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Saturday, August 3, 2013

That first Toms River East American state Little League title

The Summer of 1995 was becoming just another summer at the Jersey Shore for myself. I was about to begin my 12th summer of covering District 18 Little League Baseball at the Observer.

The championship of the District 18 Tournament came down to crosstown rivals Toms River and Toms River East American with the finals slated at Toms River's Mapletree Road complex, my old stomping grounds as a kid both playing and then coaching. Toms River had beaten East American earlier in the tournament and relegated the Windsor Avenue Gang to the elimination bracket -- one loss, and it was all over. But much to the credit of the East American kids, they won their way through the bracket and would be seeing Toms River in the final, knowing it'd have to win twice to capture the district championship.

East American won the first final emphatically, 9-2, forcing a second game. It was in that second game where East American held on to a one-run lead in the sixth inning when Toms River's Mike McTamney roped a shot to right field that was looking bad for East American. But luck would have it that just weeks earlier, Toms River Little League had replaced its short 4-foot high fences around their outfield with a 6-foot-high fence.

Let's just say McTamney's shot hit the wall about 6 inches from the top. A sure two-run home run in May was just a double now in July and, worse, Toms River had its runner who was at first thrown out at the plate to end the game. East American won, 7-6, to capture the district title by that shear bit of luck.

And I figured, "They got away lucky with that one." But then came the Section 3 Tournament and that's where I realized these boys from Windsor Avenue were gooooood. They made it to the sectional final -- which ironically was being played at their home field -- against perennial power Nottingham. East American, this time, was coming through the winner's bracket ... one win, and they were champions. But Nottingham built a reputation of being great with solid, fundamental ball and when No. 9 hitter Chris Balgowan hit a double to the right-field fence off hard-throwing Colin Gaynor in the second inning to give the visitors a 2-1 lead after Gaynor had hit a first-inning solo shot, they announced to the hosts they weren't going down without a fight. Nottingham won the game, 6-2, to set up the second final.

So on Sunday, July 30, 1995, back at East American's main field, manager Mike Gaynor sent the other worthy starter he had to the mound, Jeff Frazier, to seal the deal. And all Frazier did was mix his fastball with his hard-turning curveball to the tune of eight strikeouts, no walks and one sixth-inning solo home run on five hits in East American's 5-1 triumph over Nottingham, highlighted by Chris Donnelly's two-run home run in the second and an RBI double from Jeremy Dandorph and two-run double by Frazier in the sixth to seal the deal.

And here we were again -- a trip to the state tournament for a District 18 Little League Baseball team for the third time in six years. Brick National had won dramatically over North Trenton in the 1990 final at Spring Lake Heights and three years later, Toms River lost twice to Nottingham in the '93 final in Rutherford.

This time around, East American was going to Section 4 host Gloucester City for the tournament. If you've never been to Gloucester City, it's located within a hop and a jump from Philadelphia via the Walt Whitman Bridge. As a matter of fact, the complex was located within shouting distance from the Whitman Bridge. So every day starting with the opening game of the tournament on Tuesday, August 1, I'd have to take off from Toms River across Route 70 into the Cherry Hill area and go south on I-295 to Exit 26 and veer off at the exit before heading over the Whitman Bridge and weave my way through Gloucester City until getting to the complex. It was a nice, but small complex that looked shoe-horned into a community of regular houses, looking in some ways like the Sayreville Little League complex I covered tournament games at from time to time over the years.

The opening day was a very special one -- Joe Carter, who had just finished up his reign as the president of Manchester Little League, the hosts of the 1994 state tournament and who I had known for years in association with the league, was throwing out the first pitch in a ceremony that officially passed the torch from Manchester to Gloucester City. Sadly, Joe was dealing with a very heavy heart after the passing of his daughter Carrie-Anne, who had lost her battle with cancer five months earlier, just one month after she turned 19. Joe and I talked during East American's opening game, but I found him to be melancholy and reluctant to do anything at that particular point.

No parent should ever have to bury their child, but that's what he and his wife had to do. I could feel his pain as we talked. Unfortunately, it was one of the last times I ever ran into Joe.

As for the game, East American drew Section 1 champion North Hunterdon in the opener. North Hunterdon's team wasn't exactly loaded, but they were talented with a strong top four presence in the lineup in shortstop Bryan Wagner, catcher Brent Dilts, second baseman Anthony Schiavino and cleanup hitter and left fielder Mike Cust. Yes, die-hard baseball fans recognize the last name of "Cust." The team was managed by Jack Cust Sr., who built a complex on property he owned that would most help some of his players, but mostly his oldest son, Jack, who was 16 at the time and would one day be a Major League player.

