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24

Aug, 2018

That championship season: A look back at my Harlem team’s run to the Little League World Series

Editors note: This story was originally published by The Athletic. See the original story here.

By Julian McWilliams

We set out to just win a district title, something Harlem Little League hadn’t done since its establishment in 1989. But we breezed through that and the sectionals.

My mom asked her employer for time off work: “My son is going to state. But this thing will be over soon. They’ll probably get knocked out in this round.”

Sorry, mom. We won state. Next thing we knew, we were in the Mid-Atlantic Regional championship game after breezing through most of that tourney, too. Our game was televised on ESPN. Harold Reynolds, who was working for ESPN at the time and was on the broadcast, interviewed me prior to the game. The YES Network followed us around for the entire regional tournament, so fascinated by us they wanted to do a documentary, which came out in February of the following year.

It was a dream. And we were basking in it. All of it. Probably too much because when the game started, we played like trash. We were down 4-0 by the fourth inning. Little League games are six innings.

But in the bottom of the fourth, our best player — Alibay Barkley, older brother of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and nephew to legendary boxer Iran Barkley — homered to center. We were down 4-2.

A couple of batters later, Fernando Frias came to the plate. He was one of our best players, and he was pissed. My dad, Morris McWilliams, who coached us, benched Fernando this game because he kept doing backflips in the pool a day prior. The lifeguard snitched and my father punished him with a benching. He changed his mind once we got in a hole.

Set to pinch hit, Fernando wet his face in the dugout and walked directly past my father without saying a word. My dad did, though: “Get a hit.”

Fernando was filterless. It was a task to keep the reins on him. But he produced possibly the greatest moment in Little League history.

With two runners on, Fernando stepped in the box then back out quickly. His face dripping with water, he waved his Easton Triple 7 aluminum bat around a couple of times and looked directly at the pitcher. He then took the bat and pointed it beyond the woods in center field. You could hear the gasps and murmuring.

Hold on. No. He didn’t just point his bat like Babe Ruth. He’s not calling his shot.

On the very next pitch, Fernando crushed a fastball off the top of the center field wall, missing a homer by an inch. The double tied the game.

We all saw him call his shot in the dugout. But to us, it wasn’t a big deal. That was just Fernando. I’ll never forget the time Fernando, who is like my brother, told me his solution to a migraine that he had to play through.

“Yo Jaye,” he said. “I have a crazy headache. I don’t feel like running today. I’m going to hit three home runs instead.”

He hit three home runs that game. All light trots. No running. Still the most impressive thing I’ve seen on a baseball field at any level.

But that was how we played baseball. If Mark Canha’s “Bat Flipping Season” is causing a stir, we would’ve sent fans into cardiac arrest. We were hot dogs on steroids. And if any team wanted to try and fight us or throw at us, we welcomed that. We’d beat them at that, too. Harlem, baby.

We ended up winning, 5-4, in extra innings to win the 2002 Mid-Atlantic Regionals. I scored the game-winning run on a passed ball that sent us to Williamsport. Current Fox Sports personality Chris Broussard interviewed me after the game. He was covering the tournament for The New York Times.

We couldn’t believe we were going to the LLWS. We soaked up every second of the scene on Breen Field in Bristol, Connecticut — as only 12-year-olds from Harlem could. We relished being interviewed. We relived the moments with family and friends. We celebrated and danced.

Then, we were crowned regional champions. We were so lit. That’s not what we called it then. Back in 2002, we were (insert synonym for lit).

I don’t think our feet touched the ground on our way back to our dorm at the Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center. We could have floated all the way to Williamsport. Good thing, too, because when we got back to the dorm, our cleats were gone.

All of the teams stayed in the dorm, which was like a little campus. As is tradition, the players left their cleats on the porch so as not to track dirt into the dorms. Someone stole ours. All of them.

We assumed it was Lehigh, who we’d just beaten. They’d already left, from what I remember. But who knows for sure. Plus, later we learned they lodged a protest in an effort to get us eliminated claiming we had players who did not live in our area.

That is when we knew many did not want us in the Little League World Series. From a talent and cultural perspective, we didn’t belong. But that only made us even more determined to win, more eager to enjoy it all, more confident to be ourselves.

Watching this year’s Little League World Series brings back all kinds of memories. It does every year. Sixteen years ago, 14 kids from Harlem made history. I was one of them. We didn’t win it all. But there was never a team like us. We were so talented. We had so much fun. We were wild.

