BRISTOL, CONN – The enormity of the accomplishment is hard to grasp.
Here it is: The Holbrook Little League All-Stars have earned a berth in the Little League Baseball World Series.
“I don’t know if the boys really fathom what is about to happen to them,” said manager Rob Grano, whose 20-1 team will meet Fairfield American (CT) at 3 p.m. Thursday in the first round of the United States Bracket at the Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, PA.
The team arrived in Williamsport on Sunday afternoon.
“Once they pull in and see the layout, I think it will hit them,” Grano said via telephone while en route to Williamsport from Bristol on the team’s bus Sunday afternoon. “They will say, ‘Wow. We are actually here.’ It’s like a dream come true. It’s a little bit of a shock for me and a joy for me. This is the Disney World of baseball and these kids love baseball. For them, this is the highest of highs and the biggest of achievements. The boys are talented. They have been thinking about this since they were seven years old.”
“In the Mid-Atlantic Region, there were 1,800 teams. It’s down to one in the region and it is us. It is still hard to believe.”
The size of the feat has not escaped Jim Osmond, a Holbrook assistant coach.
“It is unbelievable,” he said Sunday afternoon. “I don’t know if it has really sunk in yet.”
Holbrook, located in Jackson Township, took time to mesh, to hear Grano tell it.
“It took us a couple of weeks to bond and really get going,” he said. “Once we bonded, we seemed to become more consistent and get better and better. It took us either two or three weeks to start playing better baseball. It was always our goal to get here and we talked about it as coaches. When we lost Manchester (in the double elimination District 18 Tournament), this was the last thing we were thinking about. They played well in the game and we started off kind of slow.”
Best known for its power laden attack and high octane offense, Holbrook has also shown the ability to make the plays in the field.
Take Saturday night, for example, when it bested Maryland champion Thurmont 8-3 in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament championship game at the Leon J. Breen Field at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Complex in Bristol on ESPN.
Chris Cartnick, whose solo homer put Holbrook up 1-0 in the top of the first inning, ignited a pair of 6-4-3 double plays over the first two innings.
“We stress defense as a coaching staff because a lot of teams don’t stress it,” Grano said. “Hitting comes and goes. If you pitch and play defense at this level, you can beat anyone. We spend close to 90 minutes per practice on defense. Our outfield defense is some of the best you will ever see. Most of our players are interchangeable. Our boys practice at all of the positions all of the time.
“If I have to put a player somewhere, I am pretty confident he will make a play as it is not the first time he is been at that position. Our defense has really been paying off for us.”
Osmond said Holbrook has no weak players.
“I would say the depth of our team is why we are so successful,” he said. “From roster slots one through 13, every player on this team is a player who would be a starter for any other team. One of the hardest things is finding enough playing time for all of the boys as they all deserve to be out there on the field all of the time.
“Am I surprised we are here? I would not say I am surprised. I would say I am proud to see the boys continue to come through. We have known we have a very talented group. To go this far, you have to persevere through a lot of difficult times. You have to be lucky. You have to get breaks. And you have to work hard to achieve this type of success.”
Holbrook also has solid pitching. Lefty Tai Mann was the winner Saturday night, allowing two runs – both earned – in 3 2/3 innings. He needed just 26 pitches to make it through the first two innings. He slugged a two-run homer in the second, keying a six-run outburst that staked Holbrook to a 7-0 lead.
“Our kids don’t throw 75 miles per hour,” Grano said, “But they do throw change ups and curve balls and hit their spots. I am not yet sure who will start on the mound (Thursday). We have either five, six or seven kids we can run with. We will see how they feel. We will utilize either two or three pitchers per game. We will make sure we have enough pitchers available so that we are comfortable with whomever we put on the mound.”
Fairfield, the Connecticut state champion, secured its berth with a 10-0 thrashing of Maine on Saturday in Bristol to win the New England championship at the Leon J. Breen Field.
Fairfield, 18-0 in tournament play, erupted for four fourth-inning runs on two-run doubles by Sean O’Neil and Michael Iannazzo. Winner Ethan Righter pitched 4 1/3 innings, striking out nine, walking one and allowing four hits. Fairfield stroked 13 hits. Matthew Vivona stroked three hits in four at-bats.
Fairfield’s victory was sweet as its players and coaches were treated to free ice cream from Saugatuck Sweets.
“Many of these players are regular customers at our shop,” the ice cream and candy mecca announced on its Facebook page. “WIN FAIRFIELD AMERICAN WIN!!!!”
