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Ten years later, Toms River still amazed

Ten years later, Toms River still amazed

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Little League World Champions Boulevard -- technically, New Jersey's Route 37 -- cuts through the town of Toms River and stretches across eastern Ocean County, reminding every passerby of a dozen 11- and 12-year-olds who once represented half the town and half the alphabet.

The Toms River East American All-Stars, winners of the 1998 Little League World Series, were not the Toms River All-Stars, from the community's other league, or the Toms River East National All-Stars, whose last names went from K to Z. These were the A-through-J boys -- just one-quarter of Toms River -- too young to calculate their fractional chance of beating Kashima, Japan, 12-9.

A year earlier, reigning champion Taiwan pulled out of Little League, saying it couldn't comply with rules restricting the area from which it could draw players. That opened the door for a dozen alphabetically limited kids -- the same group that plotted to sneak out of the dorms in Bristol, Conn., and competed bleary-eyed in qualifying-round losses -- to best thousands of international Little Leaguers and be paraded down Route 37 as champions.

"I look back at it now and I think, 'How the hell is that possible? The best team in the world?' I just look back in amazement," said second baseman Joe Franceschini, whose Rowan University teammates tease him about his parents' DVDs of the tournament. "There's such great competition. To be the best in the world and have to have that title for the rest of your life, that's just unbelievable."

Franceschini, once Toms River East's 4-foot-8, 65-pound cleanup hitter, keeps a box full of his Little League collectibles from Williamsport, Pa. There sits his glove, jersey and opposing teams' popular trading pins. But he doesn't need a keepsake to recall left fielder Chris Cardone's two home runs in the national final or do-it-all Todd Frazier's final strikeout of the World Series.

Franceschini remembers Frazier, who now plays shortstop for the Reds' Double-A club, as he raised his hands and was quickly piled on by his teammates.

"Probably one of the greatest feelings ever," Franceschini said.

No less a champion than Derek Jeter envied Franceschini publicly at Yankee Stadium.

Little League World Series

"I hope we can do what you did," the shortstop said.

The Yankees won the Major Leagues' World Series later that year.

Meanwhile, Frazier and Cardone were interviewed by Peter Jennings, and the team visited "The Rosie O'Donnell Show."

As the national spotlight grew, recognition within Toms River only intensified. As each player grew up, his name jogged a "You are that kid ..." from townspeople.

"You don't expect to have those kinds of accolades, especially as a 12-year-old," said Cardone, who was a catcher and captain at New Jersey Institute of Technology. "Most people don't realize that you have the rest of your life ahead of you. It's tough to follow something like that."

Working in Toms River as a civilian engineer for the Navy, Cardone hears tales of that summer and still has trouble grasping the team's feat. It seemed so easy. Though Cardone was 0-for-10 in the tournament before his two home runs, those two clanks off his aluminum bat were utterly thoughtless.

"I just wanted to go up there and just swing, you know? You are on national television as a 12-year-old, and there is really nothing else going through your mind," he said. "You just want to hit."

Just as simple and child-like, they had touched "The Beast," the two-foot stuffed gorilla that superstitiously accompanied them during the Williamsport run, and watched the U.S. North, South and West teams fall, earning them the nickname "The Beast of the East."

The gorilla was the property of Casey Gaynor, son of manager Mike Gaynor, who knocked over milk cartons in a near-impossible amusement park game in Bristol. Most players didn't want anything to do with a stuffed animal, but the 11-year-old claimed the gorilla anyway, and he dragged it along by its outstretched arms and into dugouts. Surprisingly, they didn't lose a game with the gorilla on the bench.

After the World Series, each player held his own replica of "The Beast." In general, the Toms River East Little Leaguers received a few more toys than the town's other half.

"You don't even hear about Toms River Little League anymore. It's all Toms River East," former East All-Star Tom Gannon said. "Our Little League just blew up after that. It got new fields, new batting cages and everything."

Before the World Series, Gannon and his neighbor Gaynor doubted their town's standing among the nation's best. Gannon, who eventually played soccer at Rowan, had to promise Coach Gaynor to give up the sport for the tournament, but that didn't stop him from limiting his expectations.

"Oh, we probably won't make it out of districts," Gannon and Casey Gaynor agreed.

Ten years later, Gannon can still find Gaynor, a pitcher at Rutgers, hanging out in his house, where they occasionally reminisce about how wrong they were.

The two always knew their team was talented, but they couldn't imagine victory on such a grand scale. Within their league, Gannon teamed with Gaynor and Frazier, and they didn't lose for three years. They "killed teams," Gannon said, and Frazier hit a home run in almost every game.

"But you don't know until you keep going, you are winning, you're winning, and you are like, 'Oh, man, I guess we are pretty good,' " Gannon said of Toms River East's undefeated streak in the World Series. "We just kept winning. We didn't really think about it. We were 12 years old."

With all that is made of the stress placed on Little Leaguers at their World Series, Gannon doesn't recollect feeling any pressure in front of the ESPN cameras. He was just playing a game.

As always, Frazier smiled as he beat analyst Harold Reynolds in table tennis, one of the many wins he produced with a world-beater's grin. Never had anyone doubted Frazier. His older brothers, Charlie and Jeff, were both drafted into pro baseball, and Gannon knew Todd was better than both by the age of 8.

Cardone, a shortstop until college, had moved to the outfield for the Little League World Series.

"We had Todd Frazier," he said. "Nobody takes Todd Frazier's position."

A 6-foot-4, 220-pound shortstop at Rutgers, Frazier was selected by Cincinnati with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. To this day he keeps in touch with many of his teammates, and they couldn't be prouder watching him climb the Minor League ladder with his light-hearted approach.

And though Frazier always had fun, he most definitely won, as well. The team from Kashima lived in a dorm next door to Toms River East in Williamsport, and they loved to play table tennis. The shortstop would oblige, beating his opponent on most occasions.

The results weren't at all shocking to his teammates. Really, the only thing that surprised these not-so-well-traveled youngsters was that the Japanese team couldn't speak English. Defeated, they would just bow to Frazier and politely walk away.

They bowed out to Frazier's final pitch at the end of Toms River East's journey, too, which made the team the first U.S. squad in five years to claim a Little League World Series international championship. No team from New Jersey had won the U.S. title since 1975.

It would take more maturity, more years dealing with the quirks of baseball and more drives down Little League World Champions Boulevard for the players to understand what had been accomplished in Williamsport.

"Looking back, you realize it's pretty impossible to do that," Cardone said. "As a 12-year-old, you can't really grasp the magnitude. You are just playing a game. It really doesn't change. The stakes, you can't really understand the stakes. It's just the same game, over and over."

Jon Blau is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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