They had lost their first game in the Little League World Series, 4-2 in extra innings. They had lost after coming within one out of victory. They had lost after loading the bases for their cleanup hitter in the last inning only to have him strike out. For the Little Leaguers of Easton, it was a bitter moment.
That they had started months ago as one of hundreds of teams and become one of eight did not matter. That they had made the month of August magical for an entire town seemed suddenly irrelevant. That they had done what no other team from Maryland had ever done was hardly consolation last Wednesday afternoon.
So, for a moment, they cried.
Bill DelBiondo, a purchasing agent for Black and Decker who took most of the month off to manage the team, stood squeezing a baseball, his eyes still fixed on home plate.
"The kids will get over it in 10 or 15 minutes," he said with a smile. "The adults may need weeks."
Easton, an Eastern Shore town of 7,800 people and its Little League team, had, in a sense, lived the American Dream. They had come together at the end of July, 14 All-Stars selected from the Easton Little League, and had swept through 15 straight opponents to become one of four American teams to qualify for the 36th annual World Series, which was won yesterday by Kirkland, Wash.
In doing so, they reached into their town's soul and pulled out all the emotions so frequently written off as corny by so-called big city folk. They played with such spark and such class -- gracious winners always -- that when they came here, players and coaches from opposing teams on the shore came to watch them.
From Easton, 250 miles away, came close to 400 people, many of them making the five-hour drive as part of a 15-car, two-bus caravan the day of the game. Town Mayor George Murphy and town police chief Edward Blessing led the parade. The team had been away from home since Aug. 16 but when they took the field here to warm up, they knew Easton cared. Everywhere they looked there were homemade signs and friends.
The previous Saturday when they played in the regional final, the town simply stopped. Everywhere, radios were tuned to the game. Those who couldn't pick up the radio signal rang the phones off the hook at The Easton Star-Democrat, wanting to know the score.
That same day J. Howard Anthony and his wife Nancy, both 70, longtime Eastonites, were in Ocean City. They couldn't stand the suspense. So they got in their car, drove to a Gino's in Salisbury and sat in the parking lot listening to the game on their car radio.
All this for a group of 12-year-olds playing a scaled down version of baseball. "It is," said Murphy, "the biggest thing that has happened to this town in a long, long time. Maybe even longer than that."
There are many reasons why a small town gets caught up in sudden success stories, but maybe Margie Callahan, mother of six, grandmother of one and the president of the Easton Little League, put it best:
"There just aren't that many days when you can wake up and read good news on the front page," she said. "For the last few weeks, we've been able to do that in Easton and I think it makes people feel good, about the kids, about the town, about themselves even. That's more important than you can imagine."
Perhaps the most important thing in the end, though, was not the winning but the losing. Because when the dream of a world championship finally died after two excruciating hours of battle with a team from Michigan, the people from Easton stood up and cheered for their kids.
They didn't make excuses. They didn't rail at the umpires. They went down on the field and hugged their boys, wiped away their tears and told them they were proud of them.
That was the biggest surprise. When Easton lost, even the adults acted like adults. Given the horror stories often associated with parents and Little League baseball that may be the biggest sports upset in years.
"How can you feel bad?" said Steve Saulsbury, father of second baseman Matt. "Our kids did themselves proud. They played well and when they lost they took it like men. We should be able to do at least as much."
The Little League World Series was born here in 1947, created by a man named Carl Stotz. It has grown steadily since then, foreign teams participating for the first time in 1952 and becoming dominant, specifically Taiwan, in the 1970s.
This is a working class town set in a valley at the foot of Bald Eagle Mountain. Lamade Stadium, where all the series games are played, seems almost to be cut into the side of the mountain, as picturesque a ballpark as one can imagine.
Because the players are smaller, the field is smaller -- the basepaths 60 feet instead of 90 feet, the distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound 46 feet instead of 60 and the distance to the center field fence 204 feet instead of 400 feet.