To start the tournament, Mike Gaynor sent No. 3 pitcher Chris Cerullo, normally one of the outfielders of the team, to pitch. I figured out that Gaynor's strategy was to go with Cerullo first and if he got the win, he'd be on Easy Street with his son Colin and Frazier waiting in the wings to finish the tournament out. What Gaynor didn't figure out was that this North Hunterdon team threw their No. 1 guy at his club ... and that guy, J.P. Longueil, was pretty damn good. Longueil kept East American hitters off-balance all afternoon. When No. 5 hitter Vince Ragucci delivered a two-run home run in the second inning to give North Hunterdon a 2-1 lead, that set the tone for the day. Though Colin Gaynor would hit a monster home run to center field to cut the lead to 3-2, North Hunterdon would score in the fourth on the back end of a double steal attempt and in the fifth on an error by Gaynor, who came in to pitch that one inning.

North Hunterdon had the 5-2 win as Longueil allowed six hits, walked two and struck out three.

And East American found itself in a predicament. Because they lost in the first game, the Windsor Avenue Gang was going to have to win four games in four days. And with North Hunterdon beating Section 4 champion Audubon the next day in the winners' bracket final, I didn't give East American much hope, especially since it was saving Longueil more than likely for the kill in Friday's first championship game.

Now we were all going to find out how crafty Mike Gaynor was a manager. And I'll never forget as we sat in the bleachers watching the next game between Audubon and Rutherford American, he felt that a few bad breaks cost his team. Then he said something prophetic that I kept in the back of my mind the rest of the week.

"We're the best team here, Mark. I know we are. I still think we're going to win the state title."

Maybe, I thought, this was all bravado. Maybe, I thought, he was just saying this because he had to give his kids something to believe in. But maybe, I also thought, he was absolutely correct ... that East American, in spite of that loss, was the best team in this four-team event.
 
So come the next day, he had to shuffle things around. He went with Jeff Frazier on two day's rest instead of three, which was the original plan, for the first elimination bracket game against Section 2 champion Rutherford American.

Dandorph scored East American's first run in the second inning off an error on a groundball by Danny Gallagher. Another error allowed Frazier to score in the third inning, then a two-run double by Frazier in the fourth and a bases-loaded walk to Bryan Jedrusiak made it 5-0. East exploded for five more runs in the fifth as Frazier belted a three-run home run and Cerullo had an RBI double. A 10-0 lead with three outs to get for the 10-run mercy-rule victory seemed safe, right? Well it wasn't as Rutherford American got three runs in the fifth against Frazier, making him throw 26 pitches to end his day at 73. Gaynor had to come in for the sixth to finish it out, though he had to escape a bases-loaded situation in the final frame. Before that, Frazier had a two-run double to finish out a 3-for-4, four-run, seven-RBI day in East American's 12-3 victory.

One down, three to go. It wasn't pretty, but at least East American knew it wasn't the worst team there. Rutherford American was going home and next up was Audubon. For this one on Thursday, August 3, Gaynor sent Cerullo back to the mound, believing that it was just bad breaks two days earlier that did him in against North Hunterdon. East American loaded the bases in the first, but Audubon starter Andrew Noe got out of trouble when he induced Jedrusiak into a comebacker.

East American took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on Noe when with runners on first and second, Frazier hit a groundball to second baseman Ryan Gilmore. Gilmore flipped the ball to shortstop Brian Jakubowski for the forceout of No. 9 hitter Kevin Blaney, but the return throw to first was not in time. While all this was going on, Gaynor sent Gallagher around third and force the issue early. He made it in before the throw home for a 1-0 lead.

Talk about having a big set of cojones. However, all that was for naught as Audubon scored twice on Cerullo in the third as a passed ball by Brian Julian allowed one run to score, than a single by leadoff hitter Gilmore plated the other run.

The game settled in at 2-1 when in the fifth, Frazier singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and third on a passed ball and Colin Gaynor walked. However, Gaynor was called out when a groundball hit by Cerullo struck him in the leg. That was a bad break for East American as Frazier had to be sent back to third. Cleanup hitter Andrew Diaz hit a slow roller to Noe, who picked the ball up and looked Frazier back. He threw to first to get Diaz, but Frazier scampered home a milli-second after the ball left Noe's hand. He would score on the throw home to tie it at 2-2, though they were able to finish out an unusual double play at third base when catcher Kevin Brown threw to John Whitcroft to nail Cerullo trying to take the base.

In the top of the sixth, East American took the lead when pinch-hitter Mike Angelo and Gallagher walked and Blaney delivered a bloop single to right-center field to score Angelo. Gaynor, who came into the game for Cerullo in the fourth inning, just needed three outs to nail it down.

