There are 900,000 children playing on 60,000 Little League teams in the Eastern Region, all with the hope of advancing to the coveted Little League World Series in Williamsport later this month.
But for these 10 days at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center, the focus is entirely centered on winning this round robin bracket, with the state champions from the New England and Mid-Atlantic regions competing.
While the ultimate goal is the same for every athlete in Bristol this week, the road to get there is very different. However, each team lives and plays by the same Little League Pledge:
"I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win, but win or lose, I will always do my best."
Hands down, the most valuable lesson that every single child will leave the Regional tournament with is that of teamwork, dedication, and perseverance. Coaches and managers preach it and the kids execute it both on and off the field. And they do a tremendous job.
The New England championship, to be played on Saturday evening, will be a battle of the two best teams to make it out of the six New England states. And while the long road to advance in any round is arduous, the storylines along the way are truly memorable.
There are the Bangor East Little Leaguers representing the state of Maine. They brought along their 4-year-old mascot, a stuffed panda named Harrison. They got Harrison at the zoo on a tournament trip to Washington, D.C. four years ago. Whenever the team gets down in a game, Harrison gets a rub or a kiss. In the offseason, he lives at the home of the twins on the team, Nick and Ryan Moore.
If you ask the Bangor coaches what they want their kids to take out of this experience, they wouldn't even mention the word "winning."
"We want the kids to have the memory of giving it their best shot," said the staff. "We want them to handle themselves with class both on and off the field, and do their best no matter what."
Much like the Bangor team, the Shelburne Little Leaguers from Vermont also have a mascot. Theirs is brand new, however. The team won a dog-shaped ball on their day off at Lake Compounce while playing a basketball shooting game. They named it Kevin Dee Blazer and he resides on the team’s water jug in the dugout. So far, Kevin Dee is 1-0, because Vermont won their first game on Tuesday in a must-win situation. If they didn’t before, do you think the team believes in superstitions now?
The Cumberland, Rhode Island kids have something pretty special going on. After a 15-5 win over Southborough on Tuesday, Rhody is the only undefeated team in the New England Regional at 4-0. Also of note, team second baseman Dante Baldelli is the younger brother of major league player Rocco Baldelli. When the entire team was asked individually on camera who their favorite big league player was, each one said "Rocco Baldelli."
Team unity is just one of the many reasons why the Rhode Island Little Leaguers from Cumberland are the team to beat.
Speaking of Southborough, Mass., these kids know a thing or two about acceptance and letting someone into your inner circle from the outside. Having been together on the same team since they were 9-years-old, one newcomer came along this year. At 5-foot-9 (and 3/4 — don’t forget the extra height because you’ll hear about it), Jack Harlan is a baseball stud. He moved from Heightstown, New Jersey and had to adapt to a new school and new friends. But Jack quickly fit in. Nicknamed "The Myth" because everyone had heard about this kid who was really good from New Jersey coming to their school, Jack and his teammates rode a 13-1 record into Bristol and hope to mirror what the 2009 Massachusetts champion (Peabody Western) accomplished last year, and advance to the Little League Baseball World Series.
Unlike Southborough, a group that knows a thing or two about being in Bristol is the Portsmouth Little League team from New Hampshire. In their seventh trip to the Eastern Regional, this year’s team has a motto of "have fun and play good baseball."
When their team is at bat, no player on the bench in the dugout can hold their glove because it looks like they’re ready to go onto the field, not score more runs. This is bad luck, and the Portsmouth team has total faith that many successful at-bats, good hitting, and depth in pitching will help them advance.
And last but not least, we find the Fairfield, Conn., team, whose favorite part about being in Bristol at the Little League complex is, you guessed it, the food. They tease each other and are an extremely vocal and confident bunch as they're making the town’s first trip to the Eastern Regional.
They’ve scored double digit figures in 11 of the team’s 15 games, so sending runners across the plate isn’t a problem. Neither is getting along, as these athletes have been together for four years and have built up an awful lot of good times together.
If it’s one thing these young 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds take from their experience, it has nothing to do with the wins or losses. After each game, all the teams go back to their dorms — often times neighboring the very team they just either lost to or defeated. They find that as long as you always do your best, as the Little League Pledge states, you will succeed.
And isn’t that the best lesson and story of them all?
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