First In A Series: Little League Heroes Who Made It Big
How many games did a legendary Mets pitcher win back in the Little League World Series? Which players, besides Jason Varitek, played in the Little League World Series, College World Series, and World Series? In MLB history, only a few players were lucky enough to also play in the Little League World Series. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some of those players who shined in Williamsport, Pa., before becoming big league stars.
Back in 1998, Todd Frazier and the Toms River East (New Jersey) squad faced off against Japan for all the marbles. The Little League World Series Championship was on the line, and to defeat the Japanese, Toms River East needed a few big performances. It had been five long years since a U.S. team was crowned champion and this tournament looked no different.
Enter Todd Frazier, the team’s undisputed star. Playing infield and pitching, Frazier went 4-for-4 — including a home run — and finished the game on the mound, striking out the final batter. This impressive performance was only the start of great things to come for Frazier.
After high school, Frazier went on to play baseball at Rutgers, where he was an All-American and Big East Player of the Year. Frazier kept on climbing and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round of the 2007 MLB Draft. Since his debut in 2011, Frazier has played for four teams but has become a fan favorite wherever he plays.
The New Jersey native was also fortunate enough to play for both his hometown teams, making stops in the Bronx in 2017 and Queens in 2018. Frazier has been selected to two All-Star teams and won the 2015 MLB Home Run Derby.
Playing for the New York Yankees had extra meaning for Frazier. After their Little League World Series triumph, Frazier and the Toms River team were honored at Yankee Stadium, the team getting to stand for the National Anthem out on the field alongside their Major League heroes.
Frazier famously stood next to Yankees captain Derek Jeter, one of Frazier’s favorite players. Years later, with Frazier now a fellow Major Leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds, Jeter and Frazier re-united at the All-Star Game during Jeter’s final season of 2014, providing baseball fans with a unique before-and-after image of a boy and a man with his hero.
Jason Varitek delivered one of the most famous punches in baseball history. Although it was more of a glove to the mouth, Varitek’s smushing/smashing of Alex Rodriguez’s face on July 24, 2004, was a glorious moment for fans of baseball, especially those from Boston.
It is often cited as the spark the 2004 team needed for its march to its first World Series title in 86 years. However, Varitek did a lot more in his impressive career than just stuff A-Rod. As the switch-hitting catcher for the Red Sox from 1997-11, Varitek caught a record four no-hitters and won two World Series titles.
Vtek at Tech
Varitek was also the Red Sox’s first team captain since 1989. It’s safe to say that the Red Sox (and their fans) loved and respected Varitek like few others before him. But like many others on this list, Varitek found his stride in the Little League World Series.
Playing for Altamonte Springs, Fla., in the 1984 LLWS, Varitek, unsurprisingly, was a key player on the squad. Playing multiple positions, Varitek and Co. won the U.S. bracket and faced South Korea for the title. Unfortunately for Varitek, he’d taste losing on a big stage for the first time after his team was defeated by South Korea, 6-2.
Varitek went on to play college ball at Georgia Tech University. As a Yellow Jacket, Varitek would be named the 1994 Baseball America College Player of the Year. He’d also participate in the College World Series, ultimately losing to the University of Oklahoma in 1994.
After graduating, Varitek was selected by the Mariners in the first round of the 1994 draft, although he never suited up for them. He went to the Red Sox, along with Derek Lowe, for Heathcliff Slocumb in one of baseball’s most lopsided trades. He’s also one of only three players to have played in the LLWS, College World Series, and World Series — the series he’d actually win.
Did Gary Sheffield take steroids? Maybe. Maybe not. But Gary Sheffield definitely had a sweet swing and clubbed over 500 home runs. And he definitely helped the Florida Marlins win their first World Series in franchise history in 1997. And he definitely knew how to pack a fat lip of chewing tobacco.
The nine-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger, and NL batting champion got his start in baseball growing up in Tampa, Sheffield set records playing in the 1980 Little League World Series and took his team all the way to the finals, eventually falling to Taiwan in a nail-biting 4-3 game.
In high school, Sheffield kept up his impressive performances on the diamond and was named the 1985-86 National Baseball Player of the Year. Sheffield elected to skip college and jump straight to the Majors. He was drafted in the first round of the 1986 MLB Draft by the Brewers, playing there for three seasons.
Weighed down by temper problems and considered a hot head, Sheffield bounced around the league as journeyman until his retirement after the 2009 season. His last taste of glory came with the 2004 Yankees, who came within a game of the World Series before losing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox. The same year, Sheffield was implicated in the Barry Bonds PED scandal, putting a damper on his otherwise impressive career stats.
