One year before, I had been in Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. One week before, I had been in Philadelphia for the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
Now I was in Lakewood, N.J. for the District 18 Junior Little League All-Star first championship game between Toms River, the winners bracket representative, and Toms River East American, which had to make the painful excursion through the losers bracket just to get back to this first championship and even if the team won this game, it'd have to return to Lakewood the next night and play another championship.
By now, East American had to be tired after playing game after game after game just trying to escape out of the elimination bracket and get to this final. But then again, this was no ordinary team out there.
This was the East American bunch that brought me to Williamsport, Pa., the summer before. This was that intimidating team led by Colin Gaynor, Jeff Frazier, Chris Cerullo, Chris Donnelly, Danny Gallagher and Jeremy Dandorph just to name a few that had an amazing summer and got not only a district, sectional and state title, but an Eastern Regional title as well.
And not only was this almost the same bunch of kids who played on the small diamond the year before, they had a newcomer on the team in former Lakewood Little Leaguer Jason Campanalonga, whose family moved into the East Dover section of Toms River. His dominance on the mound accented an already great group of guys.
But East American had lost a game in the very first round of the double-elimination tournament and had to go through the maze of games just to make it back here. A tough task, but if any team could get out of that hole, it'd be this bunch.
On the other side of the ledger stood Toms River, the crosstown rivals on Mapletree Road, the Little League that not only I played at, but helped coach with my dad in the 1970s and '80s. By now, Toms River East had stolen the thunder from Toms River. And it was this group of 13-year-olds who had the same scenario the year before -- one win against East American and they were district champions. This Toms River team didn't want that to happen to it two years in a row.
The three big guns on this team were leadoff hitter and second baseman Mike McTamney, shortstop and pitcher Brett Hardie and tall, gangling starting pitcher and first baseman Ryan Gianoulis, who was getting the ball to pitch this championship game against Campanalonga and East American.
The manager of the East American team was Greg Huyler, who had been a member of the the Senior League level for a few years. I had known him, but didn't really know him as well as his cohort and assistant on the team, John Karkovice. John is a terrific baseball man and an overall terrific guy. Years earlier, my dad and I had coached his stepson on our regular season team, though I never knew that until years later when John's wife, LuJo, came aboard as a writer at the Ocean County Observer where I had now been for 13 years. The conversations she and I used to have still resonate in my mind to this day. John is also the older brother of former Chicago White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice, so there was lineage in a major way.
On the other side, an old familiar face was the manager of the Toms River team. John Puglisi had been at TRLL since the early 1980s and I sat next to him on that August afternoon in 1987 up in the press box at the TRLL Senior League field as he did the public address and I did the official scorekeeping while also covering Toms River's Junior League All-Star state championship win against the Roberto Clemente League of Newark for my paper.
John and I knew each other well.
The date was Tuesday, July 16, 1996. I get to Lakewood's Senior League field, which was located on the corner of Lexington and Ninth Streets. That's where the "bigger" field is located. The "smaller" field is located on Ninth and Clifton. So for the Senior or Junior League All-Star tournament games, I'd park down the road in front of a big complex that never quite got finished back then, a half a block away from the field. Heck, I knew my car was safe there.
When I got there, there were two people there that weren't familiar to me. I soon found out these two men were dong their first district or any tournament game. I sure hoped these two were honed on what needed to be done.
If you've never been to the old complex on Ninth Street in Lakewood, here's all you needed to know – it was abuzz of activity. On one side of the complex was where all the Hispanics lived. The young Hispanic kids would walk down the street, blasting a boombox along the way. Yeah, that's how I knew they were there. On the other side was where the Hasidic Jews lived. It became an everyday sighting whenever I got to Lakewood: a devout Hasidic Jew dressed in black and black hat with his wife and their ... umm ... kids. Lots of kids usually. Little did I know that later on in this game, that side of the neighborhood was going to be heard from.
