The boys of summer 1988 Tamaqua Little League team's success was the talk of the town
Marc Gallagher, left, of Tamaqua, and Steve Behr, of Andreas, reunite for a photo at the Tamaqua Little League field. Gallagher and Behr were part of the 1988 Tamaqua Little League team that put together a memorable run 25 years ago this summer.
Twenty-five summers ago, the Phillies' Mike Schmidt was still hitting memorable home runs, Yankee manager Billy Martin was fired for the fifth time, and the Cubs played the first ever night game at Wrigley Field.
Yet for the people who lived in Tamaqua in 1988, those events paled in comparison to the accomplishments of a team of twelve-year old boys who marched through baseball tournament victories until they fell just short of competing for a chance to play at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.
"When we were 12, everyone in town knew that our all-stars could be pretty good," says the team's left fielder, RJ Finley, now an English teacher living in Mechanicsburg.
"Pretty good" is an understatement.
Tamaqua swept through the District 18 Tournament at their Bungalow Field, crushing its five opponents by a total score of 55-11, including a 10-4 rout of Franklin Township in the championship game.
"I believe we were the first team from District 18 to make the states," says Marc Gallagher who played third base.
"Since we all were so close together as friends, we really played for each other," says Finley. "Even though I hit around .600, I didn't care about my average. I just cared about winning games with the boys I grew up with in Tamaqua."
"We played together for four years before we made all-stars," says outfielder Bill Angst Jr., now a Pocono Mountain West High School math teacher. "When we weren't playing baseball, we played wiffle ball, home run derby, and ate a lot of pizza together."
The team then advanced to the Pennsylvania Section 3 tournament that took place in Shippensburg and Shinglehouse. After a first round bye, Tamaqua played Red Land in the semifinals. Finley, who drilled a bases-loaded double in that game for three RBIs, recalls the action as if it had happened yesterday.
"The game was close with back and forth lead changes until it was tied at 7-7 in the sixth. We had runners on second and third when their pitcher threw a wild pitch. As the catcher ran to the backstop to retrieve it, he fell and broke his wrist. We scored and won 9-7."
Andy Yarnell, who now lives in Cincinnati, played first base for Tamaqua and ripped four home runs during tournament play that summer.
"We had an unbelievable chemistry," he recalls. "All the right pieces just fit together. And everybody came out to watch our team. It was phenomenal."
Finley still remembers the significance of the victory.
"I think everyone in Tamaqua became a part of our identity after that game and they really got behind us." He then adds with a laugh, "You know, coal crackers from a small town beating a big county all-star team."
Assistant coach Joe Ruggeri, who now resides in Hometown, credits the manager of the team, the late Randy Smith, for much of the team's success.
"Randy selected the best players from our town teams," he says. "The kids had great heart when they played, but he got them to take it up another notch in the tournament games."
Ruggeri remembers that the Section 3 tournament final was in Shinglehouse, nearly four hours from Tamaqua. The team and all of their parents rented an entire motel near Williamsport paid for by proceeds raised from Tamaqua fund drives.
"I mean how cool was that," says Yarnell. "A bunch of 12-year old kids from a small town went on an overnight road trip to play in a major tournament."
The team played Potter-McKeon in the finals, a compilation of all stars from Bedford and McKeon counties. Tamaqua quickly fell behind 2-0, but came back to tie the score at 3-3 to send the game into extra innings.
"It was the bottom of the ninth," recalls Finley. "Their pitcher loaded the bases on walks and we had our fastest runner, Justin Wassel, on third. He was ready to score on anything. Well, It happened for us again. He raced home on a wild pitch and we won the sectional championship."
"We were a bunch of rag tag little boys," says Wassel, an emergency room nurse who still resides in Tamaqua. "No one was an exceptional player, but as a team we felt we were invincible."
Tamaqua's community followed its team at the games, or on play by play broadcasts from radio station WMGH 105.5. Then they relived the action through the stories written in the TIMES NEWS by "Mr. Tamaqua," the late Joe Plasko.
