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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."

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