In late summer 1992, it was a common site to wander into Mercerville’s Fred & Pete’s Deli and see a bunch of grown men huddled around a radio, or staring up at the establishment’s lone TV. They were not waiting for lottery results or checking on the Yankees and Phillies scores.
No, they were enjoying a history-making run by a bunch of 11- and 12-year-olds who weren’t even their sons or grandsons. It was 25 years ago in August when the Nottingham Little League All Stars captured the attention of Hamilton Township and beyond by reaching the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The Sayen Gang was all the rage both here and abroad.
“I remember I was on vacation in Ireland at the end of August that year, and we were reading about them in USA Today,” said Joe Tiger, a Hamilton postal worker. “We kept tipping a pint in their honor.”
“That was great,” added Dan O’Donnell, a Crosswicks resident and area attorney who was on the same trip. “We would show the article to Irish guys and say, ‘That’s our team, buddy!’ They just kind of looked at us.”
And that was across the Atlantic, so just imagine what it was like here.
“There was a picture in the paper of Fred & Pete’s being packed because they had the game on the radio,” said Matt Wolski, the team’s top hitter and pitcher. “Tommy (Armenti) had a TV up in the corner, and I think he played the ESPN(2) game when it was on.”
Dan DeRose, the current Nottingham Babe Ruth President, served his lone year as NLL president in 1992, and easily recalled the euphoria.
“We had three buses going up to the states in Morristown,” DeRose said. “And would have one or two buses going up to Bristol (Connecticut) for the regionals and to Williamsport. We were bringing 100 to 150 people, and that’s not even including the people that drove.”
The internet was a few years from changing the world forever, but both Trenton dailies provided blanket coverage of the team, which came within one game of being world champions. Nottingham lost to Long Beach, California, 1-0, in the U.S. Final Aug. 27, 1992. When international finalist Philippines was declared ineligible after beating Long Beach in the championship game, the Californians were deemed champs.
“I always say we were the second-best team in the world that year,” DeRose said.
He never served as president again as he soon moved on to the newly formed Nottingham Babe Ruth organization. He constantly jabs long-time NLL president Ron Tola that he’s the league’s most successful coach, as it reached the World Series every year of his regime.
“Anna Mae Zuccarello (NLL’s Senior League Vice President) called me and nominated me to be president, and asked would I consider,” DeRose said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I know they’re gonna go to the World Series so yeah, I’ll do it.’ She started screaming at me, ‘Don’t you say that, you’re cursing us!”
DeRose was only half kidding. Two years earlier, he ran the 34-team NLL Tournament and watched Nottingham lose the first game before coming back to win it. In fact, it would be their last loss until falling to Gloucester in the 12-year-old Section 4 tournament. Nottingham went 21-1 in array of tournaments as 10s and 11s. That obviously led to high hopes when the 1992 District 12 Tournament rolled around.
The manager was Jerry Conti, and the assistants were Mike Braender, Sr. and Matt Wolski, Sr.
“We kind of knew we had a little something going, and everybody was convinced of it,” said young Mike Braender, the team’s second baseman. “We did two-a-day practices at 12, and we were into it.”
Prior to the tournament season, the late Jeff Vlasac, who died in an automobile accident in high school, gave a glimpse into Nottingham’s confidence, much to the chagrin of the coaching staff.
“I can still remember this today,” Wolski said. “One day, the writers came to practice to interview everybody, and I remember my dad saying to our team, ‘Now guys, you just want to talk about how we hope to be good, kind of downplay everything and don’t be real blunt for the papers.’ I just remember Jeff Vlasac going ‘Aahh, we’re going all the way.’”
And did it make the paper?
“That was like the headline,” Wolski said. “My dad was like, ‘Awww bleep!’”
That likely made some bulletin boards throughout the district and beyond, but it hardly mattered as Nottingham went 16-1 en route to Williamsport.
The toughest leg of that journey may have been districts. Wolski outdueled good friend Rob Riley in a 7-6, eight-inning win over Chambersburg, and struck out 19 in a nine-inning, 5-4 win over Sunnybrae in which Scott Klisures scored the winning run on the error.
“Two of the hardest teams we played all summer were right around the corner from us,” Wolski said.
Nottingham easily won the final, 8-0, over Lawrence, as Chad Conti threw a one-hitter with 12 strikeouts and did not allow a ball to leave the infield.
The sectionals were a meat grinder, as Nottingham won two one-run games before Wolski pitched a no-hitter (preserved by outfielder Brad Cannon’s great catch) and struck out 11 in a 3-0 win over Buena. That was followed by a 3-2 loss to Gloucester City, prompting the “if” game. In the final, Nottingham took an 8-0 lead before holding on for an 8-7 win over GC. Earlier in the tournament, Conti hit a two-out, two-run fifth inning homer for a 3-2 win over Gloucester.
