They are in the headlines now, the newest local Little Leaguers to make it to the grandest stage. They are busy settling into their dorm rooms in Williamsport, Pa., honing their skills on the Ping-Pong tables or trading pins with fellow players from all over the map. They are getting ready to play their first game of the Little League World Series Wednesday, their moment in the national spotlight representing the peak of an exceptional summer.
We are all catching on to Middleboro’s Little League moment in the sun, its step into an annual youth tournament that has evolved into a can’t-miss event featuring some of the best late-summer baseball action on the calendar.
For the young players, however, this has been a journey so much longer in the making. And whenever and wherever it goes from here, it is the entirety of the journey they will remember, the sum total of an experience they will never forget, the bonds of friendship they will cement for life.
That is the lesson from the last Massachusetts team to make this trip.
The Peabody West all-stars who went to the LLWS in 2009 didn’t bring home a trophy, but they banked a lifetime of memories, ones they wouldn’t trade for anything. And as they root for Middleboro to go even further than the three games they played 13 years ago, they want just as much for these young players to someday look back at a magical summer the same way they look back at theirs.
“Definitely soak it all in,” Austin Batchelor said. “At that age, you’re kind of caught up in the moment, not really thinking about 10 years down the line how much you will miss it. It’s definitely one of the best times of your life.”
“A lot of us will say that was the best summer of our lives, if not one of the best,” agreed teammate Mike Petrosino, one of the 12 all-stars under manager Dave Batchelor, Austin’s father, and assistant coach Danny Marchese, who sadly died last year.
The beauty of such sentiments is not that they are awash in hazy nostalgia, representing some “best years of our lives” moment never to be reached again. The beauty is in the appreciation of a formative moment, the summer that helped them navigate lives that continue to flourish, kids who played Division 1 baseball, who switched to high school football, who work in trades or earned undergraduate or master’s degrees, but most of all, who remain friends, connected enough to gather for five- and 10-year reunions.
They share memories of the summer when they spent almost every waking hour together, riding their bikes all over West Peabody, sweating through daily practices, barreling through their perfect 17-0 season leading into Williamsport, gathering after all of it at somebody’s house just to spend more time together.
“It’s just a special bond that only we can really brag about,” Petrosino said. “That’s what separates us, that once we were them, we did that. I wish Middleboro nothing but success; even if they don’t win, they have the experience, to cherish that, all the behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Peabody’s most indelible moment was actually the one that sent the team to Williamsport, the first-pitch, walk-off grand slam one young Matt Hosman hit against Rhode Island in the New England final. “The blast,” which followed a game-tying, bases-loaded walk by Matt Correale, is still a hit on YouTube and still earns Hosman a nod of recognition when the locals hear his name.
“I’d struck out three times against the same pitcher,” Hosman recalled. “I remember talking to Coach Batchelor, who was at third base, when the other manager went out to talk to the pitcher. We had our own conversation, and I remember he said to me, ‘If it’s a first pitch and not a fastball, I’d let it go.’
“I said something back, I wish I could remember what it was, and then he told me, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’m comfortable with it. Whatever you feel, just do that.’ ”
One pitch later, the celebration was on. Many years later, the memory lives on, just as a home run in his last-ever Little League at-bat does for Batchelor, or closing out that final victory on the mound in Williamsport does for Petrosino.
The lessons of trust live on too, as Batchelor played at Boston College and came within a game of the College World Series, as Hosman played at UMass and became a reserve firefighter in Peabody, as Petrosino studied at Stonehill and then Northeastern grad school for accounting.
The group texts live on too, sometimes just looking for a couple guys for a pickup basketball game, other times checking on their softball schedule. Yes, softball. Once a team, always a team. Why waste those lessons of trust and teamwork built so long ago? Hosman, Correale, Batchelor, Petrosino, and Sean McGrath may have switched bats, but they’re still winning titles in town.
“We actually play softball in the same place, at Cy Tenny, where the Little League field is,” Batchelor said, “and we’re still winning championships there.”
“We still got it,” laughed Petrosino.
With the benefit of hindsight and a dose of wisdom, these guys, now 24 and 25 years old, appreciate so much what Middleboro is doing. They pull for all the same chances for fun they had back then, like appearances at a Red Sox game, or a meeting at the State House, or a spot in a local Halloween parade, as the Peabody kids had in Salem.
“Just realizing how rare it is,” Batchelor said. “When you’re 12, maybe you don’t think about how hard it is to accomplish something that big, but now that we’re older, we can see how big of an accomplishment that really was. When you accomplish anything as a team, you have that bond forever and you’re proud of it.”
The Middleboro Little League team is guaranteed two games at the Little League World Series. Here’s the schedule.
Wednesday: vs. Southeast region, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
If Middleboro wins: Friday vs. Mountain region, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
If Middleboro loses: Saturday vs. Mid-Atlantic/Southwest region loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)