One of the best hitting pitchers in baseball history, Jason Marquis was a one-time All-Star (2009) and Silver Slugger Award Winner, given to the best hitting pitcher in the National League. The right-handed pitcher had a 15-year career pitching for nine different teams, making one start for St. Louis in the 2004 World Series.
He was consistent on the mound and was often used as a pinch hitter and runner, a rare distinction among pitchers who are usually considered the worst hitters on the team. In their defense, their job is to pitch, not hit. Nevertheless, Marquis ended his career with a .196 batting average, better than some actual hitters.
Nothing Rocky Here
As a Little Leaguer growing up in New York, Marquis honed his pitching skills while guiding his team to a third-place finish at the 1991 LLWS. There, Marquis would throw a no-hitter in the third-place clinching game against Canada. It would be Marquis’ first marquee moment in front of a national audience.
In high school, Marquis was New York City’s most prolific player and led his team to back-to-back NYC City Titles. He opted to skip college and jump straight to the pros where the Atlanta Braves selected him 35th overall in the 1996 draft. His best season was 2004, going 15-7 for the NL Champion Cardinals.
Cody Bellinger took the MLB by storm during his 2017 rookie season. He set the rookie record for home runs (39) and hit for the cycle. He was the Rookie of the Year and was voted for the All-Star team. As a starting first baseman and outfielder, Bellinger was an integral part of the Dodgers squad that took the eventual-champion Astros to seven games in a thrilling World Series.
There, Bellinger hit one home run and batted in five runs. Despite the loss, the Dodgers are thrilled to have one of MLB’s brightest rising-stars, who hit a key home run in a one-game playoff in 2018, earning the Dodgers the NL West title.
But to Bellinger, his sudden emergence into MLB stardom didn’t come as a surprise. During the 2007 LLWS, Bellinger, playing for Chandler, Ariz., was his team’s top slugger. His team made it to the regional semifinals before falling to the the eventual U.S. and tournament champion team from Warner Robins, Ga.
According to Bellinger, it was the LLWS that truly sparked his passion for baseball and made him realize that baseball was more than a game, it was a potential career. Talk about early insight into one’s career path. “We get caught up in the moment [in the Majors], as you should,” Bellinger told MLB.com. “And it’s easy to, but Little League Baseball is just a bunch of kids having fun, enjoying the game no matter how they’re doing.”
New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto is in the rarest of company, being one of only three players ever to play in the Little League World Series, College World Series, and World Series. Playing for the Redmond North (Washington) Little League team, Conforto had a stellar, albeit short, tournament, batting .600.
But that sweet average wasn’t enough to prevent his team from being bounced out of the tournament following pool play. After high school, Conforto attended Oregon State, where he continued his excellent play for three years. In his first year, he was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
Later in his career he became an All-American and two-time Pac-12 Baseball Player of the Year. He also helped the Beavers reach the College World Series, where they went 1-2, losing both games to eventual runner-up Mississippi State University. In the Majors, Conforto has continued to play at a high level.
He played a major role in the Mets’ World Series appearance in 2015 against the Kansas City Royals, homering twice in Game 4 at Shea Stadium. The Mets, however, would go on to lose the series in five games. Conforto followed up his impressive rookie campaign by being named a National League All-Star in 2017.
The tiny island of Curacao is located in the Caribbean, just off the shores of Venezuela. Despite having a population of under 200,000 people, the island has become a baseball hotbed, producing 15 Major League Baseball players, including former Atlanta Braves star Andrew Jones and 2018 National League rookie sensation Ronald Acuna Jr.
Another player on that select list is Little League star and 2017 Major League All-Star Jonathan Schoop.
Schoop, born in Willemstad, Curacao, grew up playing baseball and participated in the 2003 and 2004 Little League World Series. In both tournaments, Schoop’s team performed well against international competition, placing third in 2003 and winning it all in 2004.
Scoopin’ and Schoopin’
In the Major Leagues, Schoop’s brief career has been up-and-down. Fortunately for him, he’s still young. On one side, he was a bona fide starter for Baltimore where he earned his sole All-Star nod, batting .293 with 32 home runs and 105 RBI. He wound up finishing 12th in the American League’s Most Valuable Player award voting.
On the flip side, Schoop has battled injuries and inconsistencies at the plate throughout his young career. In July 2018, Schoop was dealt to the Brewers just before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Although he helped the Brewers capture the National League Central title, he was merely a bench player.
