at least to sit in the press box and cover the game in a spot that wasn't mine for the event, but no one was occupying it at the time. They told me I could sit in the spot and do interviews in the tent outside the stadium after the game, but remember to pick up the pass by the end of the day.

OK, so all that was solidified. I had caught up with another writer there on how many pitches the East American hitters had in each of their first-inning at-bats and was near the end of the first inning as I tried to catch up on the Northwest 45 hitters. Their bottom of the first was a quasi-mess in my scorebook as I had to correct things that happened along the way, but Northwest 45 had scored on a Cepeda groundout to make it 1-0.

I was finally settled in as the second began. Brian Julian walked and moved around the bases on two wild pitches by Cepeda. This big lefthander threw hard -- but also had trouble locating the strike zone. He struck out Kevin Blaney and Jeremy Dandorph, but catcher Bryan Jedrusiak singled up the middle to bring in the run, tying it at 1-1.

Now things are looking good again.

Until the bottom of the second.

Frazier got the first two out of the inning, then gave up an infield hit to No. 8 hitter John Griffin and a single to right field to No. 9 hitter Daniel Grotte. Back to the top of the lineup for shortstop Kyle Foster, who could not have been more than 5-foot tall. Here was this left-handed hitting pepper-pot with all of Will Clark's tendancies at the plate ... the hitching up of the right sleeve on his uniform, the circular waving of his bat, holding it high just around his ear.

Apparently, he also had some of Will Clark's power. Foster got a hold of a Frazier pitch and drilled it into the swarm of fans over the right-field fence to make it 4-1.

Something told me it was going to be one of those games.

In the top of the third, RBI singles by Colin Gaynor and Gallagher cut the lead to 4-3. Back came Northwest 45 in the bottom of the third as Cepeda singled and scored on three wild pitches from Frazier. Kristopher DuConge scored on a fielder's choice, making it 6-3 with half a game still left to go.

Finally after a few innings, I could take in the sights of this beautiful complex. Even though the view from the press box on the third base side of the stadium just next to the plate was obstructed by a ramp leading to the television booth where ESPN and ABC would be televising the games, the hills were everything they had shown on television. And the mountains across US-15 stood out like nothing I had ever seen before. In the corner of my eye was the headquarters for Little League, as well as the museum, and further away from there on the right was the complex where the teams were housed.

The fields were pristine as if the 11- and 12-year-olds were playing on a Major League baseball field.

Ahhh, Little League nirvana up close and personal. It was confirmed -- I had made it to "The Big Time."

Neither team scored in the fourth and East American was back up in the fifth. The thunder-and-lightning duo of Frazier and Gaynor doubled and singled, respectively, to put runners on first and third with no outs. Cerullo, who was struggling at the plate with two strikeouts, finally put a bat on the ball and grounded out, but Frazier came home. Gaynor would score on a wild pitch, the fifth one uncorked by Cepeda, cutting the lead to 6-5. After Cepeda walked Gallagher, manager Don Turley finally got Cepeda out of there.

The team's ace was gone and now East American was on the hunt. But Wardell Starling III -- that was his name, I couldn't make it up even if I wanted to -- induced Julian into a foulout and struck out Blaney to get the Boys from Spring out of further trouble.

Frazier was still on the mound and you can easily see he did not have it on this day at all. He had given up just one run in his last four outings, but his curveball wasn't curving on this warm afternoon and Spring hitters were dialed in.

Frazier was having to be the battler, the guy who had to gut it out. And in the bottom of the fifth, Starling and DuConge singled and Brandon Bartlett bunted for a single. Then Jessie Matlock was hit by a pitch to force in Starling, making it 7-5.

Still manager Mike Gaynor stuck with Frazier. He got the No. 8 and 9 guys out on strikes, but here came pepper-pot Foster again. He cracked a single to right to bring in DuConge and Bartlett, but Matlock would ultimately be thrown out at third, giving Northwest a 9-5 lead.

The chances of a victory in the first game of the Little League World Series were not looking good at all for the guys I was covering. Frazier had been banged around and beaten to the tune of nine runs on 11 hits at this point, even though he had struck out five.

How the sixth inning would start might perk up my hopes for this team. I thought this Northwest 45 team was good, but I didn't think our guys were that far behind them in terms of talent.

