Forget the fact that they lost in two straight games in the New Jersey State Little League championships at Bergenfield Little League’s Hickey Field.
Disregard the final scores against Berlin Borough and Bordentown, scores of 13-1 and 7-2 (against the eventual state champion), numbers that are really inconsequential when you consider the grand scenario.
The North Bergen South Little League 12-year-old All-Stars accomplished something that no other Hudson County Little League team had done since 1988 and no other North Bergen team had done since 1977 – namely qualifying for the state tournament by winning a sectional title.
That’s the most important item to take out of the impressive run by the local youngsters. They created a slice of history by being one of the four best Little League teams in the state. It really didn’t matter what happened in the state tourney once they got there.
“Sure, you always want to win and you always like to go a little further,” said North Bergen South manager Guillermo Fernandez, who has guided and nurtured these youngsters for the last three summers. “We really felt like we had a good team that could have won the state tournament. But it didn’t happen. Baseball is a funny game. It’s played with a round ball in a square box and anything can happen. We didn’t expect to lose the way we did. It just happened.”
The first game against Berlin Borough was so much of a disaster, it was like a bomb to them. Andy Fernandez hit a first-inning homer that gave North Bergen South some hope, but it was quickly dashed when Berlin Borough struck for seven runs in the second inning, capped by a two-run homer and then a grand slam.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” the elder Fernandez said. “To lose like that was hard for everyone to take, the players, the coaches, the program.”
A bizarre situation took place right before the game was about to begin. There was an opening ceremony, with the teams being introduced, then the National Anthem and a ceremonial first ball being tossed.
But soon after the ceremonies were over, North Bergen South took the field and starting pitcher Jeremy Cerda began his warm-up tosses. However, the game wasn’t nearly close to beginning. The umpires and officials convened at home plate for about 20 minutes, with the North Bergen team on the field conducting warm-ups. It was very weird. The North Bergen kids were placed at a disadvantage by standing out there for so long with no action.
“I told them to stop throwing,” Fernandez said. “I don’t know what was going on. I don’t think it helped us, but I don’t want to dwell on that, because it would sound like an excuse. I don’t want to find excuses.”
The first day result was certainly trying, but Fernandez and his team made the most of it. After all, they were being treated like kings, staying in a five-star hotel, greeted like celebrities everywhere they went. It was truly the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“The people in Bergenfield did a tremendous job running the tournament,” Fernandez said. “Everything was top shelf. We couldn’t ask for better.”
On Saturday morning, Fernandez tried a different approach.
“I told the kids on Saturday that we were canceling practice and we weren’t going to the batting cages to hit,” Fernandez said. “I just wanted them to enjoy their time together and then we would be ready for the game.”
The North Bergen kids were much better on Saturday, but not good enough to win.
“We made a few errors that hurt us,” Fernandez said. “Plus, they hit us pretty good as well.”
Fernandez was stunned that North Bergen’s potent offense, which scored so many runs during the District and Section tourneys, went silent at the state tourney.
“Both teams shut us down,” Fernandez said. “Other than my son [Andy] hitting the two homers, we didn’t get anything else. What can you do?”
The team was eliminated from state championship contention with the two losses, but they still were treated to the amenities provided to all of the participants, like a baseball clinic at Yankee Stadium conducted by Yankees hitting instructor Kevin Long and former Yankee World Series hero and fan favorite Bucky Dent.
“The kids took the field at Yankee Stadium and played on the field,” Ferna ndez said. “How many kids get a chance like that? Bucky Dent was a great guy and he posed for pictures with us and signed autographs. It was so great.”
So the kids from North Bergen received statewide attention and accolades. They were treated to a banquet dinner and stayed at a first-class hotel. They played baseball on the grandest stage for kids their age and handled themselves with grace, style, and dignity.
And they achieved something that hadn’t been done in the county in 20 years and their own hometown in three decades.
“It really was a huge accomplishment,” Fernandez said. “They definitely helped the baseball program in North Bergen and puts baseball on a little higher level than ever before. All in all, it was a magical ride, a magical season. It was magical through the District 7 and then magical through the Section 1. These kids have been together since they were 10 years old and they were able to do so much and achieve so much.”
Maybe their achievements aren’t over. Fernandez has hopes to get the team together to play fall baseball and there have been preliminary discussions for the team to face Bayonne, the champions of the Cal Ripken District 6 tourney, for a best-of-three showdown for Hudson County supremacy, with all the funds raised going to charity.
“I’m hoping we can do that, because honestly, I don’t know what I would do with myself without baseball,” Fernandez said. “I’d just drive around and around the field all day.”
But for now, Fernandez is brimming with pride over the summer of joy his team gave the baseball fans in North Bergen.
“I’m very proud of them,” Fernandez said. “The kids earned this. Everyone is talking about them and the way they handled themselves. They have nothing to be ashamed of.”