After 19 years of coaching in the Martinez-Evans Little League, it all came down to one game for Bill Gooding and his Cardinals.
The Cardinals and Braves both weathered a rain-plagued tournament to advance to the Major League championship game Thursday at Kelley Park, where Gooding was attempting to cap his coaching career with an eighth league title.
The Braves weren't in the mood for a sentimental send-off. The American Division champs posted a 9-2 win to take the title and write a sad final chapter for Gooding and his last squad.
But there's no crying in baseball, and for Gooding, no regrets.
"I've enjoyed it. The good memories outweigh the bad, I'll promise you," Gooding said. "There were a lot this year. You know, there were 12 teams trying to get to this game, and only two got here."
Coach Bill Gooding tries to rally his players, the Martinez-Evans Little League Cardinals, in the last game of his 19-year coaching career.
Photo by Jonathan Ernst
And only one team can be called Major League champions, and in 2003, that is the MELL Braves.
"I knew we had a good team, but I didn't know if we were good enough to win the league," Braves coach Greg Smith said. "Whether we won the championship of not, this was a game they would never have forgotten."
When the National Division champion Cardinals jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead, Smith gave the Braves a simple pep talk: "You may never get to play in another championship game the rest of your life, so go down fighting."
The Braves responded with six runs in the bottom of the third, and from there, Ryan Hutchins did the rest. The 12-year-old pitcher allowed only two hits (both by the Cards' Spencer Starnes) and closed out the victory with a 12-strikeout performance.
At the plate, the Braves used patience to draw walks, Andy Pringle went 2-for-2, while Hutchins, Luggy Bennett and Kip Custer all added hits. On defense, Colten Godsey made a sparkling stop at second base to spark a 1-2-3 inning to cap the contest.
"We made the plays in the field and didn't let them back in the ball game," said Smith, who noted the real rewards reaped from another Little League season.
"I like to win as much as anybody, but I want to see the joy on these kids faces," he said. "The best hours of the day are spent on the field with these kids, teaching them the game of baseball, how it relates to daily life - be gracious winners and gracious losers."
That's certainly a lesson Gooding has learned during 19 years with the Cardinals. "You've got to give the Braves credit," the veteran said. "They beat us fair and square."
With his final coaching campaign in the books, Gooding will have some free time next year and, like always, Kelley Park is on his itinerary.
"Even when you're not playing a game, it's a good place to hang out," Gooding said. "I come up here and watch the other teams, or just to visit. I'll be around next year."
While the Braves claimed the trophy, Gooding gave his Cardinals some parting words of wisdom.
"When you go up to a higher league, or at whatever level you play, always remember this - in baseball, momentum is everything. Take it with you. Every out counts," Gooding said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of. I know everybody was trying, but things don't always go right, especially in baseball. Shake it off and learn from it."
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