But the physical size of the players does not diminish the enthusiasm of their supporters. The series is now a very organized event with four American teams and four foreign teams (from Europe, South America, Canada and the Far East) making it here each year.
The youngsters are housed in large cabins that are off limits to adults, including parents, except for between 7 and 8 p.m. each night. The better that they should mingle with the other teams that way.
In the case of Easton and Taiwan this year, that way of thinking worked. The 28 boys became fast friends and the Taiwanese could be seen carrying miniature Maryland flags around after they won their opening game.
What makes all this work is the extraordinarily difficult road each team faces. Several hundred teams begin qualifying each July and only eight get here. Yet win or lose, each boy and each parent knows they have shared in an experience that thousands seek and few achieve. In 36 years, perhaps 4,000 teams from Maryland have attempted to qualify for Williamsport. One has succeeded.
"No matter what happens here we're all going to leave with memories we'll carry for life," Nina Niskey, mother of Brian, said before the game started on Wednesday. "Just sitting in the stands with all our friends like this gives me chills. I want to savor this moment for as long as I can."
Bill DelBiondo never really thought it would happen. He knew when he assembled his team that he had a special group of players.
There were Kurt Chase and Brian Niskey, two exceptionally gifted athletes. Cut-off date for Little League eligibility is July 31, meaning if you turn 13 before that day, you can't play Little League. Chase was 13 on Aug. 1, Niskey on Aug. 11. Both were excellent pitchers. In Little League a superb pitcher can dominate a game so thoroughly it matters little what the rest of his team is doing.
But DelBiondo had other good players. There was Kelly Hawkins, a lanky outfielder with a quick bat and a good arm. There was Dave Shaw, a stumpy little third baseman with a shock of a blond hair, who didn't do much except play tough in the field and get on base when at bat. And there was DelBiondo's son Mike, a gutty little catcher who never backed off from the heat Chase and Niskey were throwing him and ended up with a multi-colored body as payment for his toughness.
A sectional title was possible, DelBiondo thought, maybe even a shot at the state. But Williamsport? He wouldn't even let himself fantasize about that. At 39 this was DelBiondo's last shot. He is a friendly man with brown hair, some leftover freckles from boyhood and a firm handshake. He knew that after eight years as a coach he had spent too much time away from his job. So, this was his last time around.
They gave him a hint of their talent when they won their first game 23-0. They showed him their toughness when they came from two runs down in the last inning of their game at the state level to win 7-6.
They came here knowing that Taiwan had won 10 of the last 12 World Series and was the heavy favorite. But they also came believing that with Chase or Niskey on the mound they could compete with anyone.
The biggest problem for DelBiondo and his coach Paul Gawel, was homesickness. The boys had already been gone a week by the time they reached Williamsport -- ordered to report there direct from winning the regional in Newburg, N.Y. by Series officials -- and they missed home.
But by Tuesday, excitement had taken over. When the special section of the Star-Democrat, complete with dozens of pictures of all of them, arrived Wednesday morning, they knew that lots of folks were pulling for them.
What's more, Uncle Lou had arrived on Tuesday with The Lucky Board. Uncle Lou in real life is Lou Hatchell, a CPA who drags so hard on a cigarette he leaves himself almost breathless. During the sectional and state championships in LaPlata, Hatchell spent most of his time standing on the sidelines along first base on an old wooden board. When the victories piled up, Hatchell made a point of standing there. When the team went to Newburg for the regionals, Hatchell brought the board with him.
"By this time the whole town of Easton knew about the lucky board," Hatchell said. "The boys all had to touch the board before they went out to play."
On Wednesday, Hatchell dragged the board to the warmup field for the team, then up the hill to the stadium. When he walked into the stands carrying the board everyone went crazy. This display of good-heartedness so upset the ushers that they tried to eject the board from the stands. But Hatchell stood his board.
When the boys walked on to the field to warm up they looked one way and saw all their friends from home, then looked another way and saw TV cameras -- cable TV but still TV -- staring at them.
