Since 1947, August has brought with it more than a week's worth of baseball from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the Little League World Series. Teams of 11-12-year-olds from across the country and throughout the world gather in the Keystone State after working their way through area, state and regional All-Star tournaments to determine who will be crowned the champion.
Two members of the 2014 Asheville Tourists experienced that long journey more than a decade ago. Infielder Zach Osborne reached Williamsport as a member of Valley Sports American Little League from Louisville, Kentucky, as a 12-year-old in 2002. A year later, fellow infielder Michael Benjamin made the trek at age 11 to Pennsylvania when Chandler (Arizona) National Little League represented the West Region.
"I just remember it went by really quick," said Benjamin, who is on the disabled list but leads the South Atlantic League with a .341 batting average. "But it was a lot of fun while we were there. We got treated really well. It was interesting bunking with another team -- we were kind of roommates with Team Canada. The baseball stage was fun, playing in front of that many fans and everyone is on your side for the most part. It was a good time."
"It was awesome, being 12 years old and having the chance to experience other kids from around the world," added Osborne, a reserve infielder for Asheville whose Louisville team represented the Great Lakes Region and won the title. "I made a lot of close friends throughout the time. I also remember the Japan team being above us in the dorms. I guess they stayed on Japan time because every morning they would wake us up and our whole team would be so mad. As it turned out, that's who we played in the championship game and we ended up beating them. I guess you could say we got some revenge."
Ironically, getting to Williamsport was not in the forefront of Benjamin's mind when his Chandler team began practicing. He had seen kids playing on television in previous years yet did not realize he would have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps in a few short weeks.
"I'll be honest, when we first started playing on our All-Star team, I had no idea there was anything past your state championship," said Benjamin, whose father, Mike, was a Major League infielder for parts of 13 seasons. "I was only 11 and had not been on the 11-12-year-old All-Star team before. Before that, you only played up to the state level. I remember the first time we did a chant, it was, 'District, state, California, Williamsport.' That was really the first time I realized we could go far in this thing.
"Going through the state finals and getting to California was really when it hit us. We were playing teams from places like Boise and Hawaii and other places throughout the West Coast. Seeing them and ESPN being there made us realize what the stakes were all about."
Osborne, meanwhile, understood what the ultimate prize might be after competing as an 11-year-old in 2001. His father also served as the Louisville team's head coach, which increased the youngster's awareness of what could be achieved if everything fell into place.
"I knew we could get there because the year before we had made it to state," Osborne said. "We were like one game away from winning the state. That was our goal at the beginning of the [next] season. We went to state and we won and then we went to the regionals and had a couple of close games there. Then we got to the finals and we all started talking about how we could get to Williamsport. It was almost like icing on the cake for us after we won state. When we wound up winning the whole thing, it was a great experience and a great time in my life that I got to share with my dad."
The crowds in Williamsport can exceed 20,000 for games, particularly when the hill beyond the outfield fence becomes packed with fans wanting to see history being made. Benjamin and Osborne say the experience of playing in that environment probably helped prepare them for similar stages later in their careers, although both admit everyone involved took everything in stride.
"At that age, you really don't know the significance of it all and you're just having fun," Benjamin said. "I remember being on the field and seeing all the fans in the stands and on the hill. But when we were playing the games, I felt like I couldn't hear anyone. I don't know if it was the sound there or simply being locked in and focused, but I remember coming back from our first or second game and thinking how quiet it was while we were playing, even though all of those people were cheering. I think from that point on it helped me stay focused and block out things as I played at higher levels in the game."
"I think it definitely helped me down the road, playing in front of a lot of people," said Osborne, whose current team is battling for a spot in the SAL playoffs. "In the championship game, it was crazy how many people were on the hill in the outfield. It was a great time and something I'll never forget."
Prime performance: Asheville first baseman Correlle Prime went 5-for-5 with three runs scored and three RBIs to lead the Tourists to an 11-3 victory over Augusta on Aug. 17. Prime hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning and stroked four singles over the remainder of the contest, raising his batting average from .276 to .284.
Asheville record-breakers? The Tourists lead the South Atlantic League with a .293 batting average and are within striking distance of several league records. The SAL mark for batting average is .284, held by Columbia (1983) and Asheville (1986). Through Aug. 19, the Tourists are also within reach of the season record for hits (1,288; record is 1,362 by Columbia in 1990), doubles (318; 335 by Asheville in 2012), extra-base hits (466; 506 by Asheville in 2007), and total bases (2,018; 2,191 by Asheville in 2011).
Wheeler recognized: Kannapolis left-hander Andre Wheeler was tabbed SAL Pitcher of the Week on Aug. 18 after winning two starts without allowing an earned run. In his last four outings (three starts), Wheeler has not surrendered a run and given up only five hits and seven walks with 15 strikeouts over 17 innings. His 2.99 ERA is the lowest it's been since late May.
Savannah strikeouts: Five Sand Gnats pitchers combined to strike out 14 Greenville batters in a 3-2 victory over the Drive on Aug. 17. John Gant started for Savannah and fanned five of the first six batters he faced before finishing with nine whiffs in five frames. John Mincone, Bret Mitchell, Darwin Frias and Akeel Morris worked one inning apiece while holding the visitors scoreless to notch the win.