WARNER ROBINS — Their welcome home was rousing enough at the Atlanta airport. Travelers, complete strangers, clapped and craned their necks as the Warner Robins American Little Leaguers, their World Series odyssey all but complete, stepped onto Georgia soil for the first time in 25 days.
Even if some who saw them weren’t quite sure who they were in their faded-gold Southeast caps and red World Series jackets.
On the underground train from their Delta Air Lines concourse Monday afternoon, an exuberant passenger from California cheered, “Chula Vista!” before promptly covering her mouth with her hand, not realizing that here in her midst was the Georgia team that had pushed the SoCal boys to the limit only to fall 11-10 in last Thursday’s semifinal thriller.
“She’s from San Diego,” explained a woman traveling with her.
“Go Warner Robins!” piped up Warner Robins City Councilman Tom Simms Jr., part of the city’s dozen-strong greeting party. As the team passed baggage claim, an airport worker said, “I watched them on TV. I’m still proud of them. They did real good.”
“Good job, coach,” another passerby told the ballclub’s manager, Randy Jones. Warner Robins Councilman Bob Wilbanks looked at the players and said, “You recall all the camera close-ups on them and all the interviews. They’ve been gone for a month and here they are back. ... Their hearts are 10 feet tall. You can’t watch a team, I don’t care what level, that will make you as proud as these guys.”
As the Warner Robins city bus rolled away from the airport with a six-police-car escort, the team’s assistant coach, Nathan Hunt, kidded the players that as they grow up “I hope this is the only time you see blue lights. ... That’s when you call coach Randy.”
Asked how he and his teammates will cope with the back-to-everyday-life return from their Little League moon shot, player Kyle King said that in some ways they won’t ever return to Earth.
“You stay on Pluto,” King said of the 18-win, one-setback season that saw WRALL win a third straight state title and a second regional crown in three years for their home league.
“It’s been fun,” player Jeremiah Stephens said. “But it’s gonna be really fun getting back, everybody rooting for us.”
Manager Jones, only half joking, said, “We’ve got to get reacclimated with society.”
And, he added, “I’ve gotta put a belt on the lawn mower.” When the bus pulled off Interstate 75, closing in on a heroes’ welcome back at their home park just south of Ga. 96., people in cars and trucks leaned out windows to wave and others honked horns.
As their motorcade swung into the Robins American complex just after 7 p.m., they rode beneath twin water-cannon streams pumped by city fire trucks, an arch of triumph as it were.
“That’s off the chain right there,” coach Hunt said.
Five hundred or so well- wishers then cheered as the players emerged from the bus.
A rainbow, almost as if ordered from on high, peeked up on the horizon to the southeast.
League president Ken Hathaway called the team’s voyage, along with that of the program’s softball team, “an incredible summer.”
“It’s now the International City of Champions,” Hathaway said.
Mayor Donald Walker said, “Ain’t they great?”
On a stage where he introduced the players to the crowd, manager Jones said, “It’s great to be back home in Sports Town, USA.”
He spoke of how special the players were to him and praised their efforts as young sportsmen.
“It is a great thing to show compassion when you’re the victor,” Jones said, “but it’s unbelievable to show that same compassion and sportsmanship in defeat.”