Toms River Little League Champs Look Back 20 Years Later

The Toms River East American Little League All-Star team poses with its Little League World Series championship banner in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)

Their names will never be forgotten.

Shortstop-pitcher Todd Frazier. Pitcher Casey Gaynor. Pitcher-first baseman Scott Fisher. Second baseman Joey Franceschini Jr. Third baseman Gabe Gardner. Catcher Brad Frank. Outfielder Chris Cardone. Outfielder R.J. Johansen. Outfielder Chris Crawford. Outfielder Mike Belostock. Outfielder Eric Campesi. Outfielder Tom Gannon. Manager Mike Gaynor. Coach Ken Kondek. Coach Joe Franceschini Sr.

And what the group – the Toms River East American Little League All-Star team – accomplished 20 years ago will also never be forgotten.

The club captured the 1998 Little League World Series title, besting Kashima, Ibarak, Japan, 12-9, on Aug. 29 in front of some 40,000 fans and an ABC Television audience at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa.

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“I don’t think it ever really sunk in on me when we won the world championship,” said Cardone, who went 2-for-2 in the finale. “To be honest, I don’t think I will ever really comprehend what we did. I was a little kid and all of my feelings and experiences are filtered through that little boy’s perspective. I was obviously excited, but I don’t remember having a grip on the scope of what we accomplished.”

“It was a very overwhelming feeling when we won the championship – something that I never thought was possible – especially in front of thousands of fans,” Gannon said.

The team’s leader was Frazier, who went on to star for Toms River High School South, Rutgers University, the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees and is now the New York Mets’ starting third baseman. Frazier was 4-for-4, including a lead-off home run, in the championship game and notched the win on the pitcher’s mound. He’s in the first season of a two-year $17 million contract with the Mets.

East American was honored at the second annual MLB Little League Classic on Sunday, Aug. 19 at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., site of the Mets-Philadelphia Phillies clash.

“It was a fun time,” Frazier said of his Little League experiences on littleleague.org prior to the Classic. “I had a blast. It was a time in my life that I’ll never forget. I remember trading pins, sliding down the hill on cardboard and meeting all the other kids from all over the world, which was really cool and probably the highlight. It was just a tremendous two weeks. We had a great time on and off the field.”

Todd Frazier strides toward a pitch. (Photo courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)

Frazier was scheduled to greet the winners of the 2018 Canon Little League Photo Contest in Williamsport prior to the game.

“I can’t wait to be back,” he told the website prior to the event. “I’m going to bring my two trading books full of pins from back in the day to trade with the kids. I’m going to watch the games going on. It’s going to be an unbelievable experience.”

It was an experience that began at the local level.

East American won the District 18 Tournament. It followed with championships at the Section III, New Jersey and East Regional tournaments. East American lost five games before reaching the LLWS, falling in the District, section and state tournaments and twice succumbing in the East Regional Tournament. It won the United States title in Pool Play at 3-0 before capturing the world crown.

The team was known as The Beast of the East. Rich Cunningham served as the club’s mascot, inciting cheers from fans while dressed in a gorilla costume.

“I would say as we went farther the pressure became a little more,” Gannon said. “It was a good pressure because we had so much fun playing together that we didn’t want it to end.

“I think we dealt with it by leaning on each other,” he said. “We would always make sure to pick each other up whether we had a good game or a bad game. At the end of the day, we were still kids and this exposure was new to most of us. Our coaches did a great job of making sure we didn’t forget that it was just a game and to just give it our best effort no matter what happened.”

“I can honestly say that I do not remember feeling any pressure,” Cardone said. “That may sound a bit cliché or exaggerated, but I never remember any of us looking any farther than our next game. Now I’m sure we wanted to win and as it got more and more real we were not completely naive to the increased stakes. However, I never remember the team feeling any pressure. It obviously helps to have Scott Fisher, Casey Gaynor (whose dad was the manager) and Todd Frazier on your team, too.”

The team coped with the greatness of the task as just that – a team.

Consistency in routine helped the team deal with the pressure.

“I would attribute our team’s coping skills to routine and relationships,” Cardone said. “We had a routine in practice. Every day was the same practice. It didn’t matter if we were practicing in Toms River or Williamsport in front of our parents or news cameras. Our relationships with each other were the other coping mechanisms that we had.

“We all got along and that is a harder task than you would expect seeing as we were all the all-stars from our own teams. Everyone deserved to be there, but no one expected to be bigger than the team.”

Cardone said Fisher and Gaynor were key pitchers.

“I believe a major part of the success of our team was the pitching of Scott Fisher and Casey Gaynor,” Cardone said. “The toughness and resilience that they showed through the summer was pretty incredible. When they were on the mound, we felt we could compete with anyone. Also, having Todd Frazier didn’t hurt.”

There was plenty of team spirit.

“We all got along so well,” Cardone said. “We never let ourselves get too anxious or too nervous. We made sure we lived in the moment and took it one game at a time.”