Finley remembers all the excitement after they won the sectional championship.
"M & S Hardware gave us a hot dog picnic. We rode through the town on a fire truck. We were treated like mini-celebrities."
From the very beginning of their tournament run, the fast fame could have become a distraction for the team from their goal to keep winning.
"After we beat Lansford 21-1 in the Districts," recalls Finley," Coach Smith had us run laps the entire practice the next day. He saw we were getting too cocky. But then, every time we won a game, he would blast the songs, We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions on his radio. Those songs never sounded better than after we won the sectionals."
"Coach knew how to push the right buttons," adds Yarnell.
Tamaqua entered the state tournament, along with three powerhouse teams: Bellefonte, Aston-Middletown, and Ingomar, knowing that they were just another tournament championship away from the Eastern Regionals and a chance to qualify for the Little League World Series. The state games were to be played in Minersville, and unlike today's tournament rules, it was single elimination. Minutes before the game against Aston, Coach Smith found out that his brother had lost a leg in an accident.
"Randy gave an emotional pre-game speech," tells Ruggeri. "He told the kids that if they lost, it would be ok as long as they played hard because there were more important things in life than winning baseball games."
"Aston's talent was way out of our league," says Finley. "They hit bombs in the game that landed in a community swimming pool about 150 feet beyond the outfield fence."
Two of those home runs hit in Tamaqua's 11-0 defeat were blasted by Ben Davis, who was the second overall pick in the 1995 draft and later played with the Padres and several other major league teams. He is currently a broadcast analyst for the Phillies.
"After the game, we were disappointed, but we knew the better team was Aston," says Finley. "We were only four wins away from Williamsport, but it just wasn't meant to be."
After the Aston drubbing, Tamaqua showed its character in a consolation game. It was Gallagher's day to shine in an unfamiliar position.
"Coach gave me the ball because our team's frontline pitchers were spent from having thrown so many previous innings."
He pitched a 1-0, one-hit shutout. He shut down Bellefonte, a team with Eric Milton, who later pitched for the Phillies and also threw a no-hitter with the Minnesota Twins.
Gallagher, who also lives in Tamaqua, will never forget their "season of little stars."
"There had to be 3000 people in Minersville rooting us on," he says proudly.
After the season ended, Tamaqua closed off Broad Street to honor the team at a town festival. After that, as the players got older, they began to drift apart.
Some are still in the area like Gallagher, currently the athletic trainer at Marian High School and second baseman, Steve Behr, who is now the principal of Tamaqua Elementary School. Others have relocated across the country. Pitcher Geoff Kruczek is a Washington DC lawyer; catcher Joe Ligenza is a Lehigh Valley area teacher; and shortstop Mark Makovec is a school principal in Virginia. Other teams members were first baseman Mike Perilli, who lives outside of Philadelphia; third baseman Rich White; pitcher Jarod Eberts; second baseman Jason Shellhammer and catcher Richie Koch.
About 10 years ago, Finley ran into Joe Plasko and a discussion of a team reunion took place.
"I told Joe that a reunion would be impossible because so many from the team lived out of the area. So Joe said, 'then I want you to promise me that upon the 25th anniversary, we will have a newspaper story written to commemorate your team's great success.'"
Now, with a thickness in his throat from knowing that Plasko died just two years before the anniversary, Finley remarks, " A promise is a promise and we owe it to the team and to Joe too because he was such a great man and one of our biggest fans."
One town. One team. One promise.
"We were rock stars in our own neighborhood," says Yarnell.
"It was an incredible feeling," says Gallagher.
"We were the best Tamaqua team ever," says Angst.
"It was just a great time to be 12," says Finley.
From Tamaqua to Shippensburg to Shinglehouse to Minersville, it was a field of dreams for 14 young baseball players who defied the odds to win two championships that will forever define their childhood and be preserved in a collective memory of that special summer of 1988.