Five days had gone by since witnessing one of the greatest Little League All-Star comebacks of all time when Brick National dug deep down 9-3 in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie it up, then fall behind 10-9 in the seventh before scoring twice in the bottom of the seventh to win the New Jersey state championship over North Trenton.
It was also two days since I had arrived in Southington, Conn., to stay at the Suisse Chalet right off I-84 and then head along State Road-29 to State Road-6 and into Bristol to watch the team play in the East Regional tournament. In the first two games of the single-elimination regional, Brick National had scored a 9-7 win over Hagerstown American, Md., on the strength of a three-run home run in the top of the sixth by Justin Marsch and then continued that momentum into the next day with a seven-run first inning that led to another 9-7 win over Springdale Little League of Stamford, Conn., one of two teams representing the host Nutmeg Staters.
These were good times for the Brick National kids. They had lost only twice in New Jersey play and though they weren't completely steady so far, they had wins and were still alive in the regional, which was now down to the Final Four.
On the night I finished watching the win over Stamford, I was working on my story on the company-owned Radio Shack Tandy TRS 80 Model 100 in my room when I took a short break from it. I had walked out into the parking lot of my hotel room and recognized a few Brick National parents with some of their non-team member kids. Some of the parents, like myself, were taking the 10-to-15 minute ride from the hotel to the newly named A. Bartlett Giamatti complex each day. After a few minutes of chatting, they were asking me what I was writing on the latest win.
"Wanna find out?" I asked them.
They took me up on the offer and headed into my hotel room to watch me finish up the story that would be going into the Observer the next morning. I never knew if they were impressed by the process, but at least those parents and some of the kids related to the team got to see how it worked.
I had a chance to get ready for the next game. It was to be held in the early afternoon of Thursday, August 16, 1990, and most likely, the winner of this one was going to be favored to win the regional on that Friday and maybe head off to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.
Yes, I was excited. I had been covering Little League for seven years and now, I had gotten closer to a World Series than I ever had. In 1987, the Toms River Junior Leaguers won the state title and won the opening game of the Mid-Atlantic Tournament, but then lost the next two games and were done. And in 1988, Toms River Little League, who I was affiliated with at that time, had gotten the rights to host the East Regional Junior League All-Star Tournament, but none of our local teams were in the tournament so the World Series was out of the question.
And so as I woke up on that Thursday morning set to make the 10-15 minute ride in my 1977 Dodge Aspen, I could see a nice-sized crowd at Breen Field, the main field of the two at the complex. All week, the temperatures were unusually warm at the complex, temperatures hovering in the upper 80s. On top of that, the "headquarters" for all the teams were at a private school near the field. And for Brick Nationals players and coaches, that meant a week of complaining about how humid and warm the classrooms they were staying in were. Maybe it was taking something out of them, but I knew once they got through this tournament, they would have better accommodations in Williamsport since they were quite a bit more established.
Brick National had a solid team, led by the big boppers in the middle of the lineup in shortstop Jim Kish, right fielder Justin Marsch and center fielder Brian Patton. They were surrounded by sure-handed and sure-armed players such as Mike Russomano in left field, shortstop-pitcher Mike Terranova, second baseman-pitcher Brian Yakovchuk, third baseman Mike Mendes and catcher Roni Bigelow.
The only thing missing, though, was their manager. By now, Roy Yakovchuk, a hard-talking but truly proud gentleman, could not get off work from the trucking business he was a part of. He had used up all his vacation time and they expected him back at work. So he had to hand over the managerial reins to his assistant coach, Rich Harden, whose stepson, Terranova, was on the team. Hardee wasn't as tough-talking as Yakovchuk, but he was pretty assured and knew how he wanted this team to run. All through the tournament, I had been in touch with both the manager and his coach, so the transition to dealing with Harden was an easy one.
This game, though, Harden was understandably nervous. The team across the way from Shippensburg, Pa. was very, very good. Their two best players were also their two aces on the staff, David Orndorff, the son of manager Glenn Orndorff, and Bob Shannon, who was to be the catcher on this day calling signals for Orndorff. Second baseman Gregg Mellott was a nice little leadoff hitter and shortstop Scott Thrush had some pop in the cleanup spot. But other than those four guys at the top of the lineup, Shippensburg wasn't going to crush the ball. The Pennsylvania state champions were going to rely on the pitching of their aces and playing defense to get through the tournament.