When we made it to Williamsport, we were already the talk of the series. We were undoubtedly the best hitting team there. We outscored opponents 125-25 through state. It wasn’t just our bats, but our swag, that drew the attention. The Little League World Series and its fans had never seen a team like Harlem. Whether that’s good or bad, we didn’t care. Our confidence, our skills, Fernando’s called-shot — we were magnetic.

Of course, with that came haters.

It probably didn’t help that a year earlier was the Danny Almonte scandal. Rolando Paulino, the team from the Bronx on which Almonte played, was in our district and we could never beat them because they always used ringers. They would literally import older dudes from the Dominican Republic every summer to beat 11- and 12-year old kids.

Trust me: Almonte was not the only 14-year-old on that squad.

I remember our family took the trip to Bristol to watch the regionals pre-Almonte. Rolando Paulino was playing and had a kid named Juan pitching. He looked so familiar. His motion. His demeanor on the mound. It was like déjà vu.

My brother has the memory of an elephant. When he saw Juan, he immediately belted out in the stands.

“Dad, that’s Juan!”

“Who?” my dad asked.

“Juan! Edwin’s cousin.”

Edwin played for my dad. One summer, he asked if his 12-year-old cousin, Juan, could play in some random pick-up tournament with his team. My father obliged after seeing his birth certificate. So Juan played and was by far the best player.

Now, three years later — THREE!!! — my brother spots him playing against 12-year-olds. He was surprised to see us, too. We could tell by how wide his eyes were. He had that Sean Manaea alarmed expression.

A 15-year-old, minimum, pitching against middle schoolers is practically criminal. But that’s how much that program cheated. A parent from the (Upper) West Side Little League got so tired of seeing Rolando Paulino get national praise while everyone locally knew they were cheaters. There is one thing you should know about the West Side Little League: they will protest anything if their kids don’t get a trophy. They’d see a player on the end of the bench with a teal Nike swoosh on his cleats and somehow discover that page 8, section 222, paragraph 5, line 9 in the rule forbids teal logos.

An executive at Sports Illustrated, whose son played for West Side, sent his team of SI reporters to the Dominican Republic to find out Almonte’s real age. Busted. Rolando Paulino had their wins vacated, was kicked out of Little League and we got our shot.

Now, we were catching what was left of the wrath of Almonte. Parents and fans were hating on us so hard. But they picked the wrong team to mess with. Our team was too strong. Harlem Little League was founded by Harvard and Yale graduates. Run by MIT types. We were straight.

And we knew it. So we swagged on.

We took our individual and team photos and exaggeratedly flattened the brim of our baseball caps. WE introduced the flat-brim look to baseball. You won’t find another team sporting flat brims before Harlem did it in the summer of 2002.

We were just trying to be like the people on our blocks. We brought the culture to diamond. Not intentionally. We were just being ourselves. Clearly, that was a problem.

We could hear the boos mix in with the cheers at the introductory ceremonies for the Little League World Series. We were 12, but we didn’t care. In 2002, seeing kids of color thriving with such flare rubbed many the wrong way. We had trolls in real life, way before social media. After the opening ceremony, we had to be escorted to a van. Grown men plastered their grown ass hands to the tinted windows of our van with their thumbs down.

We were too high on the experience to care, honestly. We had players living in homeless shelters and now we were being treated like royalty. Some jeers were no match for how we were living it up. Plus, we’d already been booed by life and systems designed to our disadvantage. An angry middle-aged man with a scowl didn’t scare us.

Our first game, against North Carolina, was supposed to expose us.

A team from New York can’t handle a team from the south. That was the talking point. A grand slam and three more homers later, we spanked them, 9-3.

That’s when Sean “Diddy” Combs called my dad’s cellphone and requested to meet us. He sent us boxes of clothes from his fashion line, Sean John, for us to wear when we got back home.

We were signing autographs. We had an escort everywhere we went. You couldn’t tell us nothing.

We even had groupies. Seriously. Real-life groupies.

We’d have 15-year-old girls watching us practice, angling to get close to us. Can you imagine 12-year-old boys with high school groupies? Oh boy.

Our coaches tried to tell us to stay away from those girls, to focus on what we came for, to play baseball. But we were sneaking out of the grove where the dorms were, linking up with the older girls and doing some non-PG 13 things behind the Howard J. Lamade Stadium.