Turley had decided to save Starling for the next game against the kids from Yorba Linda, Calif., so he brought in DuConge to start the sixth and get the last three outs.

But Dandorph, small in stature, but huge in heart, walked on four pitches. OK, good start. After getting to 2-0 on pinch-hitter Andrew Diaz, Turley came out to relieve DuConge and bring in Foster to get those last three outs. But Foster wasn't any better to start and Diaz took his base on a walk. Todd Cuchie ran for him.

Foster got Chris Aiello to pop out for the first out of the inning. Down four runs with two outs left still wasn't looking good. But the top of the order was coming again. Mike Gaynor always had a theory when it came to his hitters: He had his two best hitters lead off so they would get as many at-bats as possible. Three years later in Williamsport, he did it again when he had Todd Frazier, Jeff's brother, and Scott Fisher hitting 1-2 and 85-pound Joe Franceschini, hit cleanup.

Certainly, this was looking good in that regard. Jeff Frazier, first. He beat out an infield hit to load the bases. Tall and lanky Colin Gaynor was next. He shot a single to left field to bring in Dandorph to make it 9-6.

Now the big guys at the top of the lineup were done. And up were guys with potential to turn games around. And it started with Cerullo. Cerullo was an outfielder with a lot of talent and a lot of power, but it was hit or miss with him sometimes. And in this game, it was a lot of miss with two strikeouts and a comebacker that Frazier helped turn into an RBI.

Foster threw the first pitch outside for a ball. Though the Boys of Spring were having the better of it in their battles with Cerullo, they couldn't get cute and tempt fate. But on the next pitch, fate came a-callin'.

Clang! That sound was loud and clear. The more authoritative that sound, the chance the ball was going to travel a long distance. And this one did.

Cerullo easily cleared the left-field fence and then some. And those who were on the East American side of the field, the third-base side, were jumping around and high-fiving each other and screaming loudly. East American 10, Northwest 45 9.

Even on one of their worst days going, the East American kids had found a way to get back in it and take the lead and now the victory was three outs away. But I slowly checked down the lines at Lamade Stadium. I wanted to find the bullpen area. I saw no one warming up in the sixth inning.

This was Jeff Frazier's game to win or lose. He battled all day in the 90-degree heat. His curveball wasn't curving. His fastball wasn't showing a lot of life, but enough to get attention. And yet, Mike Gaynor was giving him a chance to finish this one out.

I rarely ever questioned Mike Gaynor, especially since he would win a World Series with that '98 team. But he should've had his son Colin up to get them through the bottom of the sixth. Or someone. Jeff Frazier did not have it and everyone in that park knew it.

The good news was that Kyle Foster wasn't hitting. The bad news was it was still Nos. 2 through 4 starting the inning. And Christopher Conroy started the sixth with a single. A passed ball by Jedrusiak advanced Conroy to second. Now the tying run was in scoring position.

Cepeda flied out to Cerullo for the first out. Maybe there's hope. But next was Starling, who had two hits against Frazier. East American wasn't allowing him to tie the game, though. Gaynor had Frazier throw four wide ones to put the winning run on base.

Yes, the winning run. I sure hoped Gaynor knew what he was doing.

They were taking their chances with DuConge, who was 2-for-2. He worked the count to 3-2, then nailed Frazier's next pitch to left field to send Conroy home to tie it. Bartlett, the next hitter, singled to right field to load the bases.

Gaynor had finally seen enough. Out came Frazier, in came his son. Again, I never have questioned what Mike Gaynor has done, but again, with ample warmups to start the inning, I believed Colin Gaynor could have sealed the door on those kids from Northwest 45. Now he was coming in with the winning run on third and one out. I'm pretty sure big-league pitchers aren't happy about that situation, either.

Well we didn't have to wait long to see how this one was going to turn out. Gaynor bounced the first pitch past Jedrusiak and to the backstop. Starling scored and the Northwest 45 kids had escaped with an 11-10 victory.

That feeling of elation just 15 minutes earlier when Cerullo's grand slam gave East American the lead was gone.

And down in the tent afterward for the press conference, Mike Gaynor was asked immediately why he didn't put his son in the game to start the sixth.

