Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Mark Kriedler's new book "Six Good Innings: How One Small Town Became a Little League Giant", copyright 2008 by Mark Kreidler. HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
It was all there in the sound. Chris didn't need to look. Every Little League kid who could hit his weight knew what the different bats sounded like when they met a baseball just so, and this one had an unmistakable tone and quality to it. It was impossible to confuse with anything else, this kind of weird thunk; a wood bat wouldn't in a million years produce that sound, and ordinary metal or aluminum models don't quite replicate it, tending more toward a resounding, echoing ping that can be heard all over a baseball complex. No, this was the noise -- really, the just-barely-a-noise -- that only a top of the line, composite material bat could create, and only when a pitch had been hit dead solid perfect. In this case, a two-hundred-dollar DeMarini F3 had been swung to a square meeting with a Little League-approved, five-ounce, three-dollar baseball, and what came out, sonically, was that thunk. It was a sound thickened and flattened by the swampy Jersey Shore humidity, and it indicated serious travel. The ball was going places.
And standing there, taking in the moment, Chris Gulla didn't have to ask. It wasn't his first home run, after all. He had smacked his share as a hitter, and he had given up a few as a pitcher, and in Toms River that was just the way of life by age 12. It came with being great and competing against the best. As a hitter, you needed to be able to drive a ball at least 200 feet on command if you had the slightest design on inclusion among the elite. Chris, his face freckled and cherubic but his body already growth-spurting its way toward a looming adolescence, was getting there. He was strong enough to belt a home run off any pitcher's gaffe -- he'd already done it once today -- and, on the mound, he was a good enough pitcher, when healthy, to avoid such a fate most of the time. He was in every important respect an All-Star, which is to say he was a small god. More than that, he was a returning All-Star, a once-triumphant 11-year-old now turned 12, part of a Toms River tradition that featured some of the most audacious winning in the history of the sport. He lived in a place where athletic excellence by sixth grade wasn't so much demanded as simply assumed, and both baseball smarts and outsized ambition were a given.
And just this instant, to be completely specific, Chris was part of a team that had already decided on its final destination in the summer of 2007: Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Anything short of a place there at the Little League World Series, an event that Toms River had by then come to claim almost as a birthright, would go down on the books as failure. Chris's teammates wanted it all. They were going to bring the glory back to the town, back to the place that had first captured it more than a decade ago, and they knew they could do it. Given what they had accomplished just one summer before, it was an easy conclusion to reach. They were gifted and experienced. They could hit home runs to win games. They could beat teams with their smarts, and with their uncanny ability to avoid the kinds of pitfalls that routinely doomed other rosters. They could play so well, so composed, that they seemed older than they actually were. They were winners.
"There is," one player said, "no such thing as losing here."
History said so. Thunk after thunk after thunk.
So Chris knew the sound, and he knew right away that the impact could be major. His pulse quickened at the thought that the ball was going out. Home runs were the lifeblood of the great All-Star teams; if homers weren't a common occurrence by now in your games over at Toms River Little League's sprawling, eight-field, million-dollar complex along Mapletree Road, something was dreadfully wrong. And the first indication that a ball was gone, before anyone really saw it jump off the bat or tried to figure the trajectory, was usually in the sound. The sound pronounced a winner.
John Puleo heard it. For the better part of two summers, John had been guiding this group of kids to a specific point, and he now realized that a decisive moment was upon them. He was 48 years old, the brother of a former Major Leaguer, the father of one of the best players on the Toms River team. He was a coach whose relentlessly upbeat approach and almost slavish dedication to the routines and extremes of practice had delivered Toms River both district and section championships in 2006, and had set the level of expectation for these boys as 12-year-olds. It is only when you're 12 that the Little League World Series becomes more than a theoretical possibility, becomes a thing that can actually be attained. When you're 12, you can go to the Show. And when you are 12 in Toms River, it is more than a mere delicious thought. Toms River knows first-hand that Williamsport can be both a dream and a reality.
To be sure, John Puleo had bought into the dream right alongside the kids. He had seen everything from 2006, seen what this team was capable of and the ways the boys seemed constantly to cheat defeat and move on. He had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the '06 group didn't fall apart, keeping it together and practicing through the coldest winter months, with a sense of purpose and some respect for its forebears. The team would be together at least long enough for this push toward the World Series, the chance to join the other legendary rosters from the town -- the ones who had gone to Williamsport and shined so brightly. It had happened here before, to local kids who became national heroes. Their names -- Todd Frazier, Casey Gaynor, Scott Fisher and all the others -- were painted onto signs that hung on walls and above baseball buildings in town. John's players wanted their names on the wall, and so John wanted it -- for his players, for his Little League, for his son and himself, all of it. There was no pretending otherwise. Around the Shore, you never played coy when it came to baseball. You went for it.
And they were all aware of that, by July of 2007. By then, after all they had been through together, the Toms River kids were dialed in to everything that was going on, right down to the moment of the pitch and the swing of the bat. They were keeping track of everything, filtering all of it through the context of their hopes. By the time of this particular moment, almost all of them had formed their opinions about Coach John's game strategies, debating silently and among themselves whether the coach had the right idea about how to attack this particular opponent. It didn't matter now. The game was already on. The thing was in play.
It was in play, and they all heard that sound, the thunk. Most of them looked up, knowing the ball was jumping off the bat. Chris Gulla reflexively reached with his left hand to feel his sore right arm. Out in the bleachers beyond right-center field, Diane Puleo, John's wife, saw the path of the ball and quietly closed the cell phone with which she had been trying to call her husband on the field. From the dugout, John walked fully into the haze and squinted straight up into a tremendously bright sun, trying to track the flight of the hit. It was a great, high sky. The heat was radiating, almost pulsing through the humid air; you could soak your shirt just standing there. All in all, baseball players would call it great hitting weather.
So it was. The ball went up there, taking off like a bottle rocket. It almost lacked an arc, it had been hit so hard. Chris was right about one thing: You didn't need to look. It was a little bit beautiful, really. And John Puleo squinted up, and he considered everything, and he wondered what magnitude of mistake he'd just made, and whether his team would survive it.
Mark Kreidler's first book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.