A cavalcade of cars as buffed as models off a showroom floor stretched along Putting Green Lane in Trumbull, Conn., on a recent Sunday afternoon. The drivers of the cars, members of the 1989 Little League world-championship team, were busy in manager Tom Galla's backyard playing a game of home run derby with a Wiffle ball and a yellow plastic bat. Coach Bob Zullo parked his jalopy along the curb before joining the group, gathered for the team's fifth-year reunion. "It's embarrassing that these kids are driving better cars than me," Zullo cracked as he stuffed his keys in his pocket.
Five years ago, when they were simply Trumbull National, an all-star team made up of 15 boys who lived within five miles of one another in a small suburb just north of Bridgeport, they were shuttled to and from practices packed in the back of a slightly dented, sky-blue van. When they returned to Trumbull the day after upsetting Taiwan 5-2 in the final game of the Little League World Series on Aug. 26, 1989, in Williamsport, Pa., about 40,000 people, more than Trumbull's population, greeted the team's motorcade of 10 fire trucks, three ambulances, three police cars and two buses. The boys waved to the throngs of fans through the smoked windows of the buses.
They had finished ahead of 6,991 other teams from all over the world, and to commemorate the occasion, Ed Wheeler, coach and chauffeur, thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to what literally had brought them to that point. So with a silver marker the boys scripted their names in large, loopy letters on the side of the van.
Three years later the power steering and the brakes went, and the van was eventually laid to rest near the border of Wheeler's property. The neighbors, the Drurys, don't seem to mind, but to everybody else living on the cul-de-sac, the van is most likely just an eyesore. "To me," says Wheeler, "it's a memento."
August 21, 1994
Now the blue paint has faded like an old pair of jeans, and the streaks of silver are barely perceptible. The sticker that reads LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD CHAMPIONS is peeling off the back bumper. And the players? Five of them will be starting college in two weeks, although only one of those is even considering playing organized baseball next spring; the rest will be high school seniors. "It all seems like such a long time ago," says Dave Galla, Tom's son and the team's second baseman.
Shortly after the world series, the players tucked away the mementos in dresser drawers. "They all had to come to grips with the ambiguity of success," says Ken Paul, the father of Andy Paul, a star pitcher on the team. "For a while they didn't want to talk about the Little League championship. They were proud of it but embarrassed by all the attention." After playing in front of 40,000 people and a national TV audience, they were full-fledged celebrities. They were summoned to the White House to meet George Bush, they were flown to Oakland to throw out the first ball at the World Series, they were shuttled to New York and Boston to spend time with the Yankees, the Mets and the Red Sox. They received some 600 fan letters and seemingly as many requests for public appearances.
The parents met nearly once a week to sift through the stacks of invitations. The adults bickered at times, as Little League parents have been known to do. "Why is your son being interviewed on channel 8 and not mine?" is how it usually went. Even the coaches got caught up in it. Everyone wanted his share of the spotlight, except for the players, who would have preferred sleep over yet another appearance on a morning show and a swimming-pool party instead of yet another politician's proclamation.
Twelve is a difficult age, even without the added pressures of fame, increased expectations and jealous peers. "I just wanted to be one of the guys, and there were some kids who wouldn't let me," says Chris Drury, the winning pitcher in the championship game. That fall, when Drury walked down the hallway at school, some saluted him with a salaam and called him "god." And when the next baseball season started and the champs moved up to Babe Ruth ball, taunts of "This ain't Little League anymore" grew tiresome. Says Drury, "They were just jealous. Most guys would trade their right arm to have a chance to do what we did."
This year's version of Trumbull National had a chance to do just that. After winning the state Little League championship, the '94 edition came within five games of Williamsport before losing in the East regional on Saturday to a team from New Castle, Del. In the past five years Trumbull has won the district tournament four times. With success comes higher expectations and comparisons: "They take it too seriously now," says one Little League parent.
Members of the '89 team haven't lost their love for the game, but their own high expectations have been tempered. Although some have since chosen to concentrate on soccer, tennis or hockey, seven of the 11 members of the original Trumbull National team who are still in high school continue to play organized baseball. "We all thought we would play for the Yankees when we were 12, and then we started seeing the curveball," says Kenny Martin, the team's first baseman. That story is typical; in 55 years of Little League play, only 15 players from the pint-sized world series have made it to the bigs.
In all likelihood no one from the '89 championship team will make it to the Yankees, but perhaps someday that Trumbull lineup will include a teacher, an orthopedic surgeon, a lawyer and a stockbroker, to mention just a few of their fields of interest. "It doesn't matter that we didn't turn out to be superstars," says Andy Paul. "It wouldn't be right if we were all still playing baseball together. We can still be good at whatever we're doing. This experience helped us do that."
