SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA (AP / WCBS 880) - Gripping a shiny new aluminum bat, 12-year-old Patrick Marinaccio took some hacks at the batting cage and loved what he heard.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
The sweet sounds of contact are reverberating again through the sprawling Little League baseball complex in this blue-collar central Pennsylvania town.
The World Series begins Friday.
String together a few of those hits over the next 10 days on the pristine field at Lamade Stadium and Marinaccio and his teammates from Toms River, N.J., can take home one of the biggest prizes in youth sports and extend a U.S. string of five straight World Series titles.
For now, Marinaccio will gladly settle for a few swings with his new baseball bling.
“It’s amazing,” Marinaccio said. “The batting gloves have a nice grip. The helmets. And the bats are really nice!”
A woman in Toms River told WCBS 880′s Kelly Waldron, “I think it’s something in the water down here.”
A championship for the Toms River team would make them the second squad from the Jersey shore town to take a Little League crown. A different Toms River local league sent a team that won the 1998 World Series and earned the nickname the “Beasts from the East.”
Of the 16 teams in South Williamsport, three others have a chance to bring their hometowns a second championship banner, though the same local league advanced in each case _ Kaoshiung, Taiwan (1996), Columbus, Ga., (2006) and Waipahu, Hawaii (2008).
Four years removed from his World Series run and Georgia manager Randy Morris remains so familiar to a few workers at the Little League complex that they said “hellos” as he supervised infield practice for his boys.
“This isn’t your first time at the rodeo, is it?” someone yelled with a wave.
Outfielder Matthew Lang was here in 2006, too, when he watched his older brother Ryan, also an outfielder, celebrate as a member of that year’s Columbus team.
“Every time they’d play, I was wishing I was on the field,” 13-year-old Matthew said. “That was crazy.”
Wish granted, with a couple wrinkles to the series from the last time Columbus was here.
First, the World Series tournament is moving from pool play to a double-elimination format in the first round, a change that Little League president Stephen Keener said eliminates the need for tiebreakers to determine which squads advance to the U.S. and international semifinals.
Pitch count rules intended to save wear on the arms of young hurlers have been modified so they match regular-season guidelines. Previously, a 12-year-old who threw at least 66 pitches was required to rest two days and one game off before pitching a tournament game again. Now, that pitcher must rest four days before taking the mound again.
Also, Little League has expanded the instant replay system used only in the World Series to include force outs, missed bases and hit batters, and allow managers to challenge certain calls.
Those are decisions reserved for the adults.
As for the players, the days leading up to the start of the tournament Friday have been a whirlwind of getting used to dorm life, making new friends and conducting media interviews as if they were big league stars.
They’ll be getting a tutorial from a star, too, when former major leaguer Andre Dawson, who was inducted last month into the Baseball Hall of Fame, holds a hitting clinic for players Friday morning, three hours before Fairfield, Conn., and Washington play the tournament’s first game.
Fairfield Little League President Steve Schwartz tells WCBS 880 reporter Sean Adams this group of 12-year-olds can hit home runs, they have three solid pitchers, and they play with poise and confidence.
“If you even watch their mannerisms on the field, they pick each other up,” says Schwartz. “Nobody gets down on each other. If they make a mistake, they all move on to the next play and forget what heppened and know that, no matter what happened, they have the ability and the skill level and confidence in themselves to come back and win a game.”
With his father watching proudly from behind a fence, Plymouth, Minn., pitcher Nick Tuel played soft toss Thursday with teammates as they waited to take a turn at the batting cage. The Minnesota players stay loose before games by crooning the tune “Dynamite” by hip hop artist Taio Cruz, and turning to team pranksters like Tuel.
“I don’t even know what I do,” the 12-year-old said. “I’m just funny, I guess.”
The managers are pumped, too.
“So far, it’s just kind of been surreal,” said Auburn, Wash., skipper Kai Nahaku, sporting a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops while leading his team between the batting cages and infield practice. “Ever since they’ve earned the right to come here, they’ve been on Cloud Nine. I’m just hoping I can get them to focus on a baseball game.”