He story of how Toms River, N.J., won the Little League World Series last Saturday could serve as a parable about the kid at the end of the bench, the one with the clean uniform and the heavy heart who sits in silence wondering why he signed up for the team in the first place.
Just a couple of weeks before Toms River's championship game against Kashima, Japan, in Williamsport, Pa., 12-year-old outfielder Chris Cardone, who was homesick and upset about his limited role on the team, spent a lot of time on the phone begging his parents, Bill and Lucy, to let him come home early. Bill encouraged his son to gut it out. Lucy suggested that he start writing a journal to help with his loneliness and disappointment. Nothing, however, made Chris feel better until news came on Aug. 22 that he had been chosen to recite the Little League pledge before the final game. "I'll hang in there," he told his folks after learning of the honor. "I can do it."
"We tried to hang everything on the pledge," says Bill, an elementary school principal. "We thought, O.K., so he gets to say the pledge and anything else would be gravy. We were already crying our eyes out after he made it through the pledge. We had no idea what was about to happen."
The sportsmanship pledge that kept Cardone in town is also the reason he got to play in the biggest game of his life. In the spirit of Little League, every kid plays in every game. So in the top of the fifth, with Toms River leading 7-4, manager Mike Gaynor inserted Cardone into the lineup. In his first at bat Cardone, who had hit only one homer this season and was 1 for 10 in the tournament's first four games, leaned into a pitch with all his 98 pounds and smacked it over the rightfield fence. Then, in Toms River's final at bat, Cardone poked a two-run homer to give the U.S. the lead for good, 10-8. New Jersey went on to win 12-9, becoming only the fourth American team to win the World Series in the past 15 years. "This must be the ultimate Little League moment," said Lucy Cardone, a school teacher. "My son is a bench player, but we kept telling him, 'Sit tight, your chance will come.' What an inspiration this is for every kid who is just sitting there waiting and all he needs is one chance to do something that might change his life."
In the Toms River dugout Cardone sat under the team's good-luck charm, a two-foot stuffed gorilla with white fur that pitcher Casey Gaynor won at a carnival game during the regional tournament in Bristol, Conn. You know the game—one ball, three cans and next to no chance of winning. But all summer this team had been making the impossible look easy. Gaynor, 11, the youngest player at Williamsport and the starting pitcher in the final, drilled those cans twice and picked up the stuffed gorilla, which came to be known as the Beast of the East.
"When we started, I didn't think we had anything special," said Mike Gaynor, Casey's dad. "These kids, though, just have a passion for the game. They were oblivious to the pressure."
No one epitomized the team's spirit more than Todd Frazier, a gifted athlete who is all braces, freckles and wide-eyed joy. He showed no fear as he pitched the final two innings against Japan to grab his second win of the series. He also batted .866 with four home runs in the tournament, including a leadoff dinger on Saturday and a grand slam in an 11-inning, 13-9 win over U.S. Central on Aug. 23, the longest game in Little League Series history. When Frazier, a 1997 Punt, Pass & Kick national champion, would bump into members of the Japanese team in the cafeteria, the kids from Kashima would yell, "Hello, Mr. Home Run Hitter!" He's sure to be a hit when the team visits The Rosie O'Donnell Show this week.
After the game Frazier led the team in a victory lap around Lamade Stadium and then pulled the Beast out of the dugout. Meanwhile, scattered around the infield were the players from the Far East, including Sayaka Tsushima, the first girl to play in the World Series final. In a heartbreaking scene, the Japanese players sniffed back tears as they scooped up handfuls of red clay from the infield to take back home. Nearby, Chris Cardone's parents cried tears of joy as they waited to talk to their son.
"Look at me, I'm still shaking and my legs feel like jelly," said Bill. "I'm a wreck. I'm just overwhelmed. If you're a parent, you know how I feel. All I know for sure is I'm standing here in Williamsport."
But really, where else could a sports story like this have taken place?