We were rock stars for a week and we relished every second of it.

Then we lost. A team from Kentucky shut us down, 2-0. That game gave the scouting report on how they beat us to Aptos, our next opponent. The Kentucky team told Aptos we crushed fastballs but couldn’t hit offspeed pitches. They were sure they had us.

So, in an elimination game, Aptos pitched Kevin Eichorn, the son of San Jose native and former major leaguer Mark Eichorn. Kevin was, indeed, an offspeed pitcher. At least at the time.

A team from New York can’t beat a team from California. Those kids in Cali play all-year around. Those were the talking points.

Our showboating kicked up a notch. Aptos took the lead first, but Alibay homered again to put us back in it. Next up was our star third baseman, Andy Diaz. His showboating made Fernando look like a choir boy.

Eichorn left a ball hanging in the zone and Andy crushed it. Before reaching first base, Andy waved bye-bye to the ball. I’m pretty sure he moonwalked like Michael Jackson when he rounded second base. Or tried to. Between third and home plate, Andy started duck walking. The boos rang out. My father screamed at us for this one, but then came to our defense in the postgame interviews.

We were soon all over ESPN, but as the central figure in a debate about whether hotdogging has a place in baseball. Hotdogging is what my father, a Baltimore native, called it.

We mostly didn’t care. Three home runs later, we sent Aptos packing, winning, 5-2. We kept strutting, kept hanging with teenage groupies. We even made a habit of doing donuts in our chaperones’ golf carts before that was something Marshawn Lynch made viral at Cal a few years later. The Little League World Series never had this on their hands.

Tony Gwynn was the guest analyst alongside Reynolds and Brent Musburger for our next game, the U.S. semifinal against Worcester, Massachusetts. Gwynn came in the dugout and met us before the game. We were heavy favorites to win as people started to accept we were probably the most talented team in the tournament.

Maybe acceptance was our kryptonite. Maybe we played our best as villains. We needed the black hat. Because as soon as it felt like no one doubted us anymore, we lost.

Worcester beat us on a walk-off homer. The luckiest homer I’ve ever seen in my life. His name was Ryan Griffin. He was hitting .111 for the entire summer. If you look at the photos, his eyes were closed on contact.

Afterwards, we were crying, blaming each other. I remember just wanting to go home. We finished the tournament third in the U.S. and sixth in the world.

When we got home, we were treated like local celebrities. We met Willie Mays. We took the field with the New York Yankees. Derek Jeter chatted up one of my teammates, Jeremy Lopez.

“So how was Williamsport?” Jeter asked.

“It was cool,” Jeremy responded.

“Cool?” Jeter replied. “It should have been more than cool hitting all them damn home runs.”

We also took the field with the New York Mets. We got to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Our team’s name is also written into the congressional record. We had dinner with then Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash. We even appeared on that old BET show, “106 & Park.”

Spike Lee later reached out. He wanted to do a movie on us, spearheaded by Disney. They interviewed each one of us on our experience in Williamsport. The film fell through, but we each still got the $2,000 they promised. Some of us were smart enough to put that money in a bank account. But we were from Harlem, man. You know some of us walked around with that wad of cash in our pocket.

That’s just who we were. Exuberant. Rambunctious. Arrogant.

We were also successful. On the field and off. Of our 14 players — seven African-American and seven Latino — 11 went to college. Five of us went on to play Division I baseball. Of those five, including Alibay, three played professionally. Alibay was drafted and played affiliated ball with the Los Angeles Angels. Fernando was drafted by the Washington Nationals. Some of us are now married with kids. We work in finance, insurance, sports journalism, videography. Those great times from 16 years ago have become poignant memories in fulfilling lives.

This time of year always makes me think about those days. I will always appreciate how genuine our bond was and how true we remained to who we were, even in the face of criticism and disapproval. We were kids playing the game, being ourselves, and it captivated the nation.

We even had lunch with former President Bill Clinton. I’ll never forget the moment before we went into his office. My father couldn’t yell at us, so he whispered as loud as he could and used his facial expression to emphasize the importance of his impassioned plea. Actually, it was much more a demand.

“Guys,” he said, widening his eyes as he talked through gritted teeth, “DO NOT ask him about Monica Lewinsky!”

We didn’t. But he had to say it because we were wild enough to ask.

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