On a sun-splashed, warm day, I set myself up on the third-base side of home plate up in the metal bleachers where I wasn't going to move since metal and the sun don't make for the most comfortable experience around. And in the middle of yet another hot afternoon, I was thankful those nice people from Brick National had given me one of their team hats to wear as protection since my arms and legs weren't going to be very protected.
Let's say Brick National president Mauro Gagliardo liked me a lot and what I did for his league.
This was during the time period when ESPN didn't even come close to covering Little League ball, even though their studio was no more than about four miles from the complex. All the news on how this Little League game happened was coming straight from my nimble typing fingers and from other scribes as well as word of mouth.
Shippensburg won the coin toss and elected to hit last. That gave Orndorff the opportunity to thrust his will on the mound at Brick National's hitters. And he did so by striking out Russomano and Terranova on four pitches. He walked Kish, setting it up for Marsch, who was 2-for-7 in the regional, but whose hits were the three-run home run in the opener and a double in the seven-run first inning of the second game. Turns out Orndorff had brought it up another notch, striking Marsch out on three pitches, each one harder thrown than the last.
Where Orndorff depended on brut strength, Terranova depended on mixing his pitches up to keep the other team off-balance. And Brick National's most dependable pitcher was also economical in his pitching. He retired Mellott on a first-pitch groundout, Orndoff on a first-pitch flyball and Shannon a groundout on the third pitch.
So far, so good.
In the second, Brick National built a rally against Orndoff. Patton walked. Yakovchuk beat out an infield single and was replaced on the basepaths by pinch-runner George Cavanaugh. After Bigelow struck out, Mendes was able to sacrifice both runners up a base, setting it up for No. 9 hitter Stan Czekay, who played an important role in that amazing comeback in the state final against North Trenton. On a 1-1 pitch, Czekay lofted a flyball that had carry to it. I can still see center fielder Jim Smith drifting back and drifting back. About eight feet in front of the fence, he made the catch to end the inning.
"What if?" I thought. Another nine feet and it's 3-0 and Terranova has control of the game. Believe me, it would have been a totally different game.
By the bottom of the third inning, Terranova had already retired the first six batters he faced. But he walked leadoff hitter Rodney Halter. That brought up Smith, the No. 8 hitter. On an 0-2 pitch, Smith reached out and poked a ball into center field. It landed in front of Patton for a single. Patton got the ball immediately and saw Halter take off for third. He threw a one-bounce strike to Mendes, who got the ball and waited on Halter to slide into the tag for the out.
The play, unbelievably, was not over.
After tagging out Halter, Mendes saw Smith taking off for second. Showing that he who hesitates is lost, Mendes got the ball out of his glove quickly and fired to Yakovchuk to put the tag on the runner and complete the extremely unusual 8-5-4 double play. All seemed to be going Brick National's way. But No. 9 hitter Mike Okker continued the threat with a single and Mellott singled him to second. But Orndorff hit a grounder at Mendes, who stepped on third to end the inning.
Still scoreless. It was obvious we were in for a pitcher's dual at this point and that 9-7 for a third straight game seemed to be out of the question. Orndorff struck out three and walked one in the fourth inning, bringing his strikeout total to seven.
In the bottom of the fourth, Shippensburg put another rally together. An error by shortstop Kish on a Shannon grounder was followed by a forceout by Thrush and that was followed two batters later by a double to left-center field by Bob Knox. Glen Orndoff stopped Thrush at third knowing Patton was sending the ball back into the infield, putting runners on second and third with two outs and putting the pressure squarely on Halter again. Halter hit a second-pitch comebacker to Terranova to end the inning.
Another rally squashed. Maybe this was Brick National's day, even though at this point, this Shippensburg team seemed a little better.
In the fifth, David Orndorff built his strikeout total to nine by fanning Czekay and Russomano and got a groundout off Terranova's bat. It just seemed Orndoff was on cruise control with the nine strikeouts, three walks and two hits allowed in five innings, throwing only 70 pitches by this point, 47 for strikes.