"We thought about bringing Colin into the game before the inning," he dejectedly started, saying he and coach John Karkovice had that conversation. "Colin said his arm was tight, so we had to go (back) with Jeff. Things just happened so quickly."

In fairness to Mike Gaynor, he's right. The home run was worth four runs and a lead. And to make that decision to stay with Frazier wasn't of major-long thought. But a struggling pitcher is a struggling pitcher. Anyone on this day -- someone with a slower speed -- may have gotten the last three outs against Northwest 45 and claimed the East American win.

Who knows? We won't ever know.

In the end, the loss hurt East American. After beating the kids from Midwest Region champion Arden Hills, Minn., handily, East American lost to the Yorba Linda team and missed out on a chance to play in the American final, where Northwest 45 won and advanced to the World Series final, only to be hammered by the kids from Taiwan, 17-3.

The next day after the Northwest 45 game, I came across ESPN's Jack Edwards, who was calling the Little League World Series for the network with out-of-work major league manager and former catching great Joe Torre. I asked him about calling Cerullo's grand slam.

"I'll be honest with you," Edwards started. "My sound guy told me that when I called that home run, the (sound detection) needles hit the highest level it could hit. That was such an amazing moment."

And it was. Chris Cerullo was nearly a hero after struggling throughout the game. What a story to write about the kid who got the pitch he was looking for and drilling it for a grand slam that would have won the first Little League World Series game his team -- and league -- were ever a part of.

It would have been a great story to tell for years to come, the same way Dion Lowe had won Lakewood's Little League World Series title 20 years earlier.

Unfortunately unlike that day in '75, it didn't end with a victory.

OK, it's still a great story to tell about that "almost heroic grand slam."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

An afternoon in Asbury with "Killer"

Early in my career, I was barely lucky to meet anyone famous. Covering high school and college sports events were nice and all, but they weren't the whole reason I wanted to become a writer.

Sure, it's easy to say that anybody with anything to say can make for a decent story. This concept I understood, but I really didn't want to be just a high school and college sports writer for the Ocean County Observer.

I wanted more. I was enviable of any of the Asbury Park Press people who got to cover the Mets or Yankees or Giants or Jets or Nets. Former Observer photographer Chris Troyano had press passes to an NBA game at Byrne Arena on a Friday night off from work in March 1986 for the two of us to do a New Jersey Nets-Chicago Bulls game. He got to shoot the game, I got to sit on press row at 19 years old and it was surreal to me ... to any 19-year-old for that matter.

Of course, the great Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls, but not in this game. He was out with a foot injury, so the Bulls of coach Stan Albeck were rendered helpless in a 118-107 loss that night. But Chris needed to get back to Toms River, so I never got to go to the locker room afterward.

My taste of that first professional sports event was not all it was cut out to be. I continued to be the good soldier, biding my time until something "bigger" came along.

In the summmer of 1986, that "bigger" came along. My dad was working in Asbury Park at the time at the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel in management and the hotel was associated with the legendary Convention Hall across the way. So whatever was going on at Convention Hall, my dad could have access to it.

This included the "Baseball On The Boardwalk" series run by a man named Ed Walsh. Because of my father, I had an in to do any interviews with any of the former Major League stars who came into Asbury Park and I got to interview these players, either during their signing or afterward.

I still remember the first one of these interviews I got to do. It was Henry Aaron, who came into Asbury Park on Saturday, August 16, 1986. The interview felt awkward, though, because I knew Henry Aaron to be a lot more jovial and outward in other interviews. Mainly, I think, because he was having to pay attention to what items he was signing and the conversations he was having with those there to meet him, we never truly hit it off.

So it went OK, but not quite like I thought. Then in the next set of shows, it was Lenny Dykstra five days after the Mets won the World Series. Judging from the huge throngs of people that were there -- and Dykstra's attitude of being there that day -- there was no way I was going to get any time with him. Walsh invited me back on that Sunday to talk with a true legend ... Brooklyn Dodgers great Duke Snider. I came back the next day, Snider was an absolute gentleman, and I had a wonderful story for the next day's edition of the paper.

Now it was the summer of 1987. I was a week home from being in Delaware for four days and the disastrous end to the Toms River Junior League All-Star team's run in the Mid-Atlantic Tournament, and less than a week after my first girlfriend had told me she didn't want to go out with me anymore.