So the game started just after 7 p.m. and right off the bat, Toms River has a threat going against Campanalonga. With one out, Hardie walks. Then Rob Seiders walks. But a flyout by Gianoulis and a forceout off the bat by Steve Kerrigan to third baseman Cerullo, who stepped on his bag, ended that threat. I was so used to seeing Chris Cerullo as an outfielder on the Little League All-Star team, I was not prepared to see him as an infielder, but apparently he was one of those young men who could make that adjustment from the postage stamp Little League field to the regulation-size field for Junior and Senior Leaguers and beyond.
Like Campanalonga, Gianoulis ran into trouble in the bottom of the first when he walked Gaynor and hit Gallagher with a pitch with one out. But Cerullo and Andrew Diaz both hit infield foulouts to keep it scoreless.
Toms River put up another threat in the second when Jamie Miller was hit by a Camapanalonga pitch and one out later, an error by Campanalonga on a John Lewis sacrifice bunt for which the pitcher threw it away into right field put runners on first and third with one out. But "Campy" got Matt Martin to strike out swinging and got McTamney, the leadoff hitter, to foul out to Cerullo.
The East American struck in the second. Kevin Blaney walked with one out, and was replaced on the basepaths by Todd Cuchie, who was going to come into the game in right field for him. Donnelly sacrificed him to second. That brought up Dandorph – all less than 5-foot of him and one of the heroes of the '95 run to Williamsport. He slashed a single into left field to bring in Cuchie to make it 1-0. Things got more interesting after Frazier walked and Hardie mishandled Gaynor's grounder for an error to load the bases. But Gallagher hit a shot that Hardie handled to end the inning.
Two innings in and Gianoulis had thrown 44 pitches. Campanalonga had thrown 41.
Neither were long for this game. Neither could get a clean inning. And in the top of the third, Toms River asserted its muscle against East American's starter.
Hardie reached on a hit batsmen and was forced at second off a Seiders grounder. Gianoulis sent a shot into the early evening sky that looked like it might get out, but bounced in front of the fence for a double, putting runners on second and third. On a 1-1 pitch, Kerrigan laced a single to left field to score Seiders to tie it at 1-all.
And it could've gotten worse. One out later, Chris Leddy singled to left-center field to score Gianoulis. However, Puglisi had Kerrigan coming to third base, but Frazier, also one of the East American pitchers, threw a dart to Cerullo at third and nailed the runner by a few feet to end the frame.
In the bottom of the third, Cerullo was hit by a pitch and proceeded to steal second and third within the next five pitches to Diaz. But with the tying run on third, Gianoulis struck out Diaz and Campanalonga and got Cuchie to ground out.
Three innings in the books and the darkness was starting to take hold of the two-block long complex. It was 8:15 p.m. and I was braced for what might be a three-plus hour game. Neither team's pitcher could find any kind of rhythm going. Normally during the Lakewood Little League regular season, Junior and Senior League games had a curfew because the Hasidic population wasn't too happy that the lights were still shining on their windows across the street and down the block. I came to find out from the two Lakewood Little League guys doing their first game as league reps for the district that the curfew was 9:30 p.m.
No, that didn't sound so good in reality, but during the district tournament season, any game on that field was given until 11:30 that night. That, I came to find out, would be a blessing on this evening.
Even though both teams would retire the other team's side in the fourth, the game was about to come to a literal crawl.
The fifth for Toms River started when Hardie doubled to center field just out of Frazier's reach and four pitches later, he advanced to third on a wild pitch. Seiders hit a comebacker as Campanalonga watched Hardie back to third. The next batter was Gianoulis. He hit a grounder toward Dandorph. The infield in, Dandorph threw low to catcher Gaynor and Hardie scored to make it 3-1.
East American, the team with all that success and amazing run in 1995, was now down two runs and down to their last nine outs. But after an eight-pitch fourth inning, Gianoulis found the sledding tough. He covered first brilliantly on a grounder to first baseman Leddy to beginning the inning to get Gaynor. Then he ran into trouble with back-to-back walks to Gallagher and Cerullo. A costly error by third baseman Martin loaded the bases with one out. Campanalonga took a 1-2 delivery from Gianoulis deep into the night. But it didn't get out. Seiders caught the ball and Gallagher tagged up to score, making it a one-run game. Cuchie then flied out to end the threat.