It was Terranova's turn again. He had thrown just 44 pitches in four innings and his mixing of pitches had frustrated his opponents for a good amount of the afternoon. But Smith blooped a single into right-center field to lead off. A wild pitch moved him to second. Ocker, the No. 9 hitter, walked, putting runners on first and second with no outs and bringing the dangerous top of the lineup back to the plate.
This was not looking good with very little regulation time left in this one. Mellott worked the count to 2-0, but had shown bunt on both pitches. On the next delivery, he bunted between the plate and the mound, easily moving the runners up a base. Terranova grabbed the ball and threw toward first, but his throw was in the ground and bounced away from Czekay for the error that allowed Smith to come home and move Ocker to third as Mellott scampered to second.
The string had been broken and Shippensburg had the lead. Worse, there were still no outs and the big aluminum bats of Orndorff and Shannon were still to come up. Orndoff hit a grounder at Mendes, who looked Ocker back to third, then threw on to Czekay for the first out.
At this point, Harden came out of the dugout to talk to his stepson and the other infielders and Bigelow. They had a plan in mind -- they had gotten through Orndorff, but they weren't going to mess with Shannon, who had hit two hot smashes at Kish. One solid stroke and 1-0 would become 4-0. Terranova threw four wide ones to Bigelow to intentionally walk Shannon and load the bases.
They were taking their chances with cleanup hitter Thrush. Terranova threw a first-pitch strike to the hitter. But you could see Terranova was laboring. His motion didn't look right and he seemed to be struggling with his arm. Ball one. Then ball two. Then ball three.
Harden came out again. Terranova gave him a look as if he couldn't do it anymore. With the count 3-1, Harden made the difficult choice to take his stepson out. Who was going to replace him, inheriting the count knowing that one more ball forces home a second run?
Harden called on Steven Haines, a bigger and harder-throwing pitcher compared to Terranova. A tough place to be for the young man, though. He threw his warmup pitches and Thrush stepped back into the batter's box with the 3-1 count.
Haines threw his first pitch high. Ball four. Ocker scored and it was 2-0. A one-run deficit seemed easy to make up, but a two-run deficit seemed impossible against Orndorff and, still with one out, Haines had to get out of the jam. He struck out Donnie Miller and then got Knox to pop out to Kish.
Brick National was down to its last at-bat. Do nothing and the season was over. And if Brick National was going to do it, it was going to be with the two top bashers in the lineup leading off. First up was Kish. He worked the count to 3-2, then Orndorff bounced the next pitch into the ground for ball four.
Brick National had a runner on base. And the hot-and-cold Marsch was up. He had delivered sixth-inning home runs in two of the previous three games, one to tie up the state championship, the other to put his team in front just two days earlier against the kids from Hagerstown. He couldn't possible do it again?
That was just asking too much of a 12-year-old to do again and again. Orndorff was coming after Marsch. The count was 2-2. Marsch fouled off the next offering, a hard fastball. Orndorff tried another fastball.
I knew that sound all too well. That was the same damn sound I heard in Spring Lake Heights and I heard again two days earlier on this same Breen Field. The ball took off and neither left fielder Miller or center fielder Smith moved. The ball cleared the left-center field by a good 40 feet. Unlike that grand slam to center field that tied the North Trenton game, I saw this ball clearly land harmlessly on the grass.
Brick National's fans cheered, yelled, screamed and just flat-out celebrated. This really couldn't be happening again. The boys from the south side of Brick Township had tied the game at 2-all and there were still no outs and had a pitcher who was cruising along on the ropes.
After Patton grounded out, Yakovchuk singled to center field, Brick National's fourth hit. Harden replaced Yakovchuk for the second time in the game with pinch-runner Billy Popp, meaning Yakovchuk was done for the game and was nothing more than a spectator on the bench. Orndorff recovered to strike out Bigelow on three pitches, bringing up Brian Gatto, who was pinch-hitting for Mendes after Mendes had sacrificed and struck out in his two at-bats.