But Jason Seeberger began the sixth with a four-pitch walk. Gaynor got No. 8 hitter Jeff Hunt on strikes for the first out. But within the next three pitches, the tide turned. Those were three pitches that found the backstop to No. 9 hitter Michael Chappell. And those three pitches allowed Seeberger to scamper home with the tying run.

You can feel the deflation in the tires. Gaynor got out of the sixth inning, but we were about to have free baseball -- the winner moving to the final, the loser going home. Talk about drama!

Cerullo got to second in the seventh inning with two outs, but Julian hit a comebacker to reliever Mike Kelly to end the frame. In the bottom of the eighth, Gaynor walked Brown on four pitches to begin the inning, then Julian suffered another passed ball to put the winning run on second with no outs. So Gaynor remedied the problem by striking out the next three kids with his hard heat that would be clocked later on in tournament play in the low 70s (almost 98 mph from a regulation 60-foot, 6-inch mound).

Onto the ninth. Gaynor's innings were adding up and there was a concern he wouldn't be able to pitch much more in the tournament. East American needed to do something. Gaynor singled to start the ninth and when shortstop Jakubowski made an error off a Cerullo grounder, East American was in business. Donnelly, now in Diaz's spot in the lineup, walked to load the bases. This time around, I sensed East American wasn't going to blow this opportunity. Julian singled to center field to score Gaynor, making it 4-3. A fielder's choice grounder turned into a close play at the plate off a Jedrusiak grounder as Cerullo beat the play home, making it a two-run lead.

That would be enough for Gaynor. Now in his sixth inning of relief, Gaynor gave up a two-out single to Jakubowski, but ended it when Noe hit a groundout to first baseman Frazier. Gaynor had thrown 84 pitches and was absolutely out of pitching Friday's first finale with North Hunterdon.

And sure as you can place a bet on a favorite, North Hunterdon, who had the day off on that Thursday, had Longueil ready to go again against the team he tormented the first time. Two things, though, which assured all of us things were going to be OK this time around on Friday, August 4 -- first, Mike Gaynor wasn't messing around ... he was sending his best overall pitcher in Frazier, a one-day Major League player with the Detroit Tigers, out to the mound and second, he was still not overly impressed by Longueil's stuff. He believed that this time around, his kids could get to the North Hunterdon ace.

More importantly, he had a lot of faith in Frazier. But after an exhausting, nine-inning victory over Audubon, there was an air of uncertainty as to how much emotion was going to be in the collective East American tanks.

Longueil had pitched an effective first two innings, getting helped out by a groundball double play in the second. But when third baseman Chris Wowchuck committed an error off a Todd Cuchie groundball to begin the third inning, that opened the door just enough for the Windsor Avenue Gang. After a walk to Angelo, leadoff hitter Frazier delivered a single to load the bases for Gaynor. Gaynor hit a sky-high flyball that I swear to this day had to have hit a plane or a bird on the way up. Centerfielder Cust never felt comfortable camped underneath and dropped the flyball allowing Cuchie to score the first run. Luckily, no one else scored and the bases were loaded. However, two pitches later, Gallagher sent a line drive single to center field to score Angelo and the speedy Frazier to make it 3-0.

One inning, three runs. Frazier did the rest. In one of the most clutch pitching performances I've ever seen in all my years of covering Little League baseball, Frazier allowed two hits, walked three and struck out six in a tidy, 78-pitch 3-0 shutout victory over North Hunterdon to extend the state tournament one more day to a second final.

And I knew at that point North Hunterdon's goose was officially cooked, hours before the team was to step onto the field again. The looks on their faces as they walked off the field said it all -- North Hunterdon had shot their load in this one game to punch their ticket to the state championship and got rejected by an East American team that wasn't going to go down without a fight again and a pitcher who was better than their best hurler that day.

Tired of four straight days of traveling back and forth from Toms River to Gloucester City, I had gotten the OK to stay overnight at the Best Western a couple of exits away. The next morning, I checked out and went to the nearby Taco Bell for an early-morning lunch. This was the first Taco Bell I ever enjoyed a soft taco supreme at during the late 1980s, a couple of years before Toms River built its first store in October 1991. Our photographer correspondent, Laura Lee, was going to be coming this way to the game and I told her to meet me at the Taco Bell and she'd follow me to the complex. We went over what it was I was looking for from her that day. She was going to stay the entire afternoon.

Then she asked me how TR East American will do. "Laura," I said, "they're going to beat the living shit out of this team."