Yeah, those are a few days I sadly have to take with me to my grave: Watching a team I covered stumble and fumble away a chance to advance in tournament play, then seeing your first girlfriend drop a hammer on you like that. I had no idea of how to handle the latter more than the former.

So that weekend, I needed something to pick me up. And on this particular day, Saturday, August 15, 1987, the attraction at Convention Hall was not just any legend in to sign autographs.

It was Harmon Killebrew, the "Killer" as he was known in his days with the Minnesota Twins. But "Killer" was only his personna on a baseball field. Off of it, I had heard nothing but incredible things about this man. It was Killebrew who a decade earlier had organized an annual charity golf event involving former Twins teammate Danny Thompson, a shortstop with a lot of star potential who passed away from leukemia at 29 in 1976.

So that afternoon, Convention Hall was packed nicely -- not quite the zoo that it was the previous November 1 when Dykstra was in town. They were there to see "Killer," who had been taking time away from his duties in helping the Minnesota Twins broadcast team (who were in Minnesota for a weekend series with Seattle, I believe).

I made my way through the crowd until I recognized Walsh. We said our hellos and he brought me on stage like he had for Aaron and Snider the year before. I knew the deal. Apparently, "Killer" had been told that I was doing a story on him and the day in Asbury Park and he greeted me with a warm smile and said, "Nice to meet you."

That, at least, got the whole thing started right. He continued to sign autographs, keep a smile that never suggested it was strictly on automatic pilot for the fans, and held worthy conversations with the paying customers, while taking the occasional picture.

All the while, he continued to hold a conversation with me. I was more interested in his humble beginnings, not just the fact he was a star player at Payette High School in Idaho, but he was signed as one of those "bonus babies" in the 1950s that forced him to sit on a Major League Baseball bench at 17, 18 years old and wouldn't allow him to hone his skills in the minor leagues.

"Back in those days, the minimum salary was $6,000," he started. "I signed for three years for $6,000 a year, which was $18,000, plus a bonus of $4,000 a year for three years, which was a $12,000 bonus. Anything over the minimum salary was considered a bonus contract, and you had to stay with the ball club for two years under the old rules of baseball.

"I was only 17 when I signed and went right into the major leagues. I couldn't go to the minor leagues because of the rules. It didn't help the player and it didn't help the ball club, either. You could only learn by playing every day."

Which was awkward to Killebrew. Here he was at 17, 18 years old sitting the bench for the cellar-dweller Washington Senators, not able to really hone his skills that he could have done playing in the minors. For three seasons, he got 202 at-bats and had 42 hits, nine of which were home runs.

In 1957, he broke free to hit 29 home runs and knock in 101 RBI as an everyday player -- in Chattanooga, the Triple-A affiliate of the Senators. He came back to the Senators and by 1959, he established himself as a ferocious power hitter, belting 42 home runs and knocking in 105 runs.

Then came the 1960s, and when the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, both the franchise and Killebrew took off. In 1965, the Twins lost to the Sandy Koufax-led Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic seven-game World Series. But 1969 belonged to Killer. In helping the Billy Martin-managed Twins to the American League West championship, Killebrew blasted 49 home runs and drove in 140 runs to win AL Most Valuable Player honors.

But believe it or not, Killebrew was determined to have a great '69 season after he missed the second half of the '68 season with a severe hamstring pull after he unsuccessfully did the splits fielding a ball at first base in the 1968 All-Star Game in Houston.

"The dirt gave away (in the Astrodome) and I came right over the top of my leg and did a split. I pulled some things around the knee and I ruptured the covering of the hamstring muscle. And then I pulled something right out of the pelvis. I did a lot of hard work over the winter. If you want to say an injury was a blessing, maybe it was because I did a lot of hard work to get back."

We spent the brunt of the nearly hour talking about his career, which culminated in his being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. And all the while, Killer was being quiet-spoken. Then I asked him something that I was not sure he was ready to answer.

"Do people realize you are fifth on the all-time home runs list?"

Killebrew signed an autograph, greeted another person, shook that man's hand, then signed the autograph, then he answered the question.

"A lot of people would think it's Mickey Mantle," he told me. "I think people are quite surprised that I'm next on the list."

