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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.

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