To build the drama, a passed ball by Shannon moved Popp to second, then a wild pitch got Popp to third. The go-ahead run was 60 feet away and one hit was going to get him in. The count got to 3-2. On the next pitch, Gatto hit a grounder that went off Orndorff's glove toward Mellott at second. Mellott had to race in to get the ball. He threw to Knox and was able to get the slow-afoot Gatto by a step to end the threat.
Again, I thought, "What if?" What if Gatto had a little more speed. He beats the play out, Popp scores and it's 3-2 going to the bottom of the sixth.
The game was now in Haines' hands since Terranova was taken off the hook by Marsch's sixth-inning heroics. And starting with no one on base this time, Haines got the bottom of Shippensburg's lineup out in order on two groundouts and a strikeout.
Once again, Brick National was going to have to decide a game in extra innings, just like five days earlier. And after playing back-to-back-to-back games in this tournament (Shippensburg had earned a first-round bye to play just one East Regional game) and having to deal with oppressive conditions in their makeshift excuse for living quarters in Bristol while the complex was being built on the grounds, I was wondering how much was left in the collective tank.
Orndorff struck out Haines, Russomano and Terranova, now playing first and second base, respectively, in the top of the seventh to build his strikeout total to 13. Haines, meanwhile, had little trouble in the bottom of the seventh as he gave up a single to Orndorff, but got out of one-out trouble by getting Shannon to hit into a force play and Thrush to fly out to Patton.
On to the eighth. Once again, Kish and Marsch were to lead the inning off. If both got on base, I was pretty convinced Brick National was going to score and take the lead, leaving it to Haines to finish out the victory and move to the region championship the next afternoon.
Kish did his part without having to work hard -- Orndorff walked him on four pitches as if he didn't want him to ever touch the ball with his bat. That brought up Marsch, who was still basking in the afterglow of the game-tying home run two innings earlier. On his second pitch, Orndorff uncorked a wild pitch to move Kish into scoring position. With the count 2-2, Marsch lined a single to right field. Halter got to the ball quickly and fired it back into the infield.
That was huge since Harden was left with no choice but to hold Kish at third, putting runners on first and third with no outs. This brought up Patton and once again, Brick National had Orndorff on the ropes. This was really looking good. Orndorff got the count, though, to 0-2 quickly, forcing Patton to be defensive at the plate. On the next pitch, Patton hit a soft liner.
But Mellott was shaded over toward first base instead of his normal second base spot. Mellott reached high to snag the line drive, then saw Marsch a little too far off first base. He chased him back to the base and made the tag before he could step on the base to complete the double play.
Well, that's what I thought. Really!
In the middle of all this happening, Kish was back on third base and about to push the envelope. Mellott was finishing up tagging out Marsch when his teammates yelled for him to throw the ball to the plate. Yes, Kish was coming home, trying to sneak in with the go-ahead run in the middle of this traffic jam.
Mellott composed himself and threw a strike to Shannon, who got Kish at the plate by a step, blocking the plate effectively.
Yes, I had just witnessed my first triple play in my six-year career. And a first-and-third, no-out rally turned into a sudden end of the inning. I was simply dumbfounded.
Brick National jogged back out onto the field after watching that rally go by the wayside. Now they had to find the inspiration again to make it through the inning defensively and push this already classic into the ninth.
Miller began the inning by blooping a single to left field. This brought up Knox. He hit a slow groundball to the left side of the infield. Mendes got the ball, but his throw to second was late in getting pinch-runner Randy Clendening, who had replaced Miller moments earlier. Halter walked on five pitches and the bases were loaded.
This was not looking good. Harden came out one more time to calm down Haines and set up the defensive alignment that now had the infield and outfield in. It was one out at a time.
But two pitches into his at-bat, Smith hit a low liner where no one would have been normally standing. It was a one-hopper in front of Patton to score Clendening, though the fact Clendening was coming home wasn't stopping Patton from grabbing the ball and firing to the plate where, luckily, the ball never hit anyone as the rest of Brick National's fielders were walking slowly back to the dugout.
In a matter of eight minutes, Brick National went from threatening to take the lead to seeing its season end. It was over with Shippensburg winning 3-2. I interviewed Glen Orndorff afterward. This was a time period in which you could freely walk up to any manager or coach and just ask him questions after the game and not deal with the planned press conferences that happen now.
