Parting moments in LLWS last a lifetime
Those who aren't moving on take away memories nonetheless
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- For coach Bill Abeles Jr. and his boys from Hagerstown, Md., the Little League World Series ended for them in a spirited win on Tuesday night over a team that advanced to the semifinal round, which begins Wednesday.
Minutes after their last game, they sat in a conference room in the belly of Lamade Stadium and reflected on the merry-go round their lives rode the past month.
They would not leave here as champions this season, likely the only season in their lives they'd be here.
But as sad as going home might have been, the four boys that Abeles brought to the postgame interview wore smiles. Even Abeles, who had played in Hagerstown Federal Little League during its doormat years in the long-ago '70s when the program had no hope of reaching Williamsport, smiled.
"I'm reliving my childhood, I admit," he said. "Whether it's the parade on Opening Day or whether it's just watching these guys go toe-to-toe with a top-four team in the country. ... Every bit of this experience has been super for me. I wish I could put a uniform on."
The experience in Williamsport is about the boys and girls who love baseball, not about coaches like Abeles. They come here guaranteed three games, and if they're lucky enough or their team's good enough, they can squeeze more out of it.
At the end of the Series, one team -- only one team -- can claim the championship. The rest will leave tagged, wrongly, as losers. They will shed tears, but they will return home having had an experience that few boys and girls ever achieve:
They made it to Williamsport.
Regardless of the result, they'll come away with lessons learned. Not all the lessons are about baseball, said James Durley, coach of the team from Saudi Arabia.
Durley brought his band of ballplayers here for the second time in three years. They came here to play in a baseball tournament; they are leaving with lessons that go beyond the playing field and the game itself.
They learned toughness in the face of adversity, Durley said.
"You're always going to have to go through some adversity," he said after his boys had played their final game. "But it's how you deal with adversity that's going to make you more successful as a person. Whatever it may be -- competitive sports, marriage and life in general -- that's what I'm trying to teach 'em about being a tough individual."
He felt their disappointment. He couldn't mask it as he talked about what their expectations were after the multi-nation trek that ended here. It was not an easy journey, even if the time it took had been measured in hours, not days.
Theirs was not a trip from Southern Indiana like the boys on coach Derek Ellis' team from Jeffersonville, the Great Lakes champ. Yet Ellis and his boys had no easy road here either, despite a relatively short voyage.
"Those 11 kids have worked so hard since they were 10 years old," said Ellis, whose son Drew was one of the players. "It's a dream come true. It's a feeling and a memory that I will never, ever forget."
The Little League World Series leaves coaches and players alike with unforgettable memories, Ellis said after Jeffersonville was eliminated in pool play. The pain of going home now, however, might sting.
"There were only a couple of tears," he said.
Talk all you want about the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory, sports clichés in this age. But coaches like Ellis or Durley seemed less concerned about winning and losing than exposing boys to defining moments in their lives.
And the boys who have played their final games at Lamade Stadium or Volunteer Stadium are leaving with moments that will define them, Rapid City, S.D., coach Doug Simon said after his team's final World Series game.
"First time South Dakota's ever made it," Simon said. "You see it on TV, and you know it's so big. But once you get here, it's bigger than you imagined."
He and his ballplayers have been on the road for more than three weeks. They settled in here last week, and they've been playing baseball, and forging friendships with boys from as near as Mill Creek, Wash., and as far away as Tokyo, trading tall tales and building memories.
They will take those memories, bittersweet as parts of those memories must be, wherever they go in life.
They'll always remember that they played on one of the greatest fields in the whole world. To these real boys of summer, the emerald cathedral that is Lamade Stadium is their Fenway Park, their Wrigley Field, their Yankee Stadium or whatever other hallowed yard that Major League Baseball uses.
None of these boys might get to the Majors in life after Williamsport. So few boys who take the field here ever do. Yet that can't matter in the summer of '08 to a 12-year-old. His future can sort itself out later. The present is what occupies his mind. And how handsome is that present in the full glow of the Little League World Series?
"It's a great experience," said left-hander Andrew Yacyk, who pitched Abeles' team to a last-game win.
His teammates Ryan Byard and Zane Schreiber said as much, too. They echoed Yacyk's word "experience," as it had been spoken in the Grand Canyon. The word served as the watchword for the eight coaches and the players on the eight teams that had played their last game at Lamade Stadium.
Their Little League dreams ended. They are going home in defeat but not defeated.
They'll also take their memories with them. Williamsport and the summer of '08 will always be on their minds.
"It has been a blast," Durley said.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.