If you opened a baseball almanac back in 1987, it was Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Frank Robinson (583) and Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs when his career concluded in 1975. When we did the interview, he was the American League's all-time, right-handed hitting home run leader, an honor he held until 2009 when a guy named Alex Rodriguez passed him up.

As a matter of fact, since we did our interview 24 years ago, he's been passed up on the home run list by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire. Still, being No. 11 on the list is not a bad thing whatsoever, considering his first three years were spent being a mere spectator.

His love for the Twins, though, as I found out, never died. In that '87 season, the Twins were on their way to what would be the franchise's first World Series title. That year, the Twins won the AL West title with an 85-77 record, and four AL East teams -- the Detroit Tigers (98-64), Toronto Blue Jays (96-66), Milwaukee Brewers (91-71) and New York Yankees (89-73) -- all had better records than the Twins that season.

When I brought up the lopsidedness of the AL East's records over the AL West in the middle of that season, Killebrew in true, laid-back fashion, gave it a short thought, then answered.

"I think there's more competition in the American League West than in any other division," he said. "I think pitching is going to be a key down the stretch like it always is for the Twins to win the division."

He was right and Frank Viola would be the World Series MVP in leading the Twins past the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

The interview wrapped up at about the time the autograph session was finishing up. It was a worthy hour in which at the end, I told him I appreciated the time and thanked him. Killebrew offered his hand out to shake it and said, "It was a pleasure here as well."

And I left Asbury Park with a good feeling. The next day I went back to Asbury Park for another great interview with former New York Mets lefthanded ace, 1969 World Series hero and another all-around good guy, Jerry Koosman.

The time I spent in Asbury Park doing those card shows were very much an education on not just being around legendary players, but legendary people as well. Sadly in 2011, both Snider and Killebrew passed away.

But I won't ever forget what Ed Walsh did for me to get me those interviews, even if they were in situations where the former stars were trying to converse with their fans, sign autographs, take pictures and have to deal with me, of all people, asking them questions about their careers.

Thank you Ed. And thank you Killer -- wherever you are up there -- for an amazing hour in which you were down to Earth and just enjoyable to be around.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A shiny diamond of a state title in a summer of crap

By the summer of 1999, I was coming to the end of the line at the Ocean County Observer.

With Gannett taking over the paper the year before and running the Asbury Park Press as well, leaving THEM to make the decisions for what we do on a daily basis, it had left me unhappy, disillusioned and just not caring anymore about being at my beloved Jersey Shore, even with some great people I had worked with for years still at the paper.

I had taken over as sports editor in late January 1999, and anyone would have thought that after almost 15 years at the paper, this was the grand prize.

It was far from that. We were moving from the second floor to the fourth floor of the building, we were moving onto a new computer system (Asbury Park Press-friendly as I would call it) that was so complicated that NASA officials would have had a hard time deciphering its complexities and the new 10:50 p.m. deadline was just sucking balls. There. I said it.

In the spring 1999, I had a mission -- I was trying to leave the only place I had ever known professionally because I wasn't going down with the ship and that I ultimately knew the company had a goal in mind to kill the Observer off in the end. Our office morale was at the all-time lowest level I had ever seen in my 15 years.

And to make things worse, the company decided around May-June 1999 that we would only be covering a "core area" of towns in the county. Bye-bye Point Pleasant. See ya later, Southern Ocean County. Au revoir, Jackson Township.

I can still see the meeting in which the "Sunday editor" (fancy term for a guy in charge of the Sunday paper) came to our building to explain the new system to us. He asked all the departments heads if they were OK with it. I think most of them were unhappy, but what the heck, having to be agreeable was part of the plan.

Then he came to me as sports editor.

"You understand what we're doing?" he asked. I decided that since I was already difficult to deal with, let's take it to the next level.

"OK, so let me see if I have this straight," I started. "Jackson Memorial just won the South Jersey Group IV softball title and are going to have a fairly good team next year. So if they happen to win South Jersey IV again, who gets to cover them?"

"We would send a writer to cover the team," he answered back.

"No, I am not agreeable to this plan," I adamantly said.

What I was really saying to this man was that we are an Ocean County paper, plain and simple. Our readers expected us to write that story on Jackson Memorial, whether it was softball, baseball, football, etc. These morons could not understand the entire concept. I knew exactly where they were going with this in June 1999 -- to start sending us down the river and toward the waterfall in the hopes to liquidate us and make us nothing more than a freakin' reader.

