They still talk about that summer.
As well they should.
Not that they brag. Because they could. They could boast of playing on national television in front of tens of thousands of spectators. They could reminisce and go on and on about winning 17 of 18 games to become the kings of boyhood baseball. They could, over and over, re-live the night they knocked off a squad with a future major leaguer in its lineup. Or tell how it all earned one of them an appearance on David Letterman’s “Late Show.”
And, yes, they could bask in the afterglow of outlasting Japan to win the Little League World Series. Their parents have it all on video.
But that happened 10 years ago Saturday. Eons ago, it seems. George W. Bush was president. (They got to meet him, too, by the way, when they were invited to the Oval Office.)
They were still boys then, back on Aug. 26, 2007, when they became childhood world champions as Warner Robins American Little Leaguers.
Most of them were 12. Now they’re men. One is a Marine corporal about to return to the Middle East for a second time. Two are bound for medical school. One is a University of Georgia cheerleader. Another is a respiratory therapist who says saving lives isn’t so much like baseball, but that it’s rewarding in other ways. Still others are in college, the military.
To hear some of them tell of that summer, it was a time when they all grew up — and did so maybe a shade quicker than most boys. The summer of 2007 changed their young lives. In the best of ways.
Dalton Carriker, who belted the championship-winning homer against Japan — a game-ending blast that sailed over the right field fence and landed him on the Letterman show — learned to be humble. Not that he wasn’t already. But having everyone’s eyes on you when you’re on TV is one thing. Returning home to middle school, to high school and college, living everyday life against that backdrop, might be a burden for some.
“You don’t realize how many kids are looking up to you,” Carriker, now 22, says. “You don’t really ask to be a role model, but you are one. … I learned more from that summer than I did in a couple of years of school.”
When he dug into the batter’s box for the first time as a high school player at Houston County High, the other team’s center fielder recognized Carriker’s name and, trying to intimidate Carriker, yelled, “Little League!” The whole ballpark could hear it. Carriker said nothing, but he did crank the next pitch over the center fielder’s head for a home run.
At the Little League World Series, interacting with reporters, ESPN producers, coaches, umpires and fans taught him poise.
“At 12 years old, being able to sit down and have an adult conversation with somebody — to sit down and actually put together a complex thought and answer a question — that means something,” he says.
In the moments after he socked the game-winner against Japan, the cameras were rolling at a news conference. The then-12-year-old Carriker was asked to describe his triumphant jolt.
“I was just saying, ‘God, please give me the strength just to get a hit and help my team out,’” he said.
When his bat connected, he added, “My adrenaline was about to go crazy. My legs were about to fall off. I really thought I was flying like Peter Pan.”
Carriker majored in biology at Kennesaw State University. Since graduating, he has applied to medical schools and may go into orthopedics. From time to time, people he meets ask if he’s the kid who hit the big homer against Japan.
“I never lead with it,” he says. “If people ask me, then, yeah, of course, I’ll talk about it.”
Another player from the championship team, Kendall Scott, a biology major at UGA, also intends to go to med school. Scott struck out 10 batters in the Little League title game. At the time, in the moment, he hadn’t felt much pressure playing in a game televised on ABC and announced by Brent Musburger, all while the Goodyear blimp hummed overhead.
“I didn’t realize it until years later,” Scott, 22, says. “You think, ‘Wow, that was a big moment.’”
He was also on the mound the night the Warner Robins kids faced Arizona and a player named Cody Bellinger, who is now a rookie sensation for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Scott didn’t surrender a hit to the future star.
“I didn’t realize he was who he was,” Scott says now, “until my brother texted me (this year) during the home run derby and said, ‘Hey, you faced this kid.’”
Sometimes friends who don’t know about Scott’s baseball-playing past will be watching Little League World Series games and he will say, “I was there 10 years ago.”
Surprised, the friends will say, “What, you played?”
“Yeah, we won,” Scott will tell them. “I just don’t try and talk about it very much.”
He says the Warner Robins team’s two weeks in the limelight in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in some ways prepared him for “the way you had to carry yourself afterward.”
Scott, who entering his senior year at Georgia is a Bulldogs cheerleader, says, “If I’m in a group at school or at work, I’m not scared to take a leadership role.”
Hunter Jackson, an infielder on the Warner Robins squad, is now a respiratory therapist eyeing a career as a nurse practitioner.
When he was at a job interview for his current position, the interviewer somehow knew Jackson had been a Little League champ.
“It kind of follows you,” Jackson, 22, says.
Eight of his former teammates recently attended his wedding.
Even today, Jackson says, they’re still like brothers.
“The ball was fun, obviously, but you don’t ever envision as a 12-year-old going, what, 15 hours up north by car to play baseball,” he says. “But to go up to a different state and play with people from all around the world, looking back on it, it’s frickin’ cool.”
Taylor Lay, now a Marine corporal, played second base in that final game against Japan. These days, as a 22-year-old field radio operator stationed in California, he will soon head overseas to Iraq. His father, Mickey, was the head coach of the title team.
“The best part of that summer,” Taylor Lay says, “was just being so close to the guys on the team. We’re really just one big family.”
Mickey Lay is still close to many of his old players. Hunter Jackson’s new bride is Lay’s niece.
“These kids are no different than anybody else,” Mickey Lay says. “But for one summer they came together and played together and won a championship.”
He has said before how long the odds of winning it all were, how worldwide there were 16,000 or so Little League playoff games that led to the climactic Warner Robins showdown with Japan.
“Everything has to go your way,” he says.
That summer 10 years ago, it did.