‘My wife always reminds me that we didn’t win. We were the most famous team to never win it all.’
After a 4-3 win in states, Nottingham won the next two games by a combined 33-2 in Morristown. At the East Regionals in Bristol, Connecticut, Wolski added to his lore by pitching two no-hitters with 24 strikeouts. Matt Slaiciunas made a brilliant catch in right field to preserve the first gem.
“Matt was pretty unreal, especially as we got further in the tournaments,” Braender said. “He was always the big bat for us and the big guy on the mound who could throw hard. And he was always the guy to get us going, saying ‘Let’s go fellas.’”
Conti, who was as good a No. 2 hurler as anyone in the tournament, won the regional final by pitching a two-hitter in an 8-0 win over New Hampshire. But the celebration had to take place while on the road. Rainouts held up the East Regional, and the players were piled into a bus and whisked right to Williamsport, arriving after midnight. The players went straight to the famous hill that rests just beyond the outfield fence, many of them flying down it head-first.
On Aug. 24, 1992, Nottingham made history by beating South Lake Charles, La., 5-0, in the first night game ever played in the Little League World Series. Wolski threw a two-hitter and Matt O’Neill blasted a three-run homer. The game was played before 20,500 people.
That was followed by a 6-4 loss to Long Beach, as Nottingham played shoddy defense and allowed four unearned runs. NLL bounced back with a 5-2 win over South Holland, Ill., as O’Neill hit another three-run bomb.
Jerry Conti pulled a surprise move in the next game against Long Beach. With his son and Wolski both having eligible innings, he tapped Adam Famoso to start in a game televised on ABC.
“I remember no one could believe it,” DeRose said. “And the kid ends up pitching the game of his life.”
Famoso had a no-hitter for 5.1 innings until allowing Ryan Beaver’s go-aheadhomer just inside the right field foul pole.
“I just remember being at second base and seeing the ball go over the pole,” Braender said.
“I remember my first at-bat in that game, I fouled out to the catcher,” Wolski said. “It was the sweetest pitch coming down the middle of the plate, and I fouled out to the catcher.”
Asked if the home run felt like the end of the world, Wolski said, “It does but you also get over it a lot quicker when you’re 12. The next day you’re like ‘OK, whatever.’”
Unlike some people.
“I think the parents took it harder than the kids,” DeRose said. “The kids basically were upset at the time, but within a half hour they were jumping off the bench and partying and having fun. And the parents were devastated.”
For the players, it was about more than just games. For most of them it was the first chance to meet kids from other parts of the country and world.
“We didn’t even speak the same languages with these guys, and we were playing games with them nonstop,” Braender said. “We’re swimming in the pool with them. Win or lose, we had a good time because we were hanging out with the other guys after the game. I don’t think we even realized how big it really was. We’re 12, we’re just playing baseball.”
They started to find out how big once they returned to Hamilton Square.
“There was no social media or anything back then, you don’t realize that anyone actually cared until you came home,” Wolski said. “Then you came home, and you were like kings. My wife always reminds me that we didn’t win. We were the most famous team to never win it all.”
Things have changed since then, of course, as ESPN televises the tournament throughout the regionals and World Series. Because of that, the children of Braender and Wolski are impressed that their dads played in something that is always on TV.
Asked if it feels like 25 years, Wolski said, “Somewhere in the middle. I can remember a lot of it but I still realize we’re…old.”
The team’s regular lineup had Vlasac catching, Famoso on first, Braender at second, Wolski at short and Brandon Kivler on third. The outfield, from left to right was Clay Nixon, Conti and Slaiciunas. Wolski, Conti, Mark Fisher and O’Neill were the main pitchers, while Ray Procaccini, Tony Frascella, Cannon and Klisures all contributed off the bench.
Wolski had the most success after Little League, going on to a record-setting career as an infielder at Steinert before having a standout four years at Rutgers. He won two state titles with Steinert, where Braender also played. Most of the others either played at prep or parochial schools; or stopped playing before high school. Sean Burroughs, the star of the Long Beach team that knocked them out, ended up having a 7-year Major League career.
Wolski is now a teacher and baseball coach at Steinert, while Braender is a teacher and boys’ soccer coach at Nottingham High.
Frascella is a postman, Slaiciunas is a waiter at Toscano’s in Bordentown, and Kivler and Fisher are both lawyers. Procaccini lives in Long Beach Island, and is a real estate broker. Cannon lives in West Caldwell, and is an executive with ADP. The Klisures family sold their house before moving to Atlanta in June 1992, and were nomads while remaining in New Jersey for the memorable run.
“It was just an incredible experience the whole summer,” Braender said. “Our team was together pretty much every day for the entire summer. At one point we lived in classrooms where we were all in one room. You were bound to be friends with everybody no matter what, and the friendships last.”
So does the legacy of the 1992 Nottingham Little League 12-year-olds.