Little League World Champions...TWICE!

August 8, 2017

 

Nearly 10,000 fans graced the stands in San Bernardino during the Little League Western Championship Tournament against Hawaii in the summer of 1992, and most of them had traveled from Long Beach to cheer for the 12-year-olds All-Stars out of Stearns Park. State flags waved in the stands as everyone held their breath, wondering which team would make it to the World Series.

 

But the road wasn’t going to be easy. The Long Beach nine were facing Hawaii pitcher Lanakila Niles, who stood at 6 feet tall and threw an 85-mph fastball. At the top of the 6th inning – the last inning - our local boys began to confront the possibility of defeat. After weeks of qualifying tournaments, it had all come down to this.  The game’s last inning, with Long Beach down 2-1.

 

With just three outs left, the team was sending to bat its 9-1-2 hitters. Manager Larry Lewis could sense the deflation in team morale and tried to encourage the kids that they still had a chance. 

 

But then came the 1st out. Followed by the 2nd. And soon, Ryan Beaver was standing at the plate, down 1-2 in the count. 

 

“The kids were really moaning and groaning at that point,” says Lewis. “I kept trying to rally them, saying that as long as we have one out left, one strike left, we still have a chance.  But they weren’t listening too well.”

 

Then all of the sudden, Beaver hits a ball deep to right. The center fielder jumps up to catch the ball, squeezes the glove and crashes into the fence. The crowd holds their breath. Did he catch it?

 

Then they see the outfield fans throw their hands in the air. Long Beach fans are 15 rows deep in right center and they’re all cheering like wild, because they can see the ball top the fence. Homerun!

 

Next to the plate is Sean Burroughs, the team’s season-long Phenom. Now the cards were turned, the momentum completely switched. The big 11-year-old walks up aggressively and starts pounding his bat hard on the plate. Six times. The fans go wild because they know what it means. It’s a ritual Sean used infrequently, only every dozen games or so, a ritual by which he channeled the homerun gods. 

 Sean Burroughs celebrates after winning the United States Championship game in 1992. 

 

 

What the gesture really meant was that Sean wanted to hit the ball over the fence, even more than usual, and he was gonna give it everything he had to do so. The trick didn’t always work, but that didn’t matter. Sean, the team, and close to 10,000 fans from LB were in the moment.

 

And on the first pitch he hits a smash over the left field fence. Long Beach is up 3-2!

 

But in baseball the home team always gets a last at-bat.

 

So onto the bottom of the 6th.  With - who else but Sean Burroughs on the mound? And possibly a bit of nerves, because, after two outs, he faltered, allowing Hawaii to load the bases.  Inside the tense stadium, Long Beach coaches stuck with their top gun. And Burroughs came roaring back.  On a 3-2 count and with nowhere to put another runner, Sean fired the ball to a swing and a miss.  Long Beach had won!

 

Lewis said it was probably one of the most exciting games of the season. People from his law firm who had come out to watch said it was possibly one of the best sporting events they had ever seen.

 

It was that kind of enthusiasm that made the journey to the Little League World Series so special to not only the coaches, players, and families, but to the community that came and supported them along the way. 

 

That special 1992 Stearns Park team went on to win not only the Western but the National Championship, leading into the 1992 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  In their championship game against the Philippines, Long Beach ended up losing, but that loss took nothing away from their astonishing season.  They had won 22 consecutive games, scored 175 runs (opponents had only scored 51), and hit 53 home runs compared to a total 12 by opposing teams. It wasn’t until weeks later that the team found out that several Filipino players had lied about their ages. Long Beach Little League would be crowned the World Champions.

 

***

LB City Councilman Doug S. Drummond and Mike Laughlin of Lakewood cheer on the little leaguers

 

 

The 1992 Little League summer All-Star season had started out just like any other, except that this time they were armed with key arsenal. Former All-Star Major League player Jeff Burroughs began coaching the team and taught the kids valuable power hitting skills. When Jeff talked, the kids listened, and there was a level of respect for the former Major League MVP that was tangible.

Manager Larry Lewis learned the ins and outs of the rulebook and used his wit and intellect when the team needed it most. Lewis and Burroughs had met years earlier when they both enrolled their children at Bayshore Preschool, and they had become fast friends. Their skills as a coaching duo were admirable, but then the kids they were coaching were special.