Well I caught hell for it from my managing editor, who was slowly getting his nerves worn down by my continued rebelliousness toward an establishment who had no clue whatsoever on how we did things here and for goodness sake, we were a county below them!

If I had a dollar for every time in the 15 years I was at the Observer I heard one of my county coaches say how much the Press only cared about Monmouth County and didn't care about Ocean County, I could've bought prime real estate and lived happily ever after.

Except that was the problem. There was NOT going to be a "happily ever after." I needed to get out of there or I would have landed in jail for a third-degree homicide. Someone was going to die an unhappy death and I didn't care about them -- just that I needed an escape.

What was making things worse was the nice older man they put into the position of assistant sports editor after I took over as the boss was just not picking up things. He was a good writer, but he was not great with our computer system and I wasn't very happy about this. I can still hear the conversations my weekend guy Nick would have with me about how he had to do most of the section and he wasn't being paid to do it.

So in July 1999, my managing editor and I had to make the painful decision to let this man go. A week later, we had a guy in from a northern paper who was perfect for the assistant's job. I was ready to tell him to come down. Turns out this bastard decided to use our paper as leverage toward getting more money from his current employer and they caved in.

I understand business is business, but he better not show his face within 20 feet of me. Yes, 12 years later, I'm still pissed off.

And I knew with that, it was over. I was officially not going to have a summer vacation without an assistant and two co-workers who couldn't lay out a paper even if they had all day to do the job. With news editors and layout people trying to do their work, too, I was stuck.

On a Sunday afternoon, I get a phone call from Steve Sosinski, a former Observer managing editor who was now editor at a paper called the Key West Citizen. He wanted to fly me down to the Southernmost City, show me around and maybe offer the job as sports editor there.

On Friday, July 30, 1999, I flew there, Steve took me around the town, then I got back into his office and we had a closed door meeting in which, for the next 30 minutes, he laid out his offer and plans for me if I accepted. I needed to think about it. By the next morning, I had called Steve to let him know I was taking the job.

Yes, I needed to see what life was like beyond Ocean County. And if you're going to do it ... do it huuuuuuuuuuuge!

When I arrived back at Newark International on Saturday, July 31, I had a renewed feeling about life. And then I got into work and the computer system was once again failing me on layout stuff I was doing.

Our "tech" guy, who God bless him was a trooper throughout, was called on.

"What's the matter with it?" he asked.

"Your system is a piece of shit!" I practically yelled in the newsroom. He got down to fix the problem, probably like the 32nd time he had to fix something for me in the four months we were force-fed this system.

I felt bad about handling it that way. But I knew I had two weeks left and all bets were off on how nice I was going to be to people who hadn't worked with me for more than a year, who were literally thrown upon us.

I can now say I really didn't care, which is sad since I had put everything into that paper for 15 years and the end result was for myself and our department to be treated like crap. Change is good -- but not when it's imposed the way it was.

One of the things I had to give up on a regular basis that summer as the new boss was covering Little League. By 1999, my reputation was very good with handling the sport. I had done it for 15 years and had seen it all, including the successful Toms River East American Little League All-Star team winning the whole thing in 1998.

Now, another group of Toms River East American Little Leaguers under the tutelage of Mike Gaynor was making a run toward another state championship. And like the year before, it was not going to be easy at all.

Nick, who I could never thank enough for the yeoman work he did that summer in covering Little League in person, was sent out to Cherry Hill American for the first state championship game between East American and Section 1 champion Pequannock on Thursday, August 5. Pequannock won that game.

It forced a second championship game and the winner was moving on to Bristol, Conn., to represent the state in the East Regional. Since the game was on a Friday and we had no Saturday paper at the time, it allowed me to finally break free from the chains that bound me to a desk six days a week.

It also allowed me to forget about every single freakin' problem that I had to deal with at the paper for a night. So across Route 70 I went to Cherry Hill. The field was located somewhere behind a Mexican restaurant, and amazingly, I found it.

As I sat at a press table taking in the sights and sounds of a Little League All-Star state final, the sixth state tournament I ever covered, I realized slowly with each passing moment this would be the last event I would cover at the paper. If East American won, Nick was going to Bristol for the week and I was leaving the Observer the Sunday after.

