A cavalcade of cars as buffed as models off a showroom floor stretched along Putting Green Lane in Trumbull, Conn., on a recent Sunday afternoon. The drivers of the cars, members of the 1989 Little League world-championship team, were busy in manager Tom Galla's backyard playing a game of home run derby with a Wiffle ball and a yellow plastic bat. Coach Bob Zullo parked his jalopy along the curb before joining the group, gathered for the team's fifth-year reunion. "It's embarrassing that these kids are driving better cars than me," Zullo cracked as he stuffed his keys in his pocket.
Five years ago, when they were simply Trumbull National, an all-star team made up of 15 boys who lived within five miles of one another in a small suburb just north of Bridgeport, they were shuttled to and from practices packed in the back of a slightly dented, sky-blue van. When they returned to Trumbull the day after upsetting Taiwan 5-2 in the final game of the Little League World Series on Aug. 26, 1989, in Williamsport, Pa., about 40,000 people, more than Trumbull's population, greeted the team's motorcade of 10 fire trucks, three ambulances, three police cars and two buses. The boys waved to the throngs of fans through the smoked windows of the buses.
They had finished ahead of 6,991 other teams from all over the world, and to commemorate the occasion, Ed Wheeler, coach and chauffeur, thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to what literally had brought them to that point. So with a silver marker the boys scripted their names in large, loopy letters on the side of the van.
Three years later the power steering and the brakes went, and the van was eventually laid to rest near the border of Wheeler's property. The neighbors, the Drurys, don't seem to mind, but to everybody else living on the cul-de-sac, the van is most likely just an eyesore. "To me," says Wheeler, "it's a memento."
Now the blue paint has faded like an old pair of jeans, and the streaks of silver are barely perceptible. The sticker that reads LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD CHAMPIONS is peeling off the back bumper. And the players? Five of them will be starting college in two weeks, although only one of those is even considering playing organized baseball next spring; the rest will be high school seniors. "It all seems like such a long time ago," says Dave Galla, Tom's son and the team's second baseman.
Shortly after the world series, the players tucked away the mementos in dresser drawers. "They all had to come to grips with the ambiguity of success," says Ken Paul, the father of Andy Paul, a star pitcher on the team. "For a while they didn't want to talk about the Little League championship. They were proud of it but embarrassed by all the attention." After playing in front of 40,000 people and a national TV audience, they were full-fledged celebrities. They were summoned to the White House to meet George Bush, they were flown to Oakland to throw out the first ball at the World Series, they were shuttled to New York and Boston to spend time with the Yankees, the Mets and the Red Sox. They received some 600 fan letters and seemingly as many requests for public appearances.
The parents met nearly once a week to sift through the stacks of invitations. The adults bickered at times, as Little League parents have been known to do. "Why is your son being interviewed on channel 8 and not mine?" is how it usually went. Even the coaches got caught up in it. Everyone wanted his share of the spotlight, except for the players, who would have preferred sleep over yet another appearance on a morning show and a swimming-pool party instead of yet another politician's proclamation.
Twelve is a difficult age, even without the added pressures of fame, increased expectations and jealous peers. "I just wanted to be one of the guys, and there were some kids who wouldn't let me," says Chris Drury, the winning pitcher in the championship game. That fall, when Drury walked down the hallway at school, some saluted him with a salaam and called him "god." And when the next baseball season started and the champs moved up to Babe Ruth ball, taunts of "This ain't Little League anymore" grew tiresome. Says Drury, "They were just jealous. Most guys would trade their right arm to have a chance to do what we did."
This year's version of Trumbull National had a chance to do just that. After winning the state Little League championship, the '94 edition came within five games of Williamsport before losing in the East regional on Saturday to a team from New Castle, Del. In the past five years Trumbull has won the district tournament four times. With success comes higher expectations and comparisons: "They take it too seriously now," says one Little League parent.
Members of the '89 team haven't lost their love for the game, but their own high expectations have been tempered. Although some have since chosen to concentrate on soccer, tennis or hockey, seven of the 11 members of the original Trumbull National team who are still in high school continue to play organized baseball. "We all thought we would play for the Yankees when we were 12, and then we started seeing the curveball," says Kenny Martin, the team's first baseman. That story is typical; in 55 years of Little League play, only 15 players from the pint-sized world series have made it to the bigs.