BRISTOL — Mike Randazzo was on vacation in the Everglades, 1,200 miles as the baseball flies from the Giamatti Center, when Dustin Walters drove an 0-1 pitch high into the trees and halfway to Miami International Airport.
“That one had a stewardess on it,” Fairfield American manager Jeff Gouley said Tuesday after his team defeated Saco, Maine, 7-1, to avoid elimination at the Little League New England Regional.
After falling victim to a perfect game in a 10-0 loss to Coventry, R.I., Fairfield rebounded with strong pitching from Will Meyers and sharp, errorless defense. Gouley was left shaking his head in amazement of Walters’ two-run homer in the third inning.
Eleven District 2 titles by Fairfield American since 2005? Seven of nine state championships since 2010? Three regional titles and trips to Williamsport for the World Series since 2010, including a third-place national finish by Randazzo’s team in 2017?
Gouley isn’t the only one shaking his head in amazement. What Fairfield’s kids have done is dominant.
“Insane, isn’t it?” Randazzo said.
“Our kids here, they know what has been done before them,” Gouley said.
So what’s the secret?
“I was asked that question everywhere we went last year,” Randazzo said. “I didn’t know exactly why then and I don’t know now.
“When you get coaches, players, families, as we say, all in, it’s tremendous. Plus, there is good travel ball where we are. People are dedicated. And there is, dare I say, the financial wherewithal for private lessons. That’s a pretty good confluence of events.”
Still, seven state championships since 2010 in a state of 3.5 million people and it’s not like many other Connecticut communities don’t have, ah, wherewithal.
“I can’t put my finger on exactly why and I don’t think anybody who has come through this league since 2010 can either,” Randazzo said. “The town is blessed with some tremendous athletes, but so are other towns.
“I will say this. These kids go to our field, Mill Hill. They see all the plaques up on the wall of our concession stand. They want one. Not that other teams in the state don’t, too, but the coaches have asked these kids to give them seven days for six weeks, a couple hours a day, and we’ll see what happens. It has been a phenomenal run and we’ve benefited from great commitment.”
Remember the kids under Randazzo that tickled all our fancies last year before they were finally eliminated by the national champion from Texas? They’re gone. This is an entirely new group of 13.
“These kids want to be here,” Gouley said. “They want to be great. The kids see it at Mill Hill. They hear it all fall, winter and spring. There are T-shirts that have all the state champions and regional champions on the back. They want their year on them.”
“A lot of it is the consistency with the coaching, the practices are run very well, a lot of former coaches pass on their mentoring,” said Will Meyers’ dad Howard. “People work hard. We have a great, supportive fan base. Everyone knows the drill. It’s almost rinse and repeat.”
Randazzo, Gouley and league president Matt McGuire each talked about the consistency of commitment. Randazzo called it the torch handed from one group of league leaders to another. All to get to Williamsport, the place Gouley calls “Disney World for baseball kids.” Disney or not, it is heartening to see young kids learning about the responsibility that goes with sustaining success while, you know, jumping in the pool and playing video games.
“We all watched it last year,” Walters said. “We were so happy for our town.”
“We have a reputation of coming here and going to Williamsport,” shortstop Pierce Cowles said. “I watched all the games last year. I was like, man, I really hope we get there. It would be a miracle if we did.”
And here the Fairfield Americans will be Thursday trying to stay alive in the regionals against Goffstown, N.H.
While the tendency is to go, oh, there’s another Fairfield American champion, that notion belies the expectations of this year’s team. The 2017 team had outscored opponents, 118-17, through district play. Of course, as Randazzo pointed out, “we had three guys over 5-6 and other teams at Williamsport had 10.
“But this year’s group never made it into the playoffs for the district tournament last year for 11s, and even as 10s, and now all of a sudden they basically ran the table in the state. Totally unexpected. Most unexpected run that we’ve had, gosh, since 2010. Jeff and his group have done such a fantastic job.”
“Over the years at age 10 and 11 in districts, we typically don’t win the title,” McGuire said. “It’s not until we’re 12.”
And everybody’s watching on ESPN.
“It’s hard to even win our district,” McGuire said. “Trumbull [1989 World Series champions], Westport [Williamsport in 2013], Fairfield National. That sometimes is our toughest competition in the state.”
McGuire has had four sons play in the league. Manager, coach, board member, president the past two years, he has seen plenty during his 15 years with the league.
“When these kids turn 8, that’s the first year you can play travel baseball,” said McGuire, whose son Gavin is on the 2018 team. “They get to see the older kids play. They want a taste of it. They want to be a part of it. As do coaches and parents. Success breeds success. I don’t know if all towns practice every day in the summer. We certainly do.
“But we make sure to sprinkle in a ton of fun along the way. Team dinners and parties. We also are one of the few in the state with a summer house league for kids [not picked to All-Star teams] to have fun.”
On Tuesday, Gouley talked about former Fairfield American starter Rich Kerstetter coming to Bristol to throw batting practice. He talked about former state champion coaches helping out at practices.
“That’s why we’re back,” Gouley said. “It has everything to do with the league and keeping that atmosphere going.”
A retired businessman now living in South Carolina, Steve Curtis was league president and vice president in the early 2000s, the man who initiated the plaques. He said a key element in kick-starting long-term success was getting the right leaders who understood it wasn’t about their kid, it was about developing a program.
“We went around to surrounding leagues to watch their regular season games and noticed the majority of the dominant players were always on the same teams,” said Curtis, involved with Fairfield American for close to 20 years. “When it got to district play, they saw aggressive competition they hadn’t seen on a daily basis. We tried to eliminate ‘daddy ball’ and distribute the best players evenly throughout the league.”
A league championship, a jamboree, was put in place at the end of the regular season to highlight improvement. A mid-season All-Star Game was instituted where the kids voted for the participants, so when it came to adults picking district teams there was a comparative template against bias. A fall ball pickup season was instituted to keep kids engaged.
“We also had the benefit of population,” Curtis said, “but they could have gone to lacrosse.”
It has been six years since Will Lucas struck out 13 in a no-hitter against New Castle, Indiana in an unforgettable Fairfield American victory in Williamsport. Time marches on. Lucas will play for UConn next season.
“We were sitting today with Ethan Righter [the 2017 star],” McGuire said. “You know, kids move on. Some stop playing. Some play football or soccer. They all come back to support Fairfield American. The families here are not all families of this year’s players.”
“Fairfield American is a big part of these families’ lives,” Randazzo said. “We don’t want this to end. Every year part of you thinks this cycle has to be coming to a close. Then you get a team like this year.”
And it doesn’t end.