As we’ve already mentioned, Venezuela is a country that produces some big names in baseball. They’ve also done very well at the Little League World Series. Their first Little League World Series championship came during the 1994 tournament when they beat California 4-3 in the final.
That team had two future Major League Baseball players, one of them being Yusmeiro Petit. Petit, a pitcher who made his Major League debut during the 2006 season, won a World Series title in 2014 as a member of the San Francisco Giants. With that win, he became the only player to win both a Little League and Major League World Series title.
A Petit(e) Giant
To clarify, others have been to both (and sometimes all three, including the College World Series), but Petit was the first two win both. In 2014, Petit set an Major League record for most consecutive batters retired, sending 46-straight hitters back to the dugout without reaching base. Petit was also one strike away from throwing a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants in 2013.
On a full count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Eric Chavez of the Arizona Diamondbacks singled off Petit, ruining the perfect game. Petit would retire the next batter, completing an impressive — yet disappointing — one-hitter.
Another player to participate in all three of the world series (Little League World Series, College World Series, and World Series), pitcher Ed Vosberg somehow had a 10-year big league career. His numbers, for the most part, are atrocious. With a lifetime earned run average of 4.32 and only 70 more strikeouts than walks, Vosberg was the definition of mediocre.
But during the 1997 season, Vosberg did pitch in the World Series as a member of the Florida Marlins, appearing in two games. In thrilling fashion, the Marlins would win their first World Series by defeating Cleveland on a Game 7 walk-off.
Wizard of Vos
Many decades earlier, Vosberg was playing in the 1973 Little League World Series, getting some big-game pitching under his belt. A Tucson, Arizona, native, Vosberg guided his team to the LLWS championship game, losing to Taiwan 12-0. He’d be the only one on that second-place team to play in the MLB.
In college, Vosberg was a member of the University of Arizona Wildcats baseball team that won the 1980 College World Series by defeating the University of Hawaii 5-3. That Wildcats team featured seven other future pro ball players, including Terry Francona, the manager that helped the 2004 Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.
In 1990, 12-year-old Jason Bay was playing in the Little League World Series for his Trail (Canada) Little League squad. Although his team wouldn’t win the tournament, they would emerge as the best team from Canada that year. Bay would have a stellar series in Williamsport, which was a sign of big things to come.
Bay rode the momentum and success he found in the Little League World Series through college where he played for a community college in Idaho and, later, for Gonzaga University in Washington State. He was then drafted by the Montreal Expos as a low-level prospect.
Bay would be traded to a few teams before making his Major League debut in 2003 for the San Diego Padres. Following his limited action in San Diego, where he wouldn’t receive enough plate appearances to be considered a rookie, Bay was sent to Pittsburgh where he spent the majority of his career.
Considered one of the best Canadians to play in the majors, Bay retired a three-time All-Star and won the 2009 Silver Slugger. He was also the 2004 Rookie of the Year. Not considered a dominant power hitter, Bay did finish his career third all-time in home runs by a Canadian- a mark that has since been broken.
Uncle of slugger Gary Sheffield, pitcher Dwight Gooden could have had one of the more prolific careers in baseball had his drug and alcohol issues not interfered. When Gooden reached the Major Leagues with the New York Mets in 1984, he became an instant pitching sensation, winning 17 games as a rookie, then putting together one of the great regular season performances in baseball history in 1985, going 24-4 with a 1.59 ERA.
Like his nephew, Gooden grew up in Tampa, and played on the Belmont Heights Little League squad. As a Little Leaguer, Gooden would fall short of being crowned champion. But Gooden’s performance put him on the path to baseball stardom
It’s All Good
However, in the big leagues, Gooden would become a three-time World Series champion. Although Gooden was never able to fully control his off-field issues, he still performed at a high level. He was a four-time All-Star, pitching Triple Crown winner, and Cy Young Award winner.
His troubles with drugs and alcohol began in 1986, the year the Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling, seven-game World Series. He would spend the first two months of the 1987 season in rehab, and would battle addiction the remainder of his career. Gooden retired from baseball in 2001 and appeared on one Hall of Fame ballot, falling far too short of the minimum requirement to enter the Hall and was subsequently removed from all future ballots.
Rick Dempsey, a Baltimore Orioles legend, played in two of America’s premier youth baseball leagues: Little League and the Pony League. It was the Pony League — a league similar to Little League that offers more age brackets — where Dempsey got his first big-game experience.
