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Smoke signaled hope to U.S. Little League fans. Taiwan, Japan and Korea had owned this tournament for two decades—16 of the last 20 Little League champions were Far East teams. "Now, for the first time in years, the American team has a real chance to win," ABC's Palmer told the TV audience, "and that chance rides with Aron Garcia." In addition to comparing Aron's arm to his own, Palmer compared the boy's hitting to Eddie Murray's. "He is a dominating player," Palmer said. Aron signed autographs—"Smoke #22"—and gave reporters big league quotes like, "I'm just happy to be here" and "I'll try to stay within myself." He seemed the very model of the cool California kid, but his dad saw signs of strain.
"Toward the end he started questioning himself," Bob says. "That's when I knew we had a problem. He'd never done that before. He said, 'Dad, I'm really nervous.' He couldn't sleep. He got the flu. The pressure got to him."
It had rained all week in Williamsport, but the day of the final was nothing but blue sky, balloons, red-white-and-blue bunting, TV cameras and celebs. The Phillie Phanatic threw to Irvine's catcher. Peter Ueberroth, who lives a long fly ball from Irvine, addressed the crowd. Former Little Leaguer Tom Seaver threw out the first ball. La Bamba rang from the public-address system. Palmer greeted 35,000 fans in the stands and "countless millions," as he said, watching at home.
Warming up with assistant coach Colbert, his pitching tutor, Aron was tense. "The warmups weren't too good," Colbert says. "There were too many people around. They kept reaching out, trying to touch him, yelling, 'You can do it!' and 'U-S-A!' I finally told them to leave him alone. 'These kids aren't playing for you,' I said. 'They're playing for themselves and their teammates and their families.' Colbert, 24 and single, thinks of Aron as family. "I don't have any kids yet, and I don't have any brothers, but Aron is like my brother. Before the game, I sat him down and said, 'Look, you've pitched great all year. We've won a lot of games, had some good times. If Taiwan happens to hit you, don't worry about it, because you are the best 12-year-old; pitcher in this country.' "
Aron's first pitch of the Little League World Series was a strike. He missed with a breaking ball, got strike two with another. Then Taiwan's Pang Yu-Long rapped a one-hopper off Irvine third baseman Loc Tran. The next hitter walked. Aron put his hand on his hip. "That means he's frustrated," Bob says.
Aron thought he had No. 3 hitter Wang Chih-Kwou smoked on an 0-2 fastball. Umpire Frank Rizzo disagreed. Aron put his hand on his hip.
"All through the tournament my biggest fear was that he'd get an umpire who didn't call the corners," says Bob. "That's what he got."
Wang walked. Aron's next pitch went to the backstop. A run scored. Aron shuffled his feet. "He's got that look on his face as if he's beaten already," ABC's Al Trautwig told TV viewers.
Aron wild-pitched another run home, and another. He had yet to allow a hit but was down 3-0.
The next batter doubled. The next singled. The next fried out, but centerfielder Geoff Ebdon threw the ball over catcher Jones's head. Aron retired the next two hitters. At the end of one, the score was 5-0.