Five years later only one of the players has turned out to be a superstar, but the sport he has chosen isn't baseball. For anyone who watched Chris Drury's performance in the championship game, in which he pitched a five-hitter and drove in two runs, it's difficult to imagine that he is no longer playing organized baseball.
And yet a couple of Sundays ago, as 10 of his former Little League teammates were enjoying their anniversary cake in Trumbull, Drury was scoring the winning goal in sudden-death overtime in the final game of the Chowder Cup hockey tournament in Stoneham, Mass., the culmination of this summer's New England Pro-Am Hockey League. He also earned MVP honors in the weekend-long competition between a team of top college players and prospects from Boston and a squad made up of all-stars from Canada.
Though Drury, who will be on a full hockey scholarship at Boston University this fall, has the talent to play Division I baseball, he says the decision to stick with hockey was made for him after he broke his wrist in high school. The injury made it impossible for him to play baseball in the spring of his junior year, which is the most important time in the college recruiting process. At the start of his senior year, the top hockey schools in the country came calling, and last November, Drury signed with BU. When he headed for Boston two months ago to begin a conditioning program and prepare for the summer league, he left his baseball glove behind. "I think I'll be too busy to miss baseball," he says.
In June, Drury was also chosen in the third round of the NHL draft by the Quebec Nordiques. Though the NHL Scouting Bureau had ranked him 113th overall, Drury was picked 72nd, the second U.S. high school player drafted. He was picked two rounds earlier than expected, in part because the scouts had been impressed with the way he had handled the pressure of the world series.
But even before he became a Little League hero, Drury was a national hockey champ. In April 1989 his Greater Bridgeport Pee Wee squad won the U.S. Amateur American Hockey Championship. "I wasn't even close to being one of the best players on that team," he says. "Seeing how good those kids were, I just wanted to reach that level."
Drury is like the kid in physics class who knows all the answers but chooses to keep them to himself. When he's asked about his high school accomplishments, there are long pauses between his comments, like intermissions between periods. Much like the rest of his family—especially his brother Ted, a center for the Hartford Whalers—Chris is unfailingly modest.
Of course he neglects to mention that he came within one point of Ted's alltime scoring record at Fairfield Prep with 188 points. "He would have broken Ted's record if one game during the season wasn't canceled because of snow," says Adolph Brink, Prep's assistant hockey coach. "But Chris never said a word about it. I brought it up one day, and he said, 'I don't care.' "
And Drury forgets to bring up this stat: In his final season of high school baseball last spring, he did not commit an error in 111 chances while playing every infield position except shortstop. He also hit .388, striking out only once in 67 at bats. "He has absolutely no ego," says Ed Rowe, Prep's baseball coach. "With all his success, his hat size hasn't changed." Not surprisingly, Drury doesn't volunteer this tidbit: His summer-league hockey team in Boston is coached by one of the best broadcasters in...baseball. "We don't talk about baseball," says Bruin coach Sean McDonough, who does enough chattering for both of them from the broadcast booth at Fenway Park, "because he's a Yankee fan."
The biggest Yankee fan from the '89 Trumbull National team is Dan McGrath, who now lives halfway across the globe and is halfway through his junior year at his high school in Malvern, Australia. McGrath, the leftfielder who caught a fly ball for the final out in the championship game, is certainly the only player who if given the opportunity to play college baseball in the U.S. will forgo a bright future in Australian Rules Football. Born in Australia, McGrath moved to Connecticut in 1985 when his father took a job near Trumbull. Four months after the big win in Williamsport, his father was transferred back to Australia.
His world series jersey is pinned to his bedroom wall, and his cap, ring, and jacket are prominently displayed. McGrath is the Australian junior-national team's top lefthanded pitcher, and at international tournaments he has faced a few players from Taiwan's '89 world series team. Of all the Trumbull players, he is the one most at ease with the team's triumph, because when he arrived in Malvern there were no great expectations or jealous taunts, no motorcades or invitations from the prime minister. Says McGrath, "At home, I was just another person."
Five years ago there were times when all the Trumbull players wished for that kind of anonymity. But now the mementos have started to come out of the dresser drawers. At the reunion Dave Galla mugged for cameras with his diminutive jersey held against his six-foot frame. The other day Martin showed his girlfriend some of his memorabilia. Only now do the players laugh at some of the ironic moments of that summer. "Adults were asking for our autograph," says Galla. "How cool was that?" Only now do they joke about the awkward age of 12. "We looked like such geeks," says Paul Coniglio, a reserve on the team.
When the pizza and cake had been devoured at the reunion and the afternoon sun had started to fade, the parents began to arrive. As the over-17 crowd trickled in, couple by couple, and arranged a circle of lawn chairs on the deck, gin and tonics were poured, and soon the parents were reminiscing about 1989. It was definitely time for the ex-champs to leave, and the drivers got into their cars and headed out into the dusk—and the rest of their lives.