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Sunday, July 29, 2012

My first District 18 state title as a reporter

Three District 18 Little League All-Star seasons had come and gone without a state title for any of our teams. My first year, Brick American's Little League All-Stars had lost in the sectional final. Then my second summer, Lakewood's Little League All-Stars lost in the state tournament one-and-done semifinal. And my third year, I got to cover the state Little League All-Star Tournament at Lakewood ... but, of course, none of our area teams played in the event.

The greatness in baseball in Ocean County, New Jersey was there. But it had not come to fruition. Eight years had passed since the Toms River 13-year-old All-Star team had won the state title against West Milford, 2-1, at Liberty Oaks Park in Freehold Township, a team managed by a guy named Bruce Shepherd and assisted by my dad. So I have very fond memories of that Summer of '79. They, unfortunately, ended on that night in Freehold Township since at that time, the state tournament did not venture beyond that point.

The year before that, a Toms River Little League team of Senior League All-Stars beat Parsippany-Troy in back-to-back games down in Cherry Hill to win the state tournament, then captured the county's imagination by winning the Mid-Atlantic title before falling in the East Regional Tournament.

And, to most of us, there was no team quite like the 1975 Lakewood Little League All-Stars led by Dion Lowe and co-managed by Butch Belitrand and Richard Work that went to Williamsport, Pa., and won the World Series by beating a Tampa-based team in which Doc Gooden was a 10-year-old alternate. But in that year, international teams did not compete for the title.

Still, eight years is a long time in a baseball-rich county to go without winning a state title. I knew the time was going to come. But I never expected the team that would ultimately challenge for it would be a group of Toms River 13s in 1987. Now, this team was a nice team -- they had a nice balance of hitting and pitching, led by Billy Ushock, Jeff Devlin, Kent Speedy, Scott Keller, Todd McGovern and Vinny Minasi, the son of the team's manager, Vin Minasi.

As I said, nice team, but they didn't exactly strike fear into anyone. They played the game fundamentally sound and made very few mistakes. They were not going to wipe you off the face of the map by any means and if you put that All-Star team up against the '79 13-year-old All-Star team of Chris Lauria, Tim Camburn, Frankie D'Ambro, John Sarrecchia, Greg Scharnagl and Kevin Uher, it may not even be close. On size alone, the '79 team would have intimidated the '87 team.

Somehow, though, this group of All-Stars found a way to win. They methodically went through the District 18 tournament and then with relative ease in what seemed like a weak field, won the Section 3 title. In the South Jersey final on July 28 in Sicklerville (and by the way, you don't ever really get to Sicklerville, which is really out in the middle of nowhere), they throttled a team from Vineland, 10-3, and were playing for a state title.

And somehow luckily, the game was to be played on Toms River's own home field off of Mapletree Road, a complex I practically grew up on, playing there for six years, then coaching with my dad on our Royals team for the next five years at that point. The story, from what I can remember, as told to me by Vin Minasi himself, was that when it came time to host events beyond the district, Minasi, who was president of TRLL at the time, was in a meeting with his assistant coach and confidant John Towell. When it came time for the head of New Jersey's Little League to ask if anyone wanted to host the 13-year-old (now Junior League) final, Towell told Minasi they should "go for it," and "up went my hand."

Talk about luck! Now Toms River was playing for the state title on its field on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, August 1, 1987 against a team with a reputation for good baseball -- the Roberto Clemente League of Newark, the North Jersey representative. It was a 1 p.m. start for the final, so I made sure I got to the field around 12:25 p.m. and parked as far away from the main Senior League field complex as I could without a ball threatening a windshield or back window. John Puglisi, also a manager in the Toms River Senior League, was the public address announcer at TRLL for All-Star play that summer and it was him some of the time I had to deal with to get results on games on either the Senior League or Little League fields. So either he was tired of hearing my voice over the phone or I probably think he was tired of hearing my voice over the phone.