"Look at this," said Chase elbowing Niskey. "EVERYONE's going to be watching us play now."
It must have seemed that way. Before the game, a representative of Gov. Harry Hughes read them a proclamation and gave them all Maryland flags. They were introduced by the PA announcer one-by-one, trotting to the first base line just as they had seen the big leaguers do it for years during their World Series. They slapped hands and stood at attention for the national anthem. And they tried to look nonchalant when their friend David Anthony led everyone in a raucous E-A-S-T-O-N cheer that seemed to shake the little stadium from its foundation.
"Oh my stomach hurts," said Wadella Chase, mother of starting pitcher Kurt. "I just sit here every game throwing every pitch and swinging every bat."
Bill DelBiondo looked at all the people and couldn't believe the sight. For him, for the kids, for the town, it was a fairytale.
They were here. Now, for the game.
This was Brian Niskey's moment. He was meant for it, he was exactly where he wanted to be, standing at home plate, the bases loaded, two outs, team trailing by two runs in the last inning.
Only minutes before Niskey, reed-thin with bright brown eyes and a brighter smile, had turned to Bill DelBiondo and said, "Coach, if I get up I know I can take him out."
Niskey had already taken the pitcher out once before, lining a two-run home run over the center field fence in the first inning to give Easton a 2-0 lead. But the team from Wyoming, Mich., hadn't quit. Pitcher Chase was, as always, overpowering, but nervousness was making him a bit wild--he threw four wild pitches. Even worse, Mike DelBiondo was finally feeling the effects of a month of battering. He was having trouble getting down on Chase's pitches. The result had been seven passed balls, each of them contributing to a Michigan run. The second one had tied the game at 2-2 with Easton just one out from victory in the sixth inning. In the eighth, the second extra inning, Michigan had gone ahead 4-2. The kids from Easton had not won 15 games by giving up easily. So, in the bottom of the inning, they had loaded the bases. Up came Niskey.
As her son walked to the plate, Nina Niskey clasped and unclasped her hands all the time murmuring, "Come on Brian, come on Brian. Oh my, he looks uptight." Her husband Lawrence, a junior high school science teacher, just kept twisting and untwisting the pocket-sized camera wrapped around his wrist.
The cool wind that had whipped through the stadium all afternoon was gone as Niskey stepped in. The hawkers had stopped hawking. The parents of Easton held each other's hands and hoped.
Karl Stanford, the chunky Michigan pitcher, was only throwing fastballs now. Niskey stood at the plate, his hands squeezing the bat as if trying to get a last drop of juice out of it. His stance was upright, his weight on his back foot so he could uncoil with the pitch the way he had in that first inning, a swing that now seemed a lifetime ago.
Stanford came down the middle twice and Niskey fouled both pitches off. He stepped back and adjusted his helmet. All the Easton fans were yelling encouragement and advice. Uncle Lou shifted on his board. Nina Niskey stared at the ground. Her husband twirled the camera.
Stanford looked at the three base runners, rocked and threw one more fast ball. Niskey uncoiled and swung from his heels. But he was a split second late. The ball was past him. Strike three. The catcher was leaping in the air and Niskey had fallen down from the momentum of his swing. He sat and watched helplessly as the Michigan kids hugged each other.
For a moment, Lawrence and Nina Niskey didn't move, didn't say a word. When they saw their son pull himself to his feet they stood up -- and clapped. Within seconds the entire Easton section was on its feet doing the same.
Then, they went to greet their sons. Bill DelBiondo would talk to his disconsolate son that night. "As a coach I'm disappointed he didn't play better. As a father, I couldn't be prouder of the way he tried."
Wadella Chase reached her son. He was sobbing. She hugged him. "It's already yesterday," she said softly.
Lou Hatchell hugged his own son Steve and then found Brian Niskey. He hugged him too. "I wish," said Brian, "I had another chance. Maybe we could win."
"Brian," Lou Hatchell said, "we did win."