Campanalonga had thrown 88 pitches through five innings, and though Toms River made him work in the sixth with plenty of foul balls, he got him out in order on 17 pitches in the sixth.
East American, meanwhile, nearly cost itself a chance to tie the game in its bottom half. Donnelly walked and was pinch-run for by Mike Angelo, a player even smaller in size than Dandorph on that '95 team. But one pitch into the at-bat for Dandorph, Gianoulis picked off Angelo. Dandorph struck out, but when the ball got by catcher Kerrigan, Dandorph raced to first base to get the inning going for East American. Dandorph immediately stole second base on the first pitch to Frazier, who grounded out to allow Dandorph to get within 90 feet of home plate.
At this point, Puglisi didn't want anything to do with the 6-foot tall Gaynor, an intimidating sight for opposing teams. He walked him intentionally, knowing he was putting the go-ahead run on base. He was going to take his chances on Gallagher, who was 0-for-1 with a hit batsmen and walk. On a 2-2 pitch, he got a frustrated Gallagher to pop out to third baseman Martin to end the threat.
The pickoff really, really hurt. I thought East was going to pay for that. And with one inning to go and down 3-2, the first Windsor Avenue Gang, as I called them then, needed Campanalonga to throw an effective seventh inning – one that didn't involve him throwing 17 pitches. He got the job done and retired the top three hitters in order in just nine pitches in the top of the seventh.
By now, it was 9:40 p.m. And East American was down to its last three outs. Cerullo was going to have to get it started against a tiring Gianoulis, who had done his best to keep East American's bats in check while throwing a staggering 125 pitches.
Yes, in the year 2015, he would have been gone by pitch No. 95 with the new Little League "arm-friendly" rules that state kids could only throw that many pitches before being removed. But Gianoulis went back out there to finish what he started.
Cerullo began the frame by walking, the eighth walk by Gianoulis. No one was warming up. This was his game to finish. On the very next pitch to Diaz, Cerullo stole second, his third of four steals on the night. Diaz hit a grounder that Martin muffed for an error, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Gianoulis went after Campanalonga, but by now, you could see him starting to tire badly. The count got to 3-2 and on the next pitch, low and outside for ball four, you could see Gianoulis had nothing left in the tank.
The bases were loaded and worse, there was no outs. It was then that Puglisi pulled the plug on Gianoulis and brought in a kid he could rely on, Hardie, to finish it out.
It didn't take Cuchie long to get acclimated to the new guy on the mound. On an 0-2 "mistake" pitch, Cuchie lined a single to right field to score Cerullo to tie it at 3-3. Karkovice, coaching third base, held up Diaz.
Still no outs. Next up was Donnelly, who came back into the game after Angelo got picked off. He battled Hardie for almost five minutes at the plate, fouling off four straight 3-2 pitches. Finally, Hardie won the battle by striking him out.
One out. Next was Dandorph. On his first pitch, he hit a slow roller to the pitcher, who fielded and tossed to Kerrigan to get Diaz for the second out.
Now the game was left up to the reliable bat of leadoff hitter Jeff Frazier, a gamer who did it time and time again as a 12-year-old in 1995. The count got to 2-2. On the next pitch, Frazier put a grounder in play on the left side of second base. Unfortunately, the ball also met up with Cuchie's lower torso. There was nowhere to jump or get out of the way.
Wrong place, wrong time for Todd Cuchie. A putout to the shortstop for being the closest guy on the play.
In an already amazing game, a wacky finish in regulation only set the stage for the second act. By now, Hreniuk had sent another Lakewood Little League official to the phone to confirm all was good to continue this game. By now, it was 10 p.m. The curfew was 30 minutes over and just mere moments after the seventh inning ended, a Hasidic Jewish husband and wife came upstairs to complain to the two Lakewood representatives and District 18 assistant director Hreniuk that this game was violating the ordinance/code of how long a game was supposed to be played. They had no idea that during the summer tournament time, that got moved back to 11:30 p.m.
