Life and Baseball after the Little League World SeriesPosted: Updated:
A year ago, eleven little leaguers from Maine-Endwell began a journey to Williamsport, PA and the Little League World Series. Two weeks later they returned home to the streets lined with people waiting to get a look at the Little League World Series Champions. Just making it to the Little League World Series, for many kids, would be the pinnacle of a sports career, but to win it? And do it from such a small town? Unimaginable.
So began a whirlwind end to the summer. Trips to Major League Baseball stadiums, NFL games, the World Trade Center, talk shows, and so many more. Too many, in fact, as many requests were turned down whether it was the time, distance, or the want to keep the kids grounded. But what a time for Maine, Endwell, Broome County, and all of Upstate New York.
It took some time, but the cameras and the attention have, mostly, gone away and those eleven now teenage boys are just that - teenage boys. Baseball still takes up most of their calendar this summer, and why shouldn't it?
Jayden Fanara, James Fellows, Joe Hopko, Mike Mancini, Brody Raleigh, and Conner Rush all played their summer ball for the Junior Legion team for Maine-Endwell Post 1700. Watching them play, unless you see a lineup card, you may not even realize that that team features Little League World Series Champs. All of them have grown in height and weight, and their voices are deeper than a year ago. The only indication of their past success if Rush's catchers gear. A uniform of M-E blue and gold, with the tools of ignorance in red and blue, the color of the Mid-Atlantic region, and a LLWS patch on the back of the straps.
"It just reminds you what our team can do and reminds me of that experience," Rush says, adding that he'll continue to wear the pads until he grows out of them.
Like all teenagers, once their Little League days are over, they move up to a regulation size field, 90 feet from home to first, 60'6" to the mound, and 300+ feet to the outfield fence. The first time you step on that field it's clear that the game has changed.
"The game's completely different," Fanara says. "The bases are longer. The mound is longer. The fences are way longer."
"Pitching, obviously you're farther back. Your fastball is not as fast. Your curveball is not as effective," says Mancini.
"Probably the throw from third to first. It's a lot further," Raleigh says. "But I've gotten used to it now."
"Last year I could just flick my wrist and it would go down to second," Rush says about throwing out runners from behind the plate. "This year you actually have to get your body into it."
"You actually have to connect with the ball and hit the ball instead of just poking it out of the stadium," Fanara adds
The game has changed and so has life. From the talk of the town, the state, and the country, back to ordinary kids... almost.
"The first couple of weeks everyone was talking about it. It definitely did die down a lot," Raleigh says
"It is brought up occassionally but it's not the biggest deal in our school anymore," says Fanara.
After several "once-in-a-lifetime" trips to Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, etc, you would think that being Little League World Series Champions would finally, at some point in the last year, sunk in. But there's still days where they wake up in the morning and it feels like it was all a dream.
"It hasn't sunk in really, but it's a big thing to not forget about," Fellows says.
"I don't think it's sunk in yet still," Hopko says. "But, I think we're starting to notice how big it was. We're looking at home many teams there was [sic] in the whole world, and we're starting to notice."
What has sunk in is what their success last August means for their baseball careers forever. Being Little League World Series Champs brings with it the pressure of "needing to win." They certainly don't put that pressure on themselves, but they hear it from the opposing dugout. Everybody wants to beat the Little League Champions.
"That's the best. You want that target on your back," Mancini says with a smile.
"That's what we want. We want to have to compete with people and we want to actually earn our win," Fanara says. "We don't want to beat teams 36-0."
"It's cool because they'll throw their ace, we'll see better pitching and it'll get us better," Fellows says.
"We've talked to these kids a lot," says Assistant Coach Joe Hopko. "'You're walking around with a target on your back, probably for the rest of your high school career.' They recognize that and they've done a good job of blocking that out and focusing on the game. At the end of the day, I think these kids would be just as happy playing out in a cornfield. They just love the game."
"We'd see one of two things," says Head Coach Scott Rush. "You'd see some teams or some kids that would really give it to them, razz them and say 'this isn't Little League anymore.' You'd also have teams that want to talk to them and say 'hey, what a cool experience.' I think they saw both throughout the summer. At the end of the day we told them to just go out and play. You're going to see that probably for as long as you play baseball, there's going to be some that look to get on you and see if they can rattle you, and others that want to hear about the experience. Just mentally, you have to handle it."
Sometimes, things go from friendly competitive trash talk to things that need addressing.
"There have been a few instances that we have, in the right way, reached across the field and said 'hey, you're better than that.' It's not really been a big deal for us," Joe Hopko says. "They want to show up and they're in the same spot that we are, they're just trying to be competitive in that game. It hasn't really been a big deal and I think the kids have been good at handling that."
Eventually their respective baseball careers will come to an end. For some that may come in college, for fewer at some level in the pros, but for most in high school. With the success of last season and all the attention it brought, added to the change in size of field and going from the biggest kids on a small field to the smallest kids on a big field, it would be very easy to get so frustrated to the point of giving up. All eleven of last year's champions continued to play this summer, because why give up on the game you love.
"It's still the same game," says Jack Hopko. "It's still playing the same baseball, no matter what field, what audience. Still the same game."
Fanara adds, "It's still baseball and we all love that and that's why we're playing it. We still enjoy it."