The year was 1966 — the end of a typical Upstate New York early summer afternoon that was on the cusp of a cool evening, and I was about to get my very first at-bat in the Endwell Little League wearing the jersey of the Endwell Fire Department team.
Like most first-time hitters at 10 years old, my hands felt as if they were gushing Niagara Falls and my knees were knocking worse than if I were being shaken down for lunch money by the school bully.
My at-bat lasted just one pitch.
To say it was juuuuuuuust a bit inside would be like saying Natalie Grant is just a little attractive or Usain Bolt is just a little quick.
The opposing team’s pitcher was a 12-year-old who appeared to stand 7-foot, 2-inches tall. In my mind, at least, he was already shaving, held a job, was called “Big-Un” by his teammates and drove a nice car — probably a souped-up Chevy Nova.
As I shivered in the batter’s box like a snowman in January, this boy-man coiled up for a moment, then seemed to come apart as he unleashed a 257 mph missile — right at me. I didn’t see a white ball … I only saw blur. As I recall, his hand was about 3 feet from home plate when he let the ball go.
I remember twisting away and stepping back, but it was far too late. The ball hit me in the back of the helmet and I went down in a heap as the searing pain traveled down my neck.
I remember a few adults standing over me — probably the umpire, the catcher, my coach and my dad — but little else. There was ice involved and I was helped to the sidelines where I sat for the rest of the game — a game which we lost. Big. The boy-man pitcher struck out a bunch of my teammates — who were now deathy afraid of him — walked a few and hit one … me.
I recalled all of this as I was watching the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
I’ve watched every year since 1989, when I had the good fortune to meet Little League founder Carl Stotz and became his friend. That’s a whole other story for another time. But this year my interest was far greater, since the Endwell Little League was one of the eight U.S. teams competing.
At the start of the tournament, I was just happy to see Endwell’s youngsters there — but honestly had no expectations for them to win the U.S. championship, much less the World Series outright.
Boy, was I wrong — and I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
As the tournament progressed and Endwell knocked off Rhode Island, 7-2, and a really good Tennessee team, 3-1 (one that plays 12 miles from my daughter’s home near Nashville — and of course I had to rub it in a bit), the thoughts about a championship began to form.
Then came the semifinals against a Kentucky team that could spank the mess out the baseball. And they did just that against Endwell to the tune of 10 runs. But the bats in the hands of Endwell’s boys were up to the challenge as they plated 13 runs to earn a berth in the U.S. championship game — against Tennessee, which managed to navigate through the loser’s bracket for a rematch.
Now, I will admit, I’m not a fan of how this double-elimination tournament suddenly changes to a winner-take-all championship game. It meant that, if Endwell lost the second game against Tennessee, the New York team would go home with second-place medals.
That thought roamed through my mind for most of Saturday’s championship game, but went for naught as Endwell captured the U.S. title with a 4-2 win — giving me good reason to again send a nanner-nanner-naaaaaaner via text to my daughter. She responded with a “Booooo!”
The next day, the Endwell boys — which hadn’t lost all summer on the road to South Williamsport (23 games) — represented the U.S. side of the bracket against South Korea, the winner of the international title. Asian teams from places like Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea had enjoyed a lot of success over recent years, so the challenge was huge for the New York nine.
The game remained scoreless until the home half of the fourth when Endwell pushed across two runs, which only served to ramp up the stress. Would two runs be enough? Could they really win the World Series? Should I get up and get more wings?
A quiet fifth inning made my palms sweaty.
A one-out solo home run by South Korea in the sixth put my backside right at the edge of the couch.
A pop-up and strikeout sent me into a foolish-looking dance around the living room.
Once I was able to sit down again and put it all into perspective, I realized that Endwell’s championship run was far bigger than just the games. Though the competition and victories will be something those youngsters will never forget, they now have shared experiences and made friendships that won’t ever fade.
Along the way, the world came to know the names of youngsters from the small town of Endwell (population 11,500) in Upstate New York and some of the stories these boys brought with them. Names like Michael Mancini, Ryan Harlost, Conner Rush, Jude “The Stude” Abbadessa, James Fellows and others are now part of Little League Baseball history.
And back at home during Monday’s parade, the Endwell Little League was introduced by its new title —Little League World Champions.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.