They went back downstairs stunned, almost not believing this ordinance or code even existed. But to be on the safe side Hreniuk had this representative go to the phone to explain what was going on to the Lakewood Township Police Department before anyone else could complain to them. Supposedly, that rep explained on the phone – located in the snack stand between the two fields at the complex – the situation and that the game had to continue. Apparently, the cop said it was all fine and the game, which was already into the top of the eighth, proceeded on without incident.
Or so we thought.
Campanalonga was still throwing 114 pitches into this one. A Dandorph error on a Gianoulis grounder got the top of the eighth started. A passed ball two batters later moved Gianoulis into scoring position, but he'd be left there after Miller struck out and David Leddy, now in the game for his brother Chris, flied out to left fielder Diaz.
The bottom of the eighth against Hardie began with Gaynor being hit by a pitch, the third East hitter to reach off a hit batsmen. Gaynor stole second and after back-to-back popouts by Gallagher and Cerullo, Diaz walked. Still not wanting to give Campanalonga anything good to hit, Hardie unintentionally walked him on four pitches to load the bases and put the fate of this game on Cuchie. But Cuchie hit a harmless grounder that David Leddy swallowed up and stepped on second to end the threat.
We were off to the ninth inning. I came to find out as this game went along that Hreniuk, who I had known for nearly 15 years at TRLL, was not even supposed to be doing this game for the district. He was supposed to be going to a concert that night involving the band Styx at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel. However, mere hours before the show, it was canceled: John Panozzo, the longtime drummer of the band who had been fighting his own demons through years of alcoholic abuse, died that day from gastrointestinal hemorrhaging at the age of 47. So with nowhere to be that night, he volunteered to represent the district at the final.
Though Martin singled off Campanalonga, Toms River's sixth hit of the game, he would be left there at first as Campanalonga got McTamney to pop out to him and Hardie to ground out to Cerullo.
Once again, a pickoff played a role against East American in the ninth as Donnelly singled to lead off and was lifted for good by Bryan Jedrusiak, who was promptly picked off first by Hardie. One out later, Frazier walked, but he got left at first when Gaynor skied out to center fielder Miller.
The 10th inning began with a strikeout by Campanalonga of Seiders. This was going to be his last inning on the mound, regardless, because he was only allowed to throw 10 innings as the rules stated then. Gianoulis then laced a double to right field to put a runner in scoring position.
But no more than the moment the screaming and cheering stopped after the double, I could hear a car alarm go off, not too far from where my car was situated. I knew it wasn't my car, an '82 Olds Firenza that could barely get me from place to place by now. It had no alarm inside it. So the rest of the 10th inning was spent with the batters hitting and a car alarm going off like a blaring siren in the night. Kerrigan struck out looking. Miller struck out, but a bad pitch by Campanalonga bounced past Gaynor to the backstop, allowing Miller to get on and Gianoulis to get to third.
And all the while, the car horn kept being the backdrop to the game: "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "
Enough of this already! Where the hell is the owner to the freakin' car?!
David Leddy came up, but he was no match for Campanalonga as he struck out on three pitches, Campy's fourth strikeout of the inning and his 14th strikeout of the game. His night at a staggering 170 pitches was over.
Yes ... 170 freakin' pitches. These days, a manager could be up for charges of child abuse for throwing that many pitches. Still, Campanalonga was a big boy whose arm could handle the work. Well, at least that night it could.
With one out in the bottom of the 10th, Cerullo singled to left field, his first hit of the game after he had reached on two walks and a hit batsmen. He stole his fourth base on the next pitch, putting himself in scoring position to end this. Diaz walked to put runners on first and second with one out. Hardie struck out Campanalonga, coming after him with a fastball on a 2-2 delivery. That brought up Cuchie. He walked to load the bases.
The game was now on the shoulders of Jedrusiak, who stayed in the game to play first base. With the bases loaded and two outs, Karkovice had to force the issue.
He called for a bunt. On an 0-2 pitch no less! But Jedrusiak never got the sign – the pitch came in high as Cerullo came charging down the third-base line. He was going to score the run that would finally end this marathon. Instead, though, he found Steve Kerrigan with a ball and he was ready to tag him out.