“Congrats to the #Fairfield American team, New England #LLWS champs,” Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy said on Twitter. “We’re cheering for you on your way to the @Little League World Series!”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tweeted, “Congratulations to Holbrook Little League of Jackson, NJ on their 8-3 win and Mid-Atlantic Regional championship. Now on to Williamsport!”
Holbrook and Fairfield are far from strangers.
They shared the bus to Williamsport. And Fairfield watched Holbrook down Thurmont.
“It’s pretty great,” Grano said. “We are real friendly with their guys. They supported us and we feel the two best teams made it to Williamsport. We rooted for each other. It’s the way it should be. The boys all speak to each other. Our boys posed with the Maryland kids for pictures after the game. Some of these kids are going to be something big someday.”
The game will be televised on ESPN.
Also in the United States bracket are regional and state championship teams from the Great Lakes, Midwest, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and West. The International Bracket contains teams from the Asia-Pacific, Australia, Canada, Caribbean, Europe-Africa, Japan, Latin America and Mexico. The Series will be played from August 17 to 27.
Osmond said a team must win all five games in the winner’s bracket to emerge as the world champion.
“If we wind up in the loser’s bracket, you have to win a lot of games as you have to battle your way through,” he said.
There will be several festivities, including a pre-Series parade through Williamsport on Wednesday and a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday at the 2,366-seat BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport.
The field is the home of the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Philadelphia Phillies’ short season Class A farm team which competes in the New York-Penn League. The game is known as the first Major League Baseball Little League Classic. The Pirates gave up a home game to play 200 miles away from their home stadium at the nation’s second-oldest minor-league ballpark.
“We might be able to warm up and meet the players before the game,” Grano said. “I want the kids to really enjoy the Series. We are there to win and we want to win, but I want them to enjoy the whole experience. Whether we go long and go short, we will be there for at least a week and play a minimum three games.”
Grano said Holbrook has begun a GoFundMe page on Facebook. For more information, go to the Holbrook Little League page.
“We are asking the public to donate money to help our families defray the cost of the trip,” he said. “This is a short notice vacation. It involves baby sitters and some rooms cost $200 per night. We were gone for seven days in Connecticut. Between both tournaments, it involves almost a month in rooms. These are hardworking, middle class people so it is not like the families budget for this. People will sell off their cars to make this trip.”
Holbrook and Fairfield traveled for five hours to Williamsport on a bus chartered by Little League Baseball.
“Our boys were in great spirits,” Grano said. “They watched a movie, Billy Madison, on the bus. There’s nothing like 12-year-olds. They are very, very excited.”
Holbrook also won the Mid-Atlantic Region as 10-year-olds and lost in the Northeast Regional title game.
“We have unfinished business,” Grano said. “We want to make up for that. We want to finish business. We have a good team and I want to see if we can compete and move on and get to that end goal. We take this as phases and seasons. Now, we are in phase five.”
Holbrook is the sixth team from Ocean County to make it to Williamsport.
“Let’s see how good we really are,” Grano said, “And let’s see if we can do something really special. Lakewood won it when I was a kid. It is possible. We have a chance. I definitely think we have a chance.”
Lakewood, led by the pitching and power hitting of Dion Lowe, won the national title in 1975 when foreign teams were banned from the Series. Toms River East American, paced by the all-around play of former Toms River High School South, Rutgers University, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox star Todd Frazier – now starting at third base for the New York Yankees, won the LLBWS in 1998.
“Let’s go Holbrook (Jackson NJ) Little League!” Lowe said on his Facebook page. “I love this tournament… unforgettable memories.”
Of Holbrook’s early lead, Lowe said on his page, “Nothing like taking away a team’s spirit so early in the game! I love following this every year.”
Jay Teitelbaum, who played in the outfield for Lakewood in 1975, said on his Facebook page in a reply to Lowe, “Dion, they look really good, good enough to have a chance for sure. It will be interesting to see how they stack up against the other teams now.”
Frazier tweeted, “Congrats Holbrook Litttle League. Proud of you guys. I need a shirt to rock before Thursday. Someone send an XL 2 stadium. #njsfinest #llws2017.”
Holbrook’s Cartnick has received hitting lessons from Frazier and his brothers, Jeff and Charles Frazier. Jeff Frazier starred at South and Rutgers and played for the Detroit Tigers. Charles excelled at South and played in the Florida Marlins’ minor league system. The Marlins are now the Miami Marlins.
“I used to hit with all of the Fraziers, Cartnick told the New York Post. “They got my swing to what it is now and my dad (Tom) added onto it. Sometimes it was Todd, but mostly it was Jeff and Charlie.”