 

“All of the kids grew up together within a three-mile radius,” said Larry Lewis. “They had such a tremendous team chemistry and they all pulled for each other. Jeff and I never wanted the kids to dwell on a physical mistake, and if a kid ever made an error the other guys would tell them it was okay.”

 

The Long Beach All-Star team won their first two tournaments that summer and quickly became a beacon of hope that the community rallied behind-- thanks to Press Telegram reporter Tom Hennessy, who chronicled nearly every game. Each win was a front-page story and each story garnered more support and momentum from readers all over Long Beach. 

 

The community was hooked.

 

“My family and I traveled to San Bernardino to watch and it was neat to see so many Long Beach people that had traveled out to the game,” said Lynda Muenzer a Long Beach native and friend of the team’s moms. “It made you feel like you were from a small town, even though Long Beach is so big, it gave you a sense of comradery and hometown feeling.”

 

The Little League success came as welcome news during a difficult time for Long Beach. In Jeff Burroughs’ book with Tom Hennessy, “The Little Team That Could,” they talk about how the Los Angeles riots had left their mark on Long Beach. There were high levels of gang violence, and thousands of people had been laid off by McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, which had been the city’s largest employer. Yet this baseball team brought hope and life back to the community. It gave people something to look forward to and a reason to come together.

 

The awesome community support during their long summer run was tremendously motivating to the team. Local response after the World Series Championship announcement was incredible – beyond anything either the boys or coaches expected.

 

“When we got off the plane from Williamsport there were hundreds waiting for us at the airport,” said Deb Burroughs. “They had signs and were cheering us on, it felt really good.”  

 

 

 

 

Manager Lewis said it felt like they had been off on a mission, and when they returned, they had achieved mission success. People really idolized them and the adulation was off the charts.  

 

The team went to their usual pizza spot to celebrate the 1992 Little League World Series win, just like it had been any other win over at Stearns Park. Only this time the restaurant was packed with fans.

 

The team even received a call from Vice President Dan Quayle while they were celebrating at Cirivello’s. The kids enjoyed pizza while parents and coaches enjoyed beer and good conversation...just like always.

 

“The team would come into Cirivello’s so often we got to know all the players and coaches,” laughs Joe Picarelli, former owner of Cirivello’s.  Reminiscing about the World Series, he adds, “But that party after the World Championship was the most packed I had ever seen our restaurant.”

 

The party didn’t stop at Cirivello’s. “John Morris rallied the troops downtown, and they threw us a huge parade down Pine Ave with over 20,000 fans in attendance.” said Larry Lewis. 

 

“The parade was phenomenal. The boys got to ride in convertible cars and people were shooting off confetti from the tops of all the high rise buildings.  As it was falling on us, everyone was cheering. I thought to myself, wow, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

 

The team was asked to be on numerous TV Shows like David Letterman and Family Feud. They were invited to the White House in 1992 to meet George H. W. Bush along with the Toronto Blue Jays, who had won the Major League Baseball World Series that year. The Blue Jays even threw them a private party their first night in Washington D.C. with hamburgers and hotdogs and signed autographs for the boys.

 

As the eventful summer wound down, the kids and parents prepared for the start of a new school year in September and the return to a regular pace of life. Most of the kids on the team attended Rogers Middle School, and brought with them their reputations of being World Champions.

 

“The kids of course just wanted to be kids and they let most of this stuff just roll off them,” said Sandi Lewis, wife of Manager Larry Lewis and mother of 1993 Little League player Timmy Lewis. 

 

“They weren’t feeding into any of it, they were the same old kids and most of them wanted to get back to surfing and boogey boarding.”

 

Deb Burroughs remembers that there were a lot of expectations for the boys as they went into the following baseball season. Her son Sean would be a 12-year-old; he and three other returning players would be joined by a whole new team of rookies at Stearns Park.  Including Larry Lewis’s son Timmy, who would now be 12 and good enough to make the All-Star team.

 

“Sean Burroughs was probably the most famous Little League Player ever at the age of twelve,” said Larry Lewis. “Everyone knew who he was, and we sort of had an advantage going into that 1993 season because many of the kids were afraid of him.” 

 

Despite the community supporting the notion of a consecutive World Title win, many of the parents and coaches weren’t so convinced. 