He had set up two microphones on this day. The first was up in the well-protected and cool press box overlooking the field. The second one was an old 1950s/1960s model microphone placed on the grass just in front of home plate that he would use before the game only to introduce the two squads, a very professional-looking production. Once the lineups and umpires were announced, John turned it over to 70-something Tom "The Candy Man" Kelleher, a longtime fixture in the 1980s and 1990s at many an athletic event in Ocean County, mostly for his handing out of candy treats at the games, to sing our national anthem, which of course he always seemed to knock out of the park.

As the game started, someone was coming up the stairs to where John, myself, assistant district administrator Mike Hreniuk and district administrator Ed Scharnagl (Greg's dad) were sitting. She was Mary Danielson, a writer for the Asbury Park Press who I was meeting for the first time. So after we had done our introductions, I gave her both lineup cards, all the while thinking this was the end of the road on this day. Roberto Clemente had some sluggers on the team and they, too, had a reputation for good baseball where it was located.

Clemente won the toss and took home team. That meant Toms River would have to do something against a confident pitcher in Julio Castaing first. He got the first out with McGovern, but the younger Minasi hit a grounder that shortstop Hector De la Rosa could not field for an error. Speedy then singled. That brought up cleanup hitter Ushock.

On Castaing's second pitch, a fastball up and in, Ushock connected. It was a bomb -- a bomb that I had not quite seen come off the bat of any batter in the tournament other than Ushock, who was about the only longball threat the team had. Suddenly, it was 3-0.

Manager Minasi and a number of players pointed to that home run as the catalyst of a special day. And Ushock got the ball from Minasi as the starter on this day. The problem, though, was Ushock was as wild as the day was long. Though Ushock had compiled a 3-0 record in tournament action in '87, he had walked 35 batters and struck out 28 in four games. These are certainly not sterling numbers you hang stars on.

And right on cue, Ushock ran into some difficulty in the first two innings, but Clemente could not score. Then in the third, the first real threat came. De la Rosa singled home Jose Torres, who had walked, to cut the lead to 3-1. Two more walks loaded the bases with one out. I started holding my breath -- here's where it all blows up on Billy, I thought.

I can still see Adrian Torres' sinking liner going to right field and the ball hurrying to the ground as right fielder Devlin raced in for it. Somehow, someway, Devlin beat the ball to the Earth's surface -- he stuck his glove out, diving to the ground to swallow the ball up in it. Then he had the presence of mind to look toward shortstop Keller and throw a strike to double up Nestor Serrano, who was going on the pitch assured of himself he was going to stand up at home plate with the tying run.

Suddenly, I realized this Toms River team was really living a charmed life. Devlin admitted later he was going to give up on the ball at first, but something in him kept saying to keep coming after it. At that point, the Clemente boys were wondering why he didn't play it on a hop.

All that did, though, was give Ushock a reprieve for the moment. In the bottom of the fifth and still clinging on to a 3-1 lead, Ushock was already at 100 pitches when the wheels continued to fall off his wagon. Francisco Ortiz reached on an error by third baseman Pat Clark and Serrano walked to put runners on first and second. It was Ushock's eighth walk of the game -- eight! And just as I started wondering how much more faith Minasi was going to have in his main guy, he popped out of the dugout to take the ball from him.

Now Devlin was coming in from right field as the two switched positions. Devlin didn't quite have the kind of power behind his pitches that Ushock had, but he was far more accurate. And right now, he had a big task in hand. I'm thinking if this may have not been the best move to put the kid in with the tying runs on base and no one out.

De la Rosa was up first and he did his duty of bunting the runners up a base, putting them both in scoring position with one out. This was the pressure cooker -- could Devlin wriggle out of this jam for if he did, I believed the title was going to be Toms River's.

Adrian Torres hit a flyball to short left field that Speedy caught. Speedy came up firing, but Ortiz held firm at third base. It was just not hit far enough for him and his manager, an affable man named John Rodriguez, to take the chance. So with two runners on base, it came down to a confrontation with cleanup hitter Steve Fernandez. Devlin got ahead of Fernandez at 0-2. Then on a 2-2 pitch, he pulled the trigger and got Fernandez swinging on his curveball to end the rally.

Now with two more innings left, I believed this team really had a date with "Destiny." Destiny was all dressed up in her favorite gown, waiting to properly congratulate the new state champion 13-year-old All-Star team from the Garden State. But before Destiny's arrival was official, another run would have been nice.