In 1963, Dempsey and his Canoga Park/ Woodland Hills (California) All-Stars advanced to the Pony League World Series championship game against a team from Indiana, ultimately losing 3-1. The experience, however, was formative and propelled what would be Dempsey’s stellar career. Skipping straight to the pros after high school, Dempsey spent two years in the Minors before being called up to the Twins.
After floundering around with the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, Dempsey got his big league break catching for the Baltimore Orioles. As an Oriole, Dempsey would win his first of two World Series, becoming one of only seven catchers in MLB history to win the World Series MVP award in helping the Orioles to the 1983 title against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dempsey would win his second World Series in 1988 as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, this time as a backup catcher on the team made famous by Kirk Gibson’s dramatic walk-off homer in Game 1 against the Oakland A’s. He retired after the 1992 season, becoming one of only four catchers to have played in four decades (1969-92).
Can you guess some of Venezuela’s top exports? Oil. Steel. Fish. And Major League Baseball players. The South American nation consistently produces top baseball players and it’s not hard to find Venezuelans scattered through Major League rosters. Not surprisingly, Venezuela has made their presence felt at the Little League World Series, winning the tournament twice. One of the country’s most successful LLWS participants was Wilson Alvarez.
Playing in the 1982 LLWS, Alvarez and team Venezuela were defeated by Taiwan in the quarterfinals. Taiwan would proceed to the finals where they’d be handily defeated by Washington State.
Alvarez then pitched his way to a 13-year professional career playing for five different teams. In 1991, in only his second big league start, Alvarez no-hit the Baltimore Orioles. Then, in 1994, Alvarez made his sole All-Star appearance as a member of the White Sox.
The New York Yankees suffered a near 20-year title drought lasting from 1978 through 1996. The drought would end at Yankee Stadium on a pop-out in foul territory. The man who caught that memorable foul ball was third baseman Charlie Hayes. Hayes had a 14-year career playing for seven teams. Besides his memorable final out in the World Series, Hayes also caught the final out of Terry Mulholland’s 1990 no hitter.
Hot corner. Clutch glove. Of course, Hayes ability to flash the leather wasn’t a random occurrence or stroke of luck. Those defensive skills were developed in Little League. In 1977, he was a member of the Hub City Little League out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That team would be bounced in the quarter finals by California.
In the 1981 Little League World Series, Taiwan would defeat Florida for their fifth consecutive win. Florida would obviously take second place. So who was third? The Little Leaguers from Barrington, Illinois. Led by future All-Star catcher Dan Wilson, Barrington defeated Canada 7-3.
As a standout for his Barrington high school team, Wilson went undefeated on the mound and hit .491 on the season en route to a state title. Wilson would go on to become one of the best defensive catchers in Major League Baseball history, playing 11 seasons for the Seattle Mariners after a two-year stint with the Cincinnati Reds to begin his career.
After high school, Wilson opted to play college ball for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. In 1990, Wilson was selected in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds and made his debut in 1992. Two years later, Wilson was traded to Seattle where he’d spend the remainder of his career.
Wilson became an All-Star during the 1996 season and, a few seasons later, hit an inside-the-park grand slam. Following the 2005 season, Wilson hung up his cleats and was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame seven years later.
Pitchers can’t hit you say? Don’t tell that to Rick Wise. Raised in Portland, Oregon, Wise was an alum of the 1958 Little League World Series. His team failed to place, however. When he did ascend to the Majors as an 18-year-old, Wise was ready for the big stage. His first big league victory came during the second game of a double header in 1964. He had big shoes to fill, considering the first game was a perfect game pitched by Phillies’ Jim Bunning. Wise would never pitch a perfect-game himself, but did throw an impressive no hitter during the 1971 season. In that no-hitter, Wise hit two dingers, becoming the only pitcher to hit a home run during a no hitter.
A Wise Choice
A two-time All-Star (1971, 1973), Wise pitched the clinching Game 3 in the Red Sox’s sweep of the three-time champion Oakland A’s in the 1975 ALCS, then started Game 3 of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, picking up a no-decision in the game ended on the controversial non-interference call against the Reds’ Ed Armbrister in extra innings.
Speaking of extra innings in the 1975 World Series, Wise pitched the top of the 12th in Game 6 and earned the victory when Carlton Fisk led off the bottom of the inning with his iconic home run off the left-field foul pole to tie the series at 3-3. From a hitting standpoint, Wise is one of only a few pitchers to hit multiple homers in the same game, and he’s done that feat on multiple occasions.