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The Unlikely Hero After resisting the urge to quit, Chris Cardone led Toms River to victory

Sept. 07, 1998
Sept. 07, 1998

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Sept. 7, 1998

The Unlikely Hero After resisting the urge to quit, Chris Cardone led Toms River to victory

The story of how Toms River, N.J., won the Little League World
Series last Saturday could serve as a parable about the kid at
the end of the bench, the one with the clean uniform and the
heavy heart who sits in silence wondering why he signed up for
the team in the first place.

This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1998 issue Original Layout

Just a couple of weeks before Toms River's championship game
against Kashima, Japan, in Williamsport, Pa., 12-year-old
outfielder Chris Cardone, who was homesick and upset about his
limited role on the team, spent a lot of time on the phone
begging his parents, Bill and Lucy, to let him come home early.
Bill encouraged his son to gut it out. Lucy suggested that he
start writing a journal to help with his loneliness and
disappointment. Nothing, however, made Chris feel better until
news came on Aug. 22 that he had been chosen to recite the
Little League pledge before the final game. "I'll hang in
there," he told his folks after learning of the honor. "I can do
it."

"We tried to hang everything on the pledge," says Bill, an
elementary school principal. "We thought, O.K., so he gets to
say the pledge and anything else would be gravy. We were already
crying our eyes out after he made it through the pledge. We had
no idea what was about to happen."

The sportsmanship pledge that kept Cardone in town is also the
reason he got to play in the biggest game of his life. In the
spirit of Little League, every kid plays in every game. So in
the top of the fifth, with Toms River leading 7-4, manager Mike
Gaynor inserted Cardone into the lineup. In his first at bat
Cardone, who had hit only one homer this season and was 1 for 10
in the tournament's first four games, leaned into a pitch with
all his 98 pounds and smacked it over the rightfield fence.
Then, in Toms River's final at bat, Cardone poked a two-run
homer to give the U.S. the lead for good, 10-8. New Jersey went
on to win 12-9, becoming only the fourth American team to win
the World Series in the past 15 years. "This must be the
ultimate Little League moment," said Lucy Cardone, a school
teacher. "My son is a bench player, but we kept telling him,
'Sit tight, your chance will come.' What an inspiration this is
for every kid who is just sitting there waiting and all he needs
is one chance to do something that might change his life."

In the Toms River dugout Cardone sat under the team's good-luck
charm, a two-foot stuffed gorilla with white fur that pitcher
Casey Gaynor won at a carnival game during the regional
tournament in Bristol, Conn. You know the game--one ball, three
cans and next to no chance of winning. But all summer this team
had been making the impossible look easy. Gaynor, 11, the
youngest player at Williamsport and the starting pitcher in the
final, drilled those cans twice and picked up the stuffed
gorilla, which came to be known as the Beast of the East.

"When we started, I didn't think we had anything special," said
Mike Gaynor, Casey's dad. "These kids, though, just have a
passion for the game. They were oblivious to the pressure."

No one epitomized the team's spirit more than Todd Frazier, a
gifted athlete who is all braces, freckles and wide-eyed joy. He
showed no fear as he pitched the final two innings against Japan
to grab his second win of the series. He also batted .866 with
four home runs in the tournament, including a leadoff dinger on
Saturday and a grand slam in an 11-inning, 13-9 win over U.S.
Central on Aug. 23, the longest game in Little League Series
history. When Frazier, a 1997 Punt, Pass & Kick national
champion, would bump into members of the Japanese team in the
cafeteria, the kids from Kashima would yell, "Hello, Mr. Home
Run Hitter!" He's sure to be a hit when the team visits The
Rosie O'Donnell Show this week.

After the game Frazier led the team in a victory lap around
Lamade Stadium and then pulled the Beast out of the dugout.
Meanwhile, scattered around the infield were the players from
the Far East, including Sayaka Tsushima, the first girl to play
in the World Series final. In a heartbreaking scene, the
Japanese players sniffed back tears as they scooped up handfuls
of red clay from the infield to take back home. Nearby, Chris
Cardone's parents cried tears of joy as they waited to talk to
their son.

"Look at me, I'm still shaking and my legs feel like jelly," said
Bill. "I'm a wreck. I'm just overwhelmed. If you're a parent, you
know how I feel. All I know for sure is I'm standing here in
Williamsport."

But really, where else could a sports story like this have taken
place?

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [Chris Cardone batting]
"My son is a bench player, but we kept telling him, 'Sit tight,
your chance will come.'"