As kids, we reenact sports dreams that can’t possibly come to fruition.
You know, it’s the World Series and you’re on the mound in front of 40,000 cheering fans facing two outs and need just one more strike to get the win. Or you’re at the plate in the big game and you put a moonshot over the left field wall.
Well, on August 29, 1998 those dreams and so much more actually became a reality that I’m still living to this day.
The night before facing Japan in the Little League World Series, 17 years go, I was staying up late with my teammates from the Toms River East American Little League team. There we were, goofy kids from a relatively unknown town in New Jersey, about to play in front of 40,000 people the next day, in a game that would be broadcast internationally. We kept pinching ourselves. “Hey, we’re playing for the World Championship tomorrow!”
When the matchup was set, we didn’t know anything about the team we were going up against. However, what we learned from watching their practice was that these guys operated with military precision. If anyone messed up, it was an automatic lap. And the coaches never had to repeat themselves. It was amazing to see that kind of discipline in 12-year-old kids. We, on the other hand … we were skilled, but we looked like the Bad News Bears. It was hilarious.
Still, our confidence was never shaken. At that age, and with our personalities, we couldn’t really get a full grasp on what it meant to play for our country. Yes, we wanted to win, but honestly, we were just kids out there playing the game we loved. Between the baselines, it was just the game of baseball and that was all that mattered. Outside of those baselines, it was nuts. Batting practice, which previously was only attended by coaches and some parents, now featured thousands of peering eyeballs. During our downtime we’d get swarmed by eager fans wishing us luck. We were pumped.
After a night of virtually no sleep, the longest hours of my young life were over. It was time to play. One memory that always sticks out in my head is seeing two of my uncles who came to watch me sitting in Japan’s fan section. For whatever reason my uncles, Pete and Zunk, had tickets on that side of the stands. But the Japanese fans welcomed them with arms wide open. They gave my uncles big hugs and even encouraged them to participate in chants. I remember seeing them from the field and realizing how much fun the crowd was having. There wasn’t any of the hostility or arguments you see in some youth sports. It was just a fun game — whoever came out victorious deserved to win.
As the leadoff hitter with power, it was my job to get the team going. The count was 1-1 when a 61 mph fastball came over the plate — keep in mind this is Little League, guys. I made solid contact and grooved the ball right over the left field wall. Home run. As I rounded the bases and went back to the dugout, I felt a sense of relief and a new energy in our team. We thought, You know what, they’re great, but they’re just another team like us. We deserve to be here and can win.
Once we scored that run, all bets were off — the final box score would tell the whole story. Twenty-one runs were scored in what would become the third-highest scoring game in Little League World Series championship history. Eleven home runs were hit. Japan’s number three (Tetsuya Furukawa) and number four (Tatsuya Sugata) hitters combined for five of those home runs. I also pitched. By the time I took the mound in the fifth inning, 16 runs were on the board and the game was tied 8-8.
Tesuya Furukawa got a single off me and I breathed a sigh of relief because literally everything he got contact on previous to that went over the fence. In the sixth inning, we held a 12-9 lead with two outs and a runner on second. The game-tying run was on deck. I was working a 2-2 count when I threw a curveball that dropped out of the zone and hit the plate — the batter swung and missed.
I remember leaping for joy off the mound and my teammates swarming me in a doggy pile. The moments after that were just a blur. Between the media, teammates and families on the field, it felt like you had a thousand people crammed into a space the size of a bedroom.
Several days later, our team was honored at a Yankees game and I was there standing next to Derek Jeter during the national anthem. It was surreal. The funny thing is, about a decade later, I would run into Derek again. This time we were at the same minor league facility in Florida.
I said, “Hey man, you remember that Little League World Series, when we came on the field together?” He stopped me, “Don’t even say it …” and I continued, “Yeah, I was that little kid.” We’d have another interaction several years later at the 2014 All-Star Game, which happened to be my first — and his last — All-Star appearance.
Those are the stories you eventually tell your kids about. The time you went 4-4 with a homer and won a Little League World Series championship game which led to meeting — and eventually playing with — one of the greatest shortstops of all time.
August 29, 1998 truly was the first day of the rest of my baseball life. I played in front of tens of thousands of people — a regular occurrence now. I also learned the fundamentals of the game, experienced true team camaraderie and developed the ability to make clutch plays, a lot of it thanks to my time spent playing in the Little League World Series. Now I want to give back. With the help of Major League Baseball and the support of the mayors of 125 cities through its Play Ball Month this August, I encourage every kid to participate in some kind of baseball activity. You never know where the love of the game may take you.
My advice for the kids now in the position I found myself in 17 years ago is simple: Enjoy the moment. There are times when you’ll fail in this game. One of the biggest lessons I learned was to accept failure — because in baseball you actually fail more than you succeed. No one bats above .500 in a season. It’s the only sport where failure is the norm — that’s why baseball is the hardest sport in the world.
That being said, stay focused, remain hungry and have fun. This could be the last year you play organized baseball, or you could find yourself playing for the next few decades. Either way, playing in this amazing tournament will give you gifts for life.