The manager was relieved. He knew, like I did, that the winner of this game was going to move onto Williamsport and the World Series. He praised his son (not surprisingly) for throwing the entire game, allowing five hits, walking five and striking out 13 while throwing 120 pitches, which if this were 2014, wouldn't be allowed. If these were 2014 circumstances, Orndorff would have been relieved during that sixth-inning rally at 85 pitches. Let's just safely say it was a much different world in 1990.
Orndorff also praised his second baseman Mellott for making the biggest play and biggest heads-up decision of the afternoon. The manager knew his team was on the ropes and managed to escape.
Harden, meanwhile, had to console his players who just saw their summer of baseball come to an end. And being as level-headed as he was, Harden told it like it was, putting the decision of Kish challenging Mellott on the triple play on himself just to shake the play and game up. It didn't work, but he enjoyed the ride as the team's temporary manager.
I was done with my interviews and started heading to the car. Turned the ignition ... nothing. Turned it again ... nothing again. So I waited a moment. Then one more turn of the key. The car started up. Suddenly, I had a problem with the car. I wasn't going to be stuck in Bristol, Conn. with a broken car, so I took it over to the nearby Firestone, where a woman named Marilyn who was handling my arrangements with the car couldn't have been nicer. I came to find out Marilyn just had her birthday on August 5 and she turned 28 -- ironically, the day that the most famous Marilyn in history, Marilyn Monroe, was found dead at the age of 36. Trust me, Marilyn knew the irony of her being named.
The car got tweeked so I wouldn't have problems starting up again and I headed off to pick up something through a fast food drive-through, then back to the hotel to write the story of this unbelievable game and even more unbelievable triple play. I was finished with everything by about 9 p.m. and had the rest of the night to myself, though in Southington, Conn., they pretty much roll up the sidewalks at about that time. I spent the night watching baseball on the hotel TV, hoping to see another no-hitter like I did the night before when Philadelphia Phillies lefty Terry Mulholland threw a no-no against the San Francisco Giants. No dice, though.
Brick National still had a third-place game to play the next morning at 11 o'clock. I checked out of my hotel and started to head back to the field for the game against the Maine state champion, Augusta North, when I put the key into the ignition and lo and behold ... it didn't start again! I'm like, "What the f**k?"
And just like before, the car would start up again on the next attempt and I drove back to the complex to cover the third-place game. Harden didn't take the game too seriously, putting guys in positions they normally wouldn't play. Still, Brick National jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the third. In the bottom of the third, Augusta North scored four runs off starter Popp, then added another four runs off Yakovchuk in the fourth to make it 8-3.
Marsch provided one last memory of a great summer with these Brick National boys by belting a home run to center field in the fifth inning. That was it, though. Brick National lost, 8-4.
There was little fanfare. The parents, family and friends were glad it was over. The players were happy the month-long ride was over, even though it could have ended in the next and final spot of Williamsport. I remember talking with Harden, who reminisced about the summer that just passed. It was a fun adventure, he said, and he was glad he could take over for Roy Yakovchuk after his work wouldn't allow him to continue on.
And after everyone was gone and heading back to New Jersey, it was myself and Harden across the street from the complex next to my car just talking for 15 minutes about everything from baseball to even how I was able to do my job and send stories. He thanked me for everything I wrote on the team and how wonderful the support was from everyone, including elected officials such as the mayor and famed councilman and Brick High School football coach Warren Wolf, who made the drive to Bristol to watch the team play.
Rich Harden knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that might never duplicated again.
Before saying our goodbyes, I told him about the trouble with my car. To show you the class of the man, he stayed with me in case the car wouldn't start up. But thankfully, the car kicked over on the first attempt. I headed over to Firestone knowing I had plenty of time to get the story done since we didn't have a Saturday paper. Whatever adjustment they made, the car worked and I didn't have another problem with the starting up of it.
As for Shippensburg, it wound up winning the East Regional championship and moving on to Williamsport just as expected. Shippensburg won the United States champion, but was torched 10-0 in the World Series finale against the team from Taiwan. And to this day, I believe if Brick National had won that game on August 16, 1990 that they were on the way to Williamsport and playing for the World Series championship. They probably were not beating the Taiwanese boys, but what the heck. They still would've been there.