 

“The stars really had to line up for us to win two years in a row,” said Sandi Lewis. “One parent asked if we had already made our hotel reservations [for a future tournament], and I told her that we didn’t do that anywhere because it would jinx us. But everyone around us felt like it was going to be an automatic thing that we were going to win the World Series again.”

 

Yet somehow Long Beach rolled through team after team during the beginnings of that All-Star season, and after a 14 to 5 win over Woodland Hills, found themselves once again headed to San Bernardino for the Western regional tournament. For the second time in a row they were facing San Ramon Valley for the chance to move on to the World Series.  Once again they walked away victorious with a 5 to 2 win. 

 

Long Beach was back on the amazing journey to Williamsport, Pennsylvania once again, doing what hadn’t been done before. When it came time for the US Championship game against Panama, Jeff Burroughs and Larry Lewis couldn’t decide whether to pitch Sean Burroughs or Brady Werner. 

 

“I thought it would be best if we used Brady in the U.S. title game, and save Sean for the Saturday World Title Game,” said Lewis. “But at the time, Jeff thought the opposite. After much deliberation we decided to have Sean pitch in the U.S. game.  We ended up winning 11-0 to take title of the Little League Champions for the United States.”

 

This meant that Long Beach was once again going for the World Championship. Jeff Burroughs said that, as they took the field that day, the crowds were chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” and it all began to feel real again. 

 

Fast forward to a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the sixth inning, with two outs, bases loaded, and Long Beach’s Jeremy Hess at bat.

 

40,000 people in the stands held their breath. Panama was one out away from sending it into extra innings.

 

“He took a strike. Then on the second pitch, he connected,” said Jeff Burroughs in his book “The Little Team that Could.”

 

“The ball landed up against the wall in right center and Charlie Hess had scored. Once again, we were the world champions. But this time, we had won on the field.” 

 

The 1993 win against Panama was filled with just as much jubilation as the first year, but this time it was sweeter. There was again another parade for the team, and another pizza party at Cirivello’s. 

 

The fact that the team had even made it once to the World Series changed the lives for all future players in Long Beach and the surrounding areas. It brought a tremendous sense of hope to other Little League players, which increased tenfold after their second World Series win in 1993.

 

Throughout these two summers it was only natural that an amazing bond was created between the coaches, players, and families. In San Bernardino and in Williamsport the kids stayed in barracks and it was the responsibility of the coaches to look after them. Jeff Burroughs and Larry Lewis had many sleepless nights dealing with rambunctious 11 and 12-year-old boys – but they still loved them all as their own.

 

“I remember Larry used to give the kids different incentives if they won, and one of those was that he would let them drive his Jaguar,” said Deb Burroughs. “He had one of the first phones in his car and they wanted to use it, and if they won he would let them drive it around in the parking lot.”

 

It took a village to make everything happen, and many parents had to take off from work to make it to the games, yet they all made sacrifices and did what they could to support the team.

 

“During the ‘ship run there was a whole under-culture that was created for families on the team,” said Sandi Lewis. “There was a lot of pin trading that would happen since each team had a pin that depicted their city. So, families would often trade and had collections.”

 

She remembers that on particularly hot days in Williamsport, the boys would go through the ice machines from the snack shack and put the ice on the sloped lawn. They would then get garbage bags and go sliding down the field.

 

***

Debbie Burroughs and Sandi Lewis sit down with 908 Magazine at Boathouse on the Bay to share memories and stories about that magical Long Beach Little League two-year run. Their husbands were both coaches and their boys were both on the team. Special thanks to Debbie Burroughs for all the great pictures in this article...you should see her scrapbook!

 

 

The magnitude of what these two summers meant to the Long Beach community can be seen and felt in the looks on family and community member’s faces as they laugh and tell stories about this joyous time. From nail-biting games, breaking records, the wild emotional ride, and the communal celebrating, none of it will be forgotten.

 

“I think the real goal for us was to get out there,” said Sandi Lewis. “To sign our kids up and teach them to play on a team and to make good friends. I think we all had that goal and it made the journey wonderful.”

 

These are the memories that will stay stamped in time, as people drive by Stearns Championship Park, Cirivello’s, or Downtown Long Beach and remember the amazing summers of 1992 and 1993. It is stamped in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to experience it, or to hear stories about the incredible summer.

 

“You know, I always thought lightning couldn’t strike twice in the same place,” said Larry Lewis. “But I guess that is a falsity, because we sure did it.”

 

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