CEREDO-KENOVA, W.Va. — It was drifting toward 10:30 Wednesday night in this sleepy West Virginia border town, and the loudspeakers at the Little League ballpark across the parking lot from the Hallmark store were pumping out an instrumental version of “Georgia on My Mind.”
The Warner Robins American baseball boys had, an hour or so prior, clawed out three runs in their last at bat to scrounge a 3-2 victory and move on to play another day, on ESPN no less.
That day comes tonight in an 8 o’clock, nationally televised Southeastern Region showdown against a team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from Virginia.
Yet even with such a juicy, welcome-to-the-limelight moment on the horizon — with a shot at advancing to the World Series in Williamsport, Pa., and, who knows, maybe even score a highlight clip or two on “SportsCenter” in the process — Wednesday’s can-you-believe-it comeback was an adrenaline-injected thrill you don’t just put to bed and go night-night on. This was a success to savor, to exhale and breathe back in.
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To hear the parents, players and just about anyone who witnessed the Georgians’ return-from-the-dead rally talk, many will remember it as the “Miracle at the Mitch.”
Because early on there had been a different tune playing at Legendary Mitch Stadium, as the locals affectionately call it.
“Rocky Top” had twanged away on the stadium speakers after Tennessee’s state champs grabbed a 2-0 lead in the third inning and looked poised to send the Houston County kids packing.
That was, until the Warner Robins bunch loaded the bases with one down in the home half of the sixth and the Volunteer Staters’ flame-throwing ace lefty, who’d surrendered but one hit — an infield one at that — pegged out at the Little League-limit, 85-pitch count and had to depart. So on came a reliever to face the Robins cleanup man, a seventh-grader from Central Fellowship Christian Academy nicknamed “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” with lucky No. 7 on his jersey.
“I just had to think not to get nervous and I had to stay cool, block out the crowd,” catcher Spencer Sato said.
With 1,500 fans looking on, on a 2-1 pitch, Sato delivered a sky-high, two-run double to the warning track. That tied it. The next batter, Bonaire middle-schooler Kyle King, drove home the game-winning run from third with a high chopper in front of the plate. With that, the celebration was on.
Randy Jones, the Warner Robins manager, himself a Tennessee native, had reminded his young charges before the game that a lot of folks in his home state were watching and rooting for them.
“There’s always been this Tennessee-Georgia battle going on in my family,” Jones said.
Entering the last of the sixth, it appeared the Volunteer State would prevail, slamming the brakes on the Warner Robins all-stars’ season and handing them their first and only loss in 14 outings.
“So I’m standing there at third base (coaching),” Jones said, “and in that last inning I said, ‘Lord, I’ve never seen a miracle up close.’ I said, ‘If you will, I’m asking you to show me one tonight.’ And that’s exactly what that was. It was nothing more than a miracle.”
He may need to ask for more divine intervention to handle a now-looming, perhaps not-so-daunting challenge: Leading a band of preteen and just-turned-teen baseball brothers through the emotional minefield that is the we’re-gonna-be-on-ESPN jitters.
“I think we’re gonna try to minimize that, but to no avail,” Jones said. “But, hey, we had a gift (Wednesday night), and if we have to go home after Friday, it’s been worth it all. So anything else is just purely icing on the cake.”
There is a chance Gov. Sonny Perdue will attend tonight’s game. Jones says the governor, a Warner Robins American alum, text-messaged him earlier in the week.
“I didn’t know if it was real or not at the time,” Jones said. “He said, ‘I’m in a meeting in Idaho,’ and I’m sitting in Subway going, ‘I just got a text message from the governor. Is this a prank?’ ’’
Wednesday night, amid the afterglow of his team’s triumph, Jones said another prayer. This one a few blocks away, at Giovanni’s, where the takeout boxes say “Pizza Power,” and where the team had gathered with parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters for a postgame meal.
A victory dinner as it were, pepperoni and reprieve.
Even if, in fewer than 48 hours, there remained one final roadblock on their team’s route to the boyhood-baseball Promised Land in Pennsylvania.
“I’d like to say a blessing for the food,” Jones said, addressing the pizza parlor crammed full of his 12 players and their kin.
“Bow with me, please,” the coach said. “Father, we thank you for this day. We thank you for all the many blessings in life. We thank you for the beauty of West Virginia and all the many blessings that can occur here through you. We thank you for this team. We thank you for these families. We thank you for the bonds and the friendships we have made through this game of baseball. We pray that you will be with us for the rest of the way, and regardless of what happens that you will continue to bless us. ... We witnessed a miracle tonight. We praise your name for that.”
Now they dig in again.
For one final push on the climb of their young lives.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.