The story would've been much different, that's for sure.
Again, what if?
Sunday, August 3, 2014
For this blog, I really didn't know how to begin. How do you encapsulate something you've loved doing for 30 years because it was something you had to do and had to do properly?
Suddenly, my inspiration came walking onto a Lavallette beach on a Sunday afternoon in late July. It was part of a 30th high school reunion weekend and many people I had seen that weekend I hadn't seen in well over 20 years.
This included a guy named Joe Birardi, who was holding down a couple of jobs and just short of his 48th birthday, was about to become a first-time dad. In the case of Joe, though, I could turn the clock back 32 years ago to mid-July 1982. My dad was asked to help out with Senior League All-Star duty at Toms River Little League and so I came along with him. The District 18 Senior League All-Star final that day featured Toms River East, the crosstown rival with a few players on the team going to the same high school (East) as myself, against Brick National.
East's starting pitcher that day was none other than Joe Berardi and, for the better part of that afternoon, he held Brick National's lineup in check. At the end of the game, he was on the mound to record the final out of the afternoon and then do a celebratory dance as East won the district title, 5-2. I was happy for Joe since I knew him for a few years and he was a really good guy.
I got to read about the game in my local paper, the Ocean County Observer, and though there wasn't a whole lot on the game, it was there more as a recap of what happened. No writer from the paper was there, but whoever called in gave enough detail to the paper.
That was my father who was in charge of doing so via the District 18 staff. It was his job and others to make sure every game found its way into the paper. It was great promotion for the league and district. He did it. Others at our league did it. Heck, I even did it a few times.
But not other leagues did it. The request as per the annual District 18 All-Star handbook was not adhered to. So a lot of young boys and some young girls missed out on the coverage they so deserved for winning a championship as important in Ocean County as the districts.
I was looking forward to seeing how far Joe and his Toms River East teammates would go in Section 3 play against Monmouth and Middlesex county competition. They were to play about four days after winning the district tournament.
But if you had gotten a copy of the Observer the day after the game was played, you'd have had a rough time finding it. As a matter of fact, you would have frustrated yourself thoroughly. Oh, and don't bother trying to find out in the Asbury Park Press. Their coverage of Little League All-Star baseball at any level was as worthless as a three-dollar bill.
Same thing with Toms River East's Little League All-Star team that also won the District 18 title, ending Toms River's run of four straight district championship in '82 under manager Jerry DiPoto, the father of future Major League Baseball player and current Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto. If you were looking to see how they did in the first round of the Section 3 tournament, you'd have been reading the paper a long, long time.
Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Let's just assume East's run in both the Senior League and Little League all-star tournaments came to an abrupt end in the time period when it was single elimination and no team had second chances. The managers or coaches weren't calling in the games, and more appalling, the Observer, the local source for area coverage in all sports, just simply ignored it. The only way I'd know that Lakewood Little League won the Junior League (13-year-old) district championship was because their manager and coaches were pro-active and wanted the coverage in the local paper. That team went on to the state championship before losing, making it the third Junior League All-Star team from District 18 in the last four years to reach the state semifinals after the Toms River teams of 1981 and 1979.
And speaking of the 1979 team -- that team has a special place in my life. I was 12 years old and my dad was the assistant coach of that team with a number of my friends playing on the team that a guy named Bruce Shepherd was manager. That team went all the way to the state championship game, and on August 14, 1979 at Liberty Oaks (now Tighe) Park in Freehold, Toms River edged West Milford, 2-1, to capture the championship.
You would think after such a memory-making state championship victory that someone from the media -- anyone!! -- would have been there to interview the players, Shepherd, heck, even my dad.
Nope. That team won a state championship in relative silence. Seriously. It was our Toms River contingent coming home, then doing a lap around the Ocean County Mall sometime after 10 p.m., going to the town hall meeting to be recognized for just winning a state title, then driving over to the old Baiamonte's Pizza King (now Boston's) on Hooper Avenue and Fischer Boulevard in which this team of ravenous eaters scoffed down enough pizza to ring the final price up at about $120. That was a lot of pizza they, their families and fans chowed down that night.