In the sixth, the TR kids obliged. Graig Fantuzzi, the son of Ocean County College baseball coach and former Toms River South mentor Al Fantuzzi (yes, there was a coach at Toms River South before the great Ken Frank took over) reached base on the third error of the game by De la Rosa. A wild pitch by Castaing moved Fantuzzi up to second. One out later, Vinny Minasi blooped a single just between the second baseman and right fielder to score Fantuzzi.

Now it was strictly up to Devlin to take care of business. He faced seven batters in the sixth and seventh innings, a far cry from Ushock's struggles. And with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, he had De la Rosa -- the only Clemente player on the afternoon to claim a hit -- left to finish out the improbable state title. De la Rosa hit a lazy flyball to center field where McGovern, who played for my father and I during the regular season, was ready to swallow it up. The ball found McGovern's mitt. He closed it up and the bedlam erupted.

And for the first time in eight years, Ocean County had a state champion Little League team of some kind.

The highlight afterward is always when the team is awarded that flag that states it just won a state championship. Those kids could not wait to parade that flag around their home field for their fans. And Minasi and assistant coach Terry Flanagan were greeted after the game by Shepherd and my father in a show of solidarity of one group of state-winning coaches congratulating a new group of state-winning coaches.

Toms River had done a terrific job of putting on a show for the state title this sunny Saturday afternoon. But I knew the league would. And the fact Toms River won the title on its own field, heck, that made it even more satisfying.

Mary had made her way down to the field before I did. I had sorta prepped her on this team and had given her the affa davit with the scores of the previous games on it to give her an idea of what they had done up through this game. I got downstairs and watched smiling as the TR players surrounded her as she asked questions of some of the players, almost ecstatic that a woman covered the final and those 13-year-olds entering puberty had been rewarded in some way with this.

Then they had to deal with me ... yeah, big comedown from Mary, I know. Mary actually worked for The Press for a few years before moving on.

"They have talent," said McGovern, my player during the regular season who never met a notepad that he didn't like just to show you how talkative at 13 he was. "But they (Clemente) are second-best to us this year."

Vin Minasi was elated and relieved. He was elated this part of the tournament was over and that he and Flanagan joined the teams of Belitrand-Work, Charlie Mulligan and Warren Hilla and Shepherd and my father as state champion head honchos. He was relieved that this day had ended and he had a day or two to recharge batteries before heading down to Dover, Del. for the next portion of the ride in the Mid-Atlantic Tournament.

"We have had such supportive fans throughout," he said. "We have had our 'lucky sodas,' 'lucky pins,' and 'lucky pencils.' We have had parties for the kids. You take every chance you have when you're in a tournament. It's something you can look back on years later."

And he was right. It's been 25 years since that championship -- 25 years?! I still remember it like yesterday. Those players are now 38 years old and I'm sure doing well in life. Sadly, Vin Minasi passed away in 2000, but I can still hear and picture his joy that day, and I can still feel his relief of it being over one week later when his team lost in back-to-back games in the double-elimination Mid-Atlantic Tournament after winning the opener, 2-0, against the Maryland representative behind the pitching of Devlin.

In some ways, I was glad the tournament was over, too, on August 8 in Dover. It was far from the best of times. When you're three months away from turning 21 and you have nowhere to go at night after the games are done because you are in unfamiliar territory and you're too young to go to a bar, it's not very pleasing at all. And I had had enough with the bitchy group of "supportive fans" who whined and complained about any part of my story that criticized their little darlings, factually and rightfully so. I was literally about one more hour away on that hot Saturday afternoon in Dover from telling those parents -- even being 20 years old at the time -- to "go f**k off" and if they had a problem, they could take it up with my boss who at that time had my back.

It still wasn't going to take away from that first August Saturday in 1987 when it felt as if on that sunny afternoon in Toms River the sun, the moon and the Earth all aligned at once to allow this group of young men to win my first state title as a reporter.

Flawed? Yes. I'm pretty sure Destiny didn't care, though, that they were ugly around the edges.

State championship teams, after all, aren't always beautiful. But if they cook and clean and do all the little things, they're simply gorgeous like that.

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