On to the 11th. And finally the car alarm stopped. But less than a minute later, it started again. "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "
With no more Jason Campanlonga to go out and burden the pitching weight, Huyler and Karkovice turned to Cerullo to pitch. Campanalonga went to first, and Jedrusiak went from first to third. And Cerullo needed only 14 pitches in the inning to end the 11th in 1-2-3 order.
And the alarm finally stopped. Yaaaaaay!! Then less than a minute later – "Hoooooonk ... hoooooooonk .... hoooooooonk ... hoooooonk ... "
By this time, everyone was agitated by that damn car alarm horn. Finally, the frustrated Lakewood PA announces in between innings, "If the car alarm is not turned off, the game will be stopped."
You never saw one side of a field's fans react in absolute horror the way East American's did. A couple of parents shrugged their shoulders in disbelief over what was happening and yelled back up to the press box, "It's not us!"
Thankfully, moments later, someone with the knowledge of car alarms finally found the old man whose car alarm that made all that noise and fixed it the rest of the night. Never had the sound of fans cheering for their kids been so beautiful before.
As Hardie was warming up, an exhausted Karkovice came out of his dugout to head back to the third base coaching box, practically wearing out a path the whole evening. Not only was this game running late at just before 11 p.m., but he had to be at work in an hour since he was working an overnight shift.
He looked up to us in the press box and said, "Call my work place. I'm going to be a little late."
He wasn't the only person concerned. I had a 12:30 deadline, but still had a 25-minute trip back from Lakewood to the Observer building. I had brought with me the company's handy Tandy-180 machine to write the story and send them through a pay phone via couplers.
I sure hope this one would end soon and with an outcome. Remember, no inning was to go beyond 11:30. That was it. So I figured we had two good innings left in this one.
The bottom of the 11th wasn't looking so good. Jedrusiak returned to the plate and struck out. Dandorph flied out to Miller for the second out, bringing the top of the lineup back up.
Frazier, who was 0-for-4 with two walks against two Toms River pitchers, was hit by Hardie on a 2-2 pitch, the fourth East American hitter plunked on the evening. And with a speedy Frazier on base, that meant Karkovice could give him green lights brighter than any that shined on a traffic light in Lakewood. He stole second on the first pitch to Gaynor. Then a wild pitch put him at third. Just like that, the winning run was on base.
Now it was up to Gaynor. The count got to 2-2. Hardie came in with his 97th pitch in relief of Gianoulis. It was a fastball that jammed the handle of Gaynor's bat. Gaynor put a swing on it and somehow managed to put the ball just over Martin's head and into left field.
Frazier scored. The 4-hour, 4-minute marathon was complete. Through comebacks, near rallies, actual rallies, complaining neighbors and an annoying car horn, East American had won a pretty impressive game, 4-3, to see another day in the tournament.
I rushed downstairs to interview Karkovice and Gaynor. It was 11:15 p.m. I knew I wasn't going to be heading back to work, so off to a Howell-based dinner not too far from the field I went. I banged out my story in about 35 minutes to Al, my boss, through the couplers. The night was over and I got home sometime after 12:45 that morning.
And all it meant was that I had another Toms River-Toms River East American final to cover that next night back at Lakewood. But Frazier was in control of this one, allowing one earned run on six hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in 112 pitches (yeah, that wouldn't happen either in 2015) as East American won the district title with a much more normal 5-3 win in far less time.
These East American kids grew from that victory. They cruised from there to a Section 3 title and then a state championship at the South Vineland complex on July 31. From there, East American didn't let up and once again, won the East Regional championship, sending the team onto Taylor, Mich., for the Junior Little League World Series. Sadly, it fell apart once the team got to Michigan as it lost to two foreign teams in the event.
That team was just as much fun as it was in '95 – and a little more mature. Unfortunately for this Windsor Avenue Gang, two state championships as Senior League All-Stars in 1997 and '98 ended badly in the Eastern Regional Tournament.
Still, that game in the first District 18 championship is the game I will remember about that team.
Not just the fact they fought from behind, but the fact all these distractions seemed to get in the way and they still managed to focus and win.
Thankfully, I can report I haven't encountered a screwier Little League game quite like that since then.