There would be no tournament beyond the state though. So happens that Junior League all-star tournament baseball would go beyond state level in 1980 -- the year after Toms River's run to the state championship. Just their rotten luck.
And how much press do you think the guys from TRLL got in the six games it won to capture the championship? A total of 35 paragraphs. That's right -- 35! And 22 of the 35 paragraphs were stories of the state semifinal win over Blackwood and the state final over West Milford.
Simply embarrassing, especially since that was 35 more paragraphs than the Press did and the freakin' final was held in its backyard in Freehold Township.
In 1983, Brick National won the district Little League All-Star title, while Holbrook was a winner in the Junior League and Lakewood the champion of the Senior League tournaments. But you would never have known that since there was absolutely no coverage of those finals in the Observer.
By the time 1984 came around, I had graduated high school and was looking for something to do job-wise during the summer. I thought I was going to be interning at the Observer after I had completed two years of journalism at TRHSE. I thought I was going to be a news writer covering night meetings or writing features before I would go on to Ocean County College where my major was journalism.
Then I dropped the now-famous words on night editor Kerry Brennan that changed everything in my life.
"I have a background with sports."
Even I didn't realize the method to my own madness, but when I described to Tom, the assistant sports editor, that I had a background in Little League baseball because of all the time I had been around it and the working knowledge I had about it, I had a foot in the door at the paper every summer I was there.
It turns out no one wanted to cover the sport. My guess was that they really didn't want to deal with the irate and far-from-understanding parents with the meat-cleaver attitude toward not caring about their little darlings. That was a bit much to those guys, who only wrote features on them when forced upon them.
Trust me when you read this -- I was glad to take it off their hands.
By the second full week of July 1984, my first full week at the Observer, there was more Little League baseball coverage in the paper than there had been the previous year combined. By the end of that summer, I had covered Toms River's Senior League All-Star district championship team, Brick National's wild victory over Toms River East (one in which winning pitcher Sean Foley threw 173 pitches in the complete-game, 11-10 victory) in the Junior League championship and watched Brick American, led by 23-year-old manager Rich Caldes, win the Little League All-Star district title by going through the losers bracket to beat Jackson twice. That Brick American team was unique with so many different personalities dotting its roster. They got to the Section 3 championship game before losing in what was a single-elimination tournament at the time.
But as I got upstairs at Sayreville Little League and looked out at a packed Brick American side of the field, I was simply stunned. Later on, Duke Anderson, Brick American's loveable president and my favorite Garden State Parkway toll collector, thanked me for all the coverage I gave his team from the district tournament through the three sectional games I covered, including the championship.
Then he said something very profound that didn't resonate with this 17-year-old at the time.
"Everyone's been reading your stories in the paper. People who wouldn't come out to see our kids play came up here because of your stories."
As is my nature with most everything I've come across in life, I kind of passed it off as if I didn't truly believe what he was saying. Little League fans will come out and support area kids no matter where they were from.
And then it hit me -- 30 years later.
It was Monday, July 28, 2014, while I was on vacation for the aforementioned 30th reunion. On my last full day up in Ocean County, I drove over to Berkeley Little League to watch my old league, now Toms River National (there's an American at the much-bigger league compared to when I played and coached there), face Ocean City-Upper Township for the state Little League All-Star championship.
So much happened there that day. Former Central Regional High School great and ex-Major Leaguer Al Leiter threw out the first pitch. The game was covered by not one, not two, not three, but four separate media outlets, either newspaper or broadcast. And the place was packed with fans from both sides.
It was a great game. Toms River National held on for the 7-6 win, the second state title in the last five years. It was a joyous occasion and I snapped plenty of pictures to remember the championship by.
And as I was watching the festivities, the smiles, the hugs and the state championship flag being run around the field after the game, long after running into one of Berkeley's many members helping with the tournament, Jim Rand, who was a part of that special 1984 Brick American Little League All-Star team, before the championship, it finally hit me.
I caused all this. I did all this, though no one on or around that field realized it. This game had my hand prints all over it and I had not spent a second covering this Toms River National team.