“We had a combination of great coaching and talented players,” Gannon said. “We were able to mesh well as a team. The experience started out as 12 kids having fun playing ball together. We continued to win games and we wanted to keep winning to see how far we could take this team. The deeper we went into the tournament, we started to really believe we had something special.”

Toms River East American celebrates Todd Frazier’s home run in the championship game of the Little League World Series. (Photo courtesy of Little League Baseball and Softball)

Manager Gaynor excelled.

“Mike Gaynor was a calm coach who was very calculating in his decisions,” Cardone said. “I always thought he was old school, but we did things back then that are major parts of the new school game now like batting your best hitters at the top of the lineup.”

Gannon played under manager Gaynor on the local Little League team prior to being chosen to the all-star team.

“I had the luxury of playing for Mr. Gaynor for three years before becoming an all-star,” Gannon said. “He was most likely the best coach I ever had. He knew exactly how to treat his players and how to get the best out of us. As competitive as he was, he never lost sight that it was all about having fun while trying to win. He would always be calm no matter what the situation was. That calmness gave us the confidence to never panic no matter what the situation was.”

Gannon said the team gave winning the World Series little thought as it began play.

“I don’t think it was something that was on our minds at all,” he said. “We were playing together as a team for the first time. We knew we had talented players, but winning the title was not something we set out to do from the start. As time went on, we began to realize how special of a team we had.”

“I don’t think we let it creep into our minds until we actually crossed the Pennsylvania border,” Cardone said.

Gannon and Cardone enjoyed competing in the World Series.

“Every team that played in it was already a champion in their own right,” Gannon said. “Each team was treated to the best experience possible.”

“Little League Baseball and the people with the (Little League World Series) treated us wonderfully throughout the entire experience,” Cardone said. “It was all of our first experience with being in such high demand and I don’t remember once feeling overwhelmed by the attention. Our ‘uncles’ (chaperones) and coaches did a wonderful job of insulating us from all of the media hype that was building.”

Cardone thoroughly enjoyed the Little League experience.

“I can say I have nothing but fond memories about the Little League experience,” he said. “No matter what was happening off the field, playing baseball was my favorite thing to do back then. What Little League did was give us the opportunity to play competitively against some truly amazing talent from around the world, some of which I can say to this day was from our own town and state. Little League provided me with memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.”

Celebrity status engulfed East American after it won the LLWS.

There was a visit to the White House where they met Vice President Al Gore. The team was honored at Yankee Stadium. Cardone was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Other politicians showered the club with praise and honors.

“I’m not sure I could pick one thing over the other, but I would have to selfishly say my biggest thrill was my ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ appearance,” Cardone said. “It’s just not something that many people can say they did.”

“I would have to say it’s a toss-up between going to Yankee Stadium and meeting the players, being able to go on the field during the national anthem and getting a chance to visit the White House,” Gannon said. “They are two things many people never get a chance to do.”

Still residing in Toms River, Gannon has found the team’s memory lives.

“I always get the same reaction when I tell people where I live,” he said. “I think it’s awesome that people still remember our team and it’s cool to have a story to go along with it. Besides getting married and having kids, this was probably the most amazing thing to ever happen in my life. The 12 of us have a special bond that we will have with us for the rest of our lives. Making it to Williamsport is hard enough and we were fortunate to take advantage of the opportunity and bring a world title back to Toms River.”

“I honestly don’t think about it too often,” Cardone said. “I am reminded about it by coworkers and friends. However, it is not something I usually reflect upon. I am very fortunate to have so many more blessings in my life like my wife and children. I still live in Toms River and enjoy being close to my family and friends.”

Cardone and his wife, Kaelin, are the parents of two children Robinson, who is three, and Chloe, who turned two in June. Cardone is employed by the United States Navy and Department of Defense as the lead mechanical design and installation engineer on a shipboard aviation data management and control network that handles launch and recovery data on aircraft carriers.

Cardone said he has benefited off the field from his Little League experience.

Todd Frazier (Photo courtesy Love Imagery)

“It has helped me tremendously in life by not only providing me with lifelong friendships and memories but by also providing me with confidence in myself,” he said. “Little League has taught me that certain trials in life are worth the effort. I have learned to find the fun in the day-to-day because that is all we are guaranteed.

“As silly as it sounds to say in an interview about winning a world championship, winning is not the point of all of this. Getting better every day and learning to be a better person or baseball player is the real skill because the only people who lose are the people who stop improving.”

A police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Gannon and his wife, Kristen, are the parents of three-year-old Skylar and four-month-old Tripp Gannon.

“This experience has given me the confidence to be able to accomplish anything I put my mind to,” Gannon said. “I also know that nothing is given to you and that you have to earn everything in life. I also know that what we accomplished was extremely hard and that more people fail at it than achieve it. You have to keep that in the back of your mind. You may fail from time to time, but you must learn from that experience and try again until you succeed.

“I just feel fortunate to be a part of such a special team. I gained memories that will live with me forever. I am very happy to be able to share this experience with my wife and kids.”

Gardner, a sales manager for a Denver area convenience store company, said on littleleague.org, “The team has always meant a lot to me. We shared a life experience that few in this world will ever have a chance to understand.”