And so we were all back at Gloucester City for one more game. It was Saturday, August 5, 1995. East American was sky-high off the victory the night before. North Hunterdon showed brave faces, but as I told  Tony Spina, a longtime Toms River East member who was the president of the league at that point, "Pick your score. East is going to make North Hunterdon pay for winning on Tuesday." He agreed.

With one day rest, Gaynor got the start from his father. And he set the tone of what would be a long couple of hours for North Hunterdon when he hit a home run off Schiavino in the first inning after Frazier walked for a 2-0 lead.

But North Hunterdon wasn't going to be as easy as a cheap hooker. Dilts and Eric Nodes delivered RBI singles in the bottom of the first to tie things up. A lot was going to depend now on how East American responded against Schiavino in the second.

It didn't look good to start with when Julian struck out and Dandorph flied out to start the inning. But No. 8 hitter Jedrusiak battled for nine pitches against Schiavino before drawing a walk. It always seems to start with an innocent two-out walk. Blaney walked. That was asking for trouble since Mike Gaynor's two best hitters -- Frazier and his son -- were up top and next in the lineup. Frazier delivered a single on an 0-1 pitch to center field to score Jedrusiak to make it 3-2. A wild pitch later, Gaynor walked to load the bases.

This brought up Cerullo, the third threat in the lineup. He didn't waste time -- he drilled a shot to the opposite field that for a moment I thought was clearing the right-field fence. It didn't. It hit the fence, but nonetheless, all three runners scored and it was 6-2. Gallagher blooped a single to left to make it 7-2.

The rout was on.

This brought up Diaz. On a 1-1 pitch, Diaz connected. The ball flew out over the left field fence for Diaz's first home run of the postseason ... and what a time to get it. It was 9-2.

Still, North Hunterdon didn't back down against Gaynor. Two costly errors and an RBI single by Ragucci cut the margin to 9-5 going into the third. Now East was going to have to answer again.

Did I ever mention that East American wanted to beat this team into submission, by the way? Oh, yeah, they did ... and then some. Dandorph singled, Jedrusiak reached on an error and two batters later, Frazier sent a shot well over the left field fence for a three-run home run to make it 12-5. Then Gaynor doubled, Cerullo beat out an infield hit and Gallagher singled home Gaynor to make it 13-5.

But wait, there's more!

Chris Aiello, now in the game for Diaz, reached on an error to load the bases and Donnelly walked to force home another run. Dandorph was hit by a pitch -- all these runs now coming against reliever Wagner, who probably was not feeling so good at this point -- to plate another run and Jedrusiak singled to right to score Aiello and Donnelly to cap an eight-run third, making it 17-5.

By this point, I was rooting for 20 runs, but I was also rooting for a quick finish since I had to get back to Toms River to not only write my story, but to put together the sports section with my boss out that weekend.

The crowning jewel ... the knockout punch ... the icing on the cake -- whatever you want to call it -- came in the top of the fourth inning when Gaynor and Cerullo hit monster home runs to left-center field that totaled a combined 600 feet to make it 19-5. And by now, Gaynor had settled down. He took care of business in the bottom of the fourth with three up and three down, the last out being a harmless groundout by Mike Cust to shortstop Danny Gallagher to end it.

And for the first time in its program's history, Toms River East had won a state Little League championship. Mike Gaynor was right -- THIS was the best team in Gloucester City that week. The 19-5 finish to the tournament was emphatic. And East American players were able to carry the state championship flag around the Gloucester City field with pride as family members and fans were allowed to come onto the field and take pictures.

Those four victories in four days may still be the most amazing thing I've ever seen a team accomplish in all my years as a writer. No one I've ever seen loses a tournament opener at that level and then has to go the long way around in a short amount of time to win it all. Sure as anything, East American used that momentum onto the next stage -- the East Regional Tournament in Bristol, Conn. East American vanquished its four opponents by a 32-4 count, including a 10-0 mercy-rule victory over Brandywine Little League of Delaware to win that championship and move on to the Little League World Series, the first team to do so from Ocean County since Lakewood won the all-national event in 1975. There, though, East American suffered jitters and lost two of the three games in the event to go home.

Three years later with Todd Frazier and Scott Fisher leading the way at the top of the lineup, East American was back at Williamsport for the World Series and won it all, beating Kashima, Japan, 12-9, in the memorable championship. And one year later, East American made it back for a third time in five years, but lost to Colby Rasmus-led Phenix City, Ala., in the national final.

That was one heck of a Little League run for any league in my 29 years in this business. And it all began when the first Windsor Avenue Gang had its back against the wall in the state tournament and responded in a most emphatic way.

It didn't hurt they had a manager who believed they were the best team there, either.