Bittersweet, yes. Regrets, no.

East American jumped on starter Mike Moran for two first-inning runs as Eric Campesi walked, Casey Gaynor singled him to third and Mike Casale singled him in. After a Steve Bernath single loaded the bases, Dave Cappello launched a sacrifice fly to bring in Gaynor, who like Campesi, was a veteran returning from the '98 triumph.

Gaynor was East's starting pitcher in the '98 World Series final against Kashima, Japan, but he had been used and could not pitch in this game. Mike Gaynor relied on Campesi to get the job done this evening. And through two innings, he had struck out five Pequannock hitters, though allowing two singles.

In the third, Pequannock got even with East American. Back-to-back RBI infield singles by Steve Terpstra and D.J. Sackmann tied things up. Rotten luck to say the least for the Boys of Windsor Avenue.

Moran allowed one base runner in the fourth and fifth innings and Campesi got out of trouble in the fifth with a pair of strikeouts after Pequannock put runners on first and second with one out.

It looked as if the game might be heading to extra innings. I didn't care -- let them play all night since I had no other games to cover for the rest of my Observer existence. Keep going.

But with one out and nighttime falling on the field and the lights turned on, Jeff Burgdorff, an unheralded player on this team, singled to right field. Cappello fought tooth and nail against Moran in his at-bat, fouling off four straight 0-2 pitches before striking out, but on the strikeout pitch, the ball scooted by catcher Ryan Rowland, allowing pinch-runner R.J. Jones to move to second.

Zach DelVento beat out an infield single to put runners on first and third with two outs, leaving it up to No. 8 hitter Chris Fontinelli to get the job done. Fontinelli didn't waste time. He took Moran's first offering and put it into no man's land in right field. The ball bounced between second baseman Steve Darrofalski, first baseman Ryan Slootmaker and right fielder Mark Hagemann for a base hit to score Jones with the go-ahead run.

This was going to be real -- a third state championship for East American in five years! It was only three outs away.

Campesi didn't keep the celebration on hold. He got a comebacker to start the bottom of the sixth, then struck out his 10th and 11th hitters to finish it off.

East American was going back to Bristol. And those young men made the last event I covered at the Observer memorable.

Mike Gaynor gave me all the time in the world afterward. Though we had some differences over the years, he still respected me and vice versa. Then he said something I will never forget.

"You always treated us fairly," he said. "We're going to miss you. Good luck down in the Keys."

We had our final handshake and that was it. As I left, I remember Vinny Casale, Mike's dad who was also the athletic director at Central Regional High School, telling me something similar and that he'd miss me.

For a bittersweet moment, it felt good heading back to Toms River for the very last time. I made all the arrangements so Nick would not be uncomfortable at the hotel he was staying at -- which was the same hotel I stayed for three trips to cover the East Regional Tournament in Bristol in 1990, '95 and '98.

And in a sense, I was glad to hand over the reins of this run to Nick. He deserved the opportunity.

That still didn't mean I didn't want to be there. Unfortunately, I had made an agreement with the devil and paid for it in many, many ways. Ultimately, East American won the East Regional title -- shortly after I left the Observer -- and headed to Williamsport for another Little League World Series, which it eventually lost in somewhat controversial fashion in the American final to Phenix City, Ala., and a hotshot 12-year-old named Colby Rasmus.

I know Nick enjoyed the experience. I'm grateful to him for doing it and doing it without complaint.

Complaint was all I had left for the final week at the Observer. On Sunday, August 15, it was over. I packed up my things into a box, left my key in my managing editor's office and 15 years of service at the paper was over.

A month after I had left, the complaints started coming in from Southern Regional, Lacey and Jackson Memorial parents and fans about no coverage in the Observer and the bigwigs who made that stupid decision to let go of those schools for the "core" area ultimately reversed it.

I was rid of those clueless people. However my premonition about the paper was correct ultimately. In January 2008, the Observer stopped printing as a daily paper.

I couldn't shed tears, though. The hatred of how I and the sports department -- everyone at the paper at the time -- were treated my last year loomed largely. Still does to this day.

At least, though, I had one positive memory of a state championship victory that I could go with me to the Keys.