Children’s stories don’t always have happy endings.
Sometimes fairy-tale magic happens and still you’re left with tears in your eyes.
In Florida on Wednesday evening, a ballgame the Disney folks couldn’t dream up ended the season for the baseball boys from Georgia when a home run disappeared into a tangle of vines.
But what transpired before it did will live on in Little League legend for the kids and their parents and anyone else who witnessed it.
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The kids from Warner Robins American, trailing 11-5 and down to their final out with no one on base in the Southeast Regional semifinal, struck for nine runs to take a 14-11 lead.
But three Alabama longballs in the bottom of the sixth sent the Houston County kids packing, their cheeks tear-streaked as they tipped their caps to the crowd and left the field at Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium.
“Well, we made it thrilling,” Robins coach Tom Nauss said in the wrenching aftermath.
After your baseball brothers have been to the Little League mountaintop – the World Series in Williamsport, Pa. – the hike back, though it may not lead you to the same summit, can offer spectacular vistas of its own.
Like the majestic rainbow-homer to center field that Warner Robins slugger Cody Carter socked, a three-run job that tied the game 11-11.
Or the two-run moonshot Payton Purvis crushed three batters later that, after an RBI liner by Griffen Martin, gave Warner Robins a three-run cushion.
“When they go home and see what kind of a game they played,” Nauss said, pausing to find words, “it was pretty exciting. It was pretty good.”
If an all-star season that saw them roll up 12 wins against just two defeats had to end this way, well, the Warner Robins gang couldn’t have done it in more stylish fashion.
An August ago, their predecessors rode home to a parade of well-wishers. This bunch won’t attract the same adulation – they fell one game shy of Little League’s national-exposure rounds on ESPN – but it went down just as valiantly.
It took a home run on a 3-2 pitch to slay a Warner Robins program that, up to then, lost only twice in two summers.
“It almost had a magical ending,” Nauss said.
If it had for Warner Robins, it would have sent a Georgia team to the Southeast Regional finals for the third time in as many seasons.
“I brought a bunch of boys that I don’t think a lot of people thought were capable of getting this far, and they got this far and almost pulled it off,” Nauss said. “What a really great accomplishment.”
The journey began nearly two months ago.
It was the middle of June.
The players had just wrapped up their league’s regular season and now they were on a new team, a club that any young ballplayer around would give up his Game Boy to join.
The 11- and 12-year-olds who donned its American-flag-bright, red-and-blue jerseys last year had gone on to win a world title and become middle-school idols.
So this new cast couldn’t help dreaming.
What mark might they make? What monument to Little League moments might they erect?
As he gazed out over his fresh team the way a farmer might scan a sprouting crop, their coach, though, asked something else of them.
“Give me all that you can for as long as you can,” he said.
That was all anyone could ask. For trying to fill cleats that nine and a half months earlier had ruled the rarest Little League turf on the planet is a no-win game. Baseball miracles don’t come in twos.
And on Wednesday night in Florida, the diamond dozen from Houston County gave it all they could for as long as they could.
Before the game, Nauss said he had already sat his boys down and told them about expectations.
“I told them that everybody already had the last chapter written, that, hey, they just couldn’t measure up to what the last year’s team did. And that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about how well you perform and what you do,” Nauss said. “As far as we’ve gotten, we’re proud of what we’ve done. We’re not here to be measured to what anybody else did.”
Indeed. They will be more than measured. They will be remembered for what they did when they were down to their last out and they just wouldn’t die.
Warner Robins outfielder Troy Gay, who wants to be an architect one day, laid the foundation for memory lane. He singled to third.
Then third baseman Jake Chastain, whose nickname is Spider, spun a roller into the dirt in front of home. Safe at first.
Second baseman Justin Jones, who always keeps a lucky necklace in his back pocket, legged out a scorcher to short. That scored Gay to make it 11-6.
Pitcher Blake Jackson, who’d bombed two homers and driven in four runs already, followed with a two-run double.
It was 11-8 when, two batters later, Carter stepped in and launched his three-run rocket, plating Jackson and Hunt Smith, who’d singled, to tie it 11-all.
After A.J. Priaulx reached on catcher interference, Griffen Martin rapped an RBI single to give Warner Robins a one-run lead. Then Purvis socked a two-run homer that cleared the light pole in left.
“We don’t quit! We don’t quit!” the Warner Robins fans howled.
“Miracles happen. See!” said team mom Patti Nauss, the coach’s wife.
The volunteer ushers, many of them Suncoast retirees and veterans of Little League storybook happenings, could only shake their heads in amazement.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said one.
An umpire’s wife called it “one of the best games I’ve ever seen.”
One Warner Robins parent told a reporter, “Good luck summing all that up.”
The scorebook will only help a little.
The Houston County kids hit seven homers and the boys from Mobile banged seven. The Warner Robins all-stars cracked 16 hits, Alabama whacked 13.
Said Warner Robins parent Ken Sato, whose son Spencer was part of his team’s sixth-inning charm, “You couldn’t write a story better than that. We lost it. We came back. And they yanked it away.”
A happy ending?
A story worth telling even if it makes their mamas cry?