It was me who had spent countless hours covering Little League baseball, whether it was Senior League, Junior League or Little League ball, who set the bar so high that almost everyone knew our District 18 teams, from Toms River to Toms River East, from Brick American to Brick National, from Barnegat to Berkeley to Beachwood-Pine Beach, from Manchester to Holbrook to Point Pleasant Beach.
That was me. That was what 15 years of covering Little League-based baseball did. I put up with a lot of apathy over those 15 years from leagues who weren't willing to call in games on their field and that I had to shame into doing so and the parents who were, well, Little League parents. But after years of trying to perfect this art form, not only did we become the center of Little League coverage in Ocean County, but we were there for almost every single important district championship game, every sectional matchup, every state tournament, and in my case, every East Regional and World Series game I could cover.
I covered eight state championship teams, two on the Senior League All-Star level (Toms River East American in 1997 and 1998), two on the Junior League All-Star level (East American in 1996 and my first-ever state championship team, Toms River, in 1987) and four Little League All-Star teams (Brick National in 1990 and the three Toms River East American teams in 1995, '98 and '99).
By the time I left the Observer in 1999, the two most prolific Little League writers in New Jersey were Jim Davis at The Trentonian and myself.
You are taught to be modest in this business. Writing stories is your job. You get your story done, then move on to the next one. If it makes an impact in the community, then you did your job.
But allow me the one thing I'm proud of coverage-wise for the 30 years I've been doing covering sports, especially on the local level. I made it my goal to let kids between the ages of 11 to 15 have the spotlight every summer and unabashedly, too.
All those nice things parents, Little League people and district workers used to say I took for granted all those years. It was just my job.
It was more than doing my job when I saw that sea of humanity at that Berkeley Little League field on that Monday night. It has been 15 years since I left Ocean County to pursue other ventures in this business, but my impact of how Little League ball was covered still permeates the county landscape.
It's a bit over the top now, but you know what? I was always hoping I'd see that day. Seriously.
Just a few days earlier, Toms River East's Junior League All-Star team was playing not too far from where Toms River National's Little League All-Stars were playing at Berkeley Little League. They were playing in the state tournament, eventually losing to the champion, Parsippany-Troy. There was newspaper coverage of their games.
I suddenly wished that was the coverage of the 1979 Toms River Junior League All-Star team's coverage that got little mention in the Observer and absolutely no coverage in the Asbury Park Press. Where the hell was that coverage 35 years ago?
Again, my impact of seeing so many district championship games and three teams that ultimately made it to the World Series, the 1996 East American Junior Leaguers in Taylor, Mich., and those same East American kids the year before as Little Leaguers in 1995 in Williamsport, Pa., as well as the group of East American kids who won the whole ball of wax in 1998 behind Todd Frazier, Scott Fisher and Casey Gaynor.
I was there when all those teams began their runs to World Series appearances with my district tournament coverage in the Observer. Again, that was my job I enjoyed immensely.
Recently, I read a column by Press writer-columnist Josh Newman about Little League baseball in Toms River and how it took off in 1995. Technically, he was right in that TR has been on a roll since that Toms River East American team that went to Williamsport that year. But he simply did not do his homework. Toms River baseball has been more than fine long before that '95 team's run. In 1993, another Toms River Little League All-Star team reached the state tournament final in Rutherford under manager Al Kononowitz and was one win away from winning the state title that the teams of 2010 and '14 won. It wasn't meant to be as state power Nottingham won two straight to swipe it away.
I know ... I was there.
Trust me when I say this: Little League baseball has been a fixture in Toms River, N.J. long before 1995, Josh. You did a lousy job when it came to research. Toms River had won state titles in 1978 (Senior League), 1979 (Junior League) and 1987 (Junior League again). But I know that's not the Little League All-Star level, so why bother?
Turns out I can still cover Ocean County better than the guys doing it now.
I can look back 30 years later after I started and realize all this Little League hoopla was indirectly due to me. I really don't have to be modest about it. I did all that. I know a lot of people I came across in my life are grateful I put the time and effort in those 15 years I was covering Little League.
Sorry, Joe Birardi. Wished I was covering Little League back in 1982. You, too, my 1979 Toms River Junior League All-Star playing friends. Things would've been so much different.