It was clear before the ball had reached the top of its arc that it didn't have enough juice to carry over the fence, and the crowd, nearly 40,000 strong, began to cheer in disbelief. Many of them were already on their feet. The others rose to join them as the sunlit ball descended, sharply defined against the evergreen backdrop of the hillside opposite the stadium. As leftfielder Dan McGrath backed up on the warning track and settled under the ball, the players in the dugout edged on to the field, squeezing one another's arms. McGrath closed his glove, the ball disappeared, and the crowd erupted.
McGrath leapt. All the players leapt, in that ungainly way that kids jump around in excitement, skipping and falling and tackling one another as they ran toward the pitcher's mound to throw themselves on a junk-balling 12-year-old named Chris Drury. Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., had become a field of dreams for 14 youngsters from Trumbull, Conn., the newly crowned Little League champions of the world.
Until this year Trumbull had not had a Little League team advance beyond the first round of its state tournament in a decade. By defeating the team from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 5-2 last Saturday, Trumbull became the first U.S. team in six years to win the Little League World Series, in the organization's 50th-anniversary year.
Few observers of the eight-team tournament thought that Trumbull (pop. 33,000) had a prayer against the formidable Taiwanese, who, going into the finals, had outscored their opponents 74-5 over their past eight games—six in the regional and two at Williamsport. Teams from the Far East have dominated the event, winning 18 of the last 22 Little League titles. Of those, Taiwan teams had won 13, demolishing their U.S. opponents in the past three championship games by a combined score of 43-1. The only question seemed to be whether Trumbull could hold Kaohsiung below double figures.
Trumbull relished the role of underdog. It had been 14 years since a team from the Eastern Region reached the championship game. New England weather being what it is, the Trumbull players did not start practice until the middle of April—at least two months after the teams from Florida and California began workouts, not to mention Taiwan's kids, who play baseball all year long. The Trumbull players openly pooh-poohed their chances. But, said Ken Paul, whose son, Andy, homered in Trumbull's 4-3 opening-round victory over Davenport, Iowa, "They're lying when they tell you they didn't come here expecting to win. After blowing everyone out in the regionals, this team was quietly confident."
In the semifinals Trumbull faced the Eastview Little League of San Pedro. Calif., whose cleanup hitter was a girl named Victoria Brucker. (It was a good year for women at Williamsport: Betty Speziale of Dunkirk, N.Y., became the first woman to umpire in the Little League World Series.) Victoria, who is only the second girl to play in the Little League World Series—and the first from a U.S. team—became the first girl to start a game, to pitch, to get a hit and to score a run. But she went 0 for 3 against Andy Paul, Trumbull's starter.
He may have had Victoria's number, but Andy struggled otherwise, giving up three home runs out of the first six San Pedro batters he faced. All the dingers came off fastballs, supposedly his best pitch. "Andy had thrown his fastball by everyone until he got here," said Trumbull manager Tom Galla. "I called time and told him that three quarters of his pitches the rest of the way had to be junk. He had never pitched that way before, but he shifted gears right there in front of 20,000 people, and it turned the whole game around."
Andy held San Pedro scoreless the rest of the way, while his teammates scratched together six runs in the first three innings on five walks, a hit batsman, five errors, a wild pitch and only one hit. Trumbull won 6-3.
Under Little League rules, no player can pitch in consecutive games, and Trumbull got a break when Kaohsiung started its ace lefthander, Hsu Ming-Lan, against Maracaibo, Venezuela, in the other semifinal. Ming-Lan threw a three-hitter in a 13-0 rout for Taiwan. When asked why he had not saved Ming-Lan for the championship game, Kaohsiung manager Wu Chin-Ming replied through an interpreter. "We went with our best today because we believe Latin America is the next-best team in the tournament."
Wu had not anticipated running into Chris Drury, who has the athletic versatility of Bo Jackson contained within a body that bears a resemblance to a miniature Rick Reuschel. What kind of a year has 1989 been for Chris? He missed his team's first two practices in April because his Bridgeport, Conn., ice hockey team was in the midst of winning the national Pee Wee tournament in Chicago. His brother, Ted, a second-round draft choice of the Stanley Cup-winning Calgary Flames, is delaying turning pro to attend Harvard.
Said Galla, "Chris is a gamer. He can throw heat and then throw junk. The way those Taiwanese kids hit fastballs. you've got to throw junk to win."
Kaohsiung jumped on Chris for a run in the first inning when leftfielder McGrath misjudged a deep, two-out drive. It was the only miscue of the game for Trumbull, which would finish the tournament with only three errors. Dan atoned by squelching a fifth-inning Kaohsiung rally, throwing a runner out at the plate from the warning track—a one-hop toss to catcher Cody Lee that traveled 200 feet.
Urged on by chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Trumbull took the measure of submarine-style pitcher Lee Chien-Chih the second time through the order. "It was easy," said second baseman Dave Galla, the manager's son, who, like the rest of his teammates, had never before faced a submariner. "All you had to do was move up in the batter's box and hit the ball at the top of its arc."
Trumbull scored twice in the third on a two-out, two-run single by first baseman Ken Martin to take a 2-1 lead. In the fourth the U.S. kids got two more runs after loading the bases on a walk to Dan, a single by Dave and an error by third baseman Wang Kun-Yao. Obviously a George Steinbrenner disciple, Wu immediately yanked Kun-Yao from the game. This show of sportsmanship was rewarded by a two-out bloop single to left by Chris—he went 4 for 7 in the tournament, with three RBIs—that drove in the third and fourth runs. Trumbull scored once more in the fifth on a solo homer by Ken Martin. "Fireworks were going off in my head," said Ken of his trot around the bases.
"That's when we knew we could do it," said Chris, whose assortment of pitches and deliveries kept the Kaohsiung players off-balance. He walked the leadoff batter in the sixth, the final inning in Little League play, but retired the next three hitters, with the game ending on that catch near the wall. When asked which felt better, winning the national championship in hockey or the Little League World Series, Chris, as usual, mixed it up, opting for variety.
"In the winter I like hockey; in the summer I like baseball," he said. "But this is a bigger deal, you know? Baseball's, like, our national pastime."