Inseparable: Little League, Toms River
The town from New Jersey is back where it believes it belongs: in Williamsport
Walking across a parking lot in Toms River, N.J., a couple of years ago, a baseball player named Pauly Schifilliti heard a familiar voice calling out to him from several parking spaces away. Seeing the father of a friend approaching, Pauly stopped to chat.
"Hey!" the man said, drawing closer. "You gonna get that trophy for us this year? We've been waiting, y'know."
Schifilliti wasn't sure how to answer. For one thing, his team's offense had been a little up and down lately. For another, the pitching had been wildly unpredictable, and you've got to have the arms if you're going to make a serious run at a title.
And then, of course, there was this: Pauly was only 12 years old.
It's a little bit different in Toms River. It's a little bit more pressurized. Success is a little bit more expected. It's a tad less shocking when the local Little League All-Stars make a deep run into the district, section, state or regional championships.
And when manager Paul Deceglie's Toms River National team takes the field Saturday (11 a.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN3) at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa., it will be in some ways the mere continuation of a tradition. Because while Toms River is a town that could be known for any number of things, many people in the area have come to believe that it should be regarded for one thing alone: winning at Little League.
What that creates is occasionally a masterpiece, as Deceglie's team this year has been, and just as often a roiling emotional mess. Because if there's one thing you can be sure of in Little League, it is that 11- to 13-year-olds are not the collective picture of predictability.
"All the time, I have guys around town tell me that I screwed things up forever," Mike Gaynor once told me with a smile. I was researching a book, "Six Good Innings," about the unique pressure that is brought to bear on Toms River's kids in the wake of their breakout Little League success. Gaynor, however unintentionally, was one of the primary creators of that dynamic.
The father of baseball-loving boys, Gaynor got involved in the Toms River East Little League, one of two such leagues in town, in the early 1990s. In 1995, he caught lightning in a bottle and set the town on its ear by coaching the East All-Stars to the World Series in Williamsport.
LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES
Follow the Little League World Series on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3 and ABC beginning on Friday and continuing through the championship game on Aug. 29. Watch Toms River's first game against Hamilton, Ohio, on ESPN3 on Saturday at 11 a.m. here.
Just three years later, Gaynor, by then coaching his younger son Casey, took another team to the World Series -- and this time Toms River won it all, defeating an entry from Japan 12-9 to take home the championship trophy. Gaynor's team made the Series again in '99, a staggering run of three Williamsport trips in five years. By then, Toms River, as a town, had developed pride of ownership.
As the mayor explained later, "Thanks to baseball, people in foreign countries have heard of Toms River," and that became an important thing. Mike Gaynor, perhaps unique among the people of the town, was in a position to realize what a beautiful fluke had occurred: solid players and consistent coaching, certainly, but also a series of perfect breaks and a couple of strategic decisions that went exactly right. Still, at some point the "how" mattered less than the "what." Toms River was a baseball town and Little League was its specialty. That was that. For better or worse.
What you see there today is not, on its face, radically different from any other place in America where Little League is played. Toms River continues to field two Little Leagues. Deceglie's team this year is the first from Toms River Little League (as opposed to Gaynor's Toms River "East" teams) ever to advance on Williamsport.
But Toms River is different in some subtle but important ways. Just about every young person with any athletic ability is steered into baseball. The town, with a population of 90,000 and three high schools, has produced some tremendous football teams over the years, and its school sports programs are known for being generally competitive across the board. But if you're an athlete in Toms River, you're going to play baseball first and almost everything else second.
And you're always going to know about the past.
"Just growing up around here, you hear it all the time," said Charlie Frazier, whose brother, Todd, was on the title-winning team of 1998. Todd Frazier is one of Toms River's most famous baseball exports, having been drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2007.
"I'm happy that these kids work this hard and want it so bad, but some of them don't realize that it's a whole team thing," said Charlie Frazier, who after a stellar career as a player in Toms River returned as a high-school assistant coach. "You've got to have the right caliber people, the right pitching -- you have to have all kinds of power to do it."
The ensuing decade, after Gaynor's teams had their breakout success, attest to that. When I met John Puleo in the summer of 2007, he was the coach of a Toms River Little League team that had enjoyed a great run the year before -- but as 11-year-olds, not 12s. It is the 12-year-olds who can advance to Williamsport. And until this summer, Toms River was in a 10-year drought.
"You're never going to forget for a minute that people are pulling for the World Series," Puleo said. "It's on signs all over town. The main road is Little League World Champions Boulevard. And every group of kids grows up thinking that they could be the next ones to get there."
Deceglie's group this year is the one. Toms River is averaging 12 runs per game and has already played 10 elimination games at the various levels without losing. They've got stars such as good-glove shortstop Patrick Marinaccio and slugger Kevin Blum, who at one point hit home runs in six consecutive at-bats. And they've got a chance at glory, of a kind that kids in so many other Little League towns could never understand.
It's different in Toms River.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.