WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Tai Peete was stranded at first base at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on Saturday. To make it back to Georgia’s dugout, he was on his own to wander through a pack of jubilant Hawaii players.
Honolulu pitcher Aukai Kea had just tallied his 15th strikeout of the day, using a split-finger fastball to get Peachtree City’s Janson Kenty to swing through nothing but air. Kea’s pitch sealed the 3-0 win for Honolulu over Peachtree City in the U.S. Championship at the Little League World Series.
But Kea only briefly celebrated the win with his teammates. Through all the cheers and hat-tossing, he saw a friend he needed to console. He saw Peete, Peachtree City’s shortstop. He saw someone who needed a hug.
“Through the weeks, we got to (build) a relationship, (Peete) and I. He’s a cool guy, so, we just tried to pick him up,” Kea said. “That’s what friends do when others are down.”
At the Little League World Series, players and coaches from all teams spend much of their time in “The Grove.” When they aren’t playing baseball, this is where they eat, sleep, relax and goof off. When people spend that much time with each other — in close quarters off the field and in competition on it — bonds are bound to be built.
While they are nearly 4,500 miles apart, the players, coaches and parents from the Peachtree City and Honolulu Little League teams developed an affection and mutual respect for each other while in Williamsport.
HOW THEY GOT HERE | Peachtree City Little League team faces Hawaii for U.S. championship
Before the U.S. Championship on Saturday, Japan and South Korea competed for the International Championship. Hawaii manager Gerald Oda and Georgia manager Patrick Gloriod watched the game together and shared a laugh when they confessed to each other that, because they were so focused on their own bracket, they hadn’t watched a single international game throughout the tournament. There was much scouting left to be done.
“We were just standing there talking about how excited we both were for the two of us to be meeting (in the championship),” Gloriod said. “The Hawaii guys are just such good people.”
The people from Honolulu and Peachtree City became fast friends. And, like Kea said, friends pick each other up when they’re down.
Last week, Hurricane Lane was threatening the homes of Oda, Kea and the others from the Honolulu team. Some areas of Hawaii were hit with as much as 46 inches of rain. It was initially projected to be a Category 4 hurricane, but was later downgraded to a tropical storm. Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, said the city “dodged a bullet.” Still, parts of the state face the possibility of flooding.
But before meteorologists weighed predicted how severe the storm would be, and before Hurricane Lane weakened, Peachtree City parents and coaches reached for their wallets.
The Georgia group made a sizable donation to the Salvation Army’s Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division for hurricane relief efforts last week to help their Hawaiian friends.
Gloriod said he wasn’t sure how much was donated, but credited the players’ parents on his team in orchestrating the effort.
“It was very cool gesture,” Gloriod said. “Every kid from Hawaii came up and gave us hugs and thanked every one of us. They’re great kids.”
Oda didn’t find out about the donation until Friday, the night before his team was set to take on Peachtree City for the second time in the tournament. He said the donation “really touched” the team’s heart.
Before the first pitch of the U.S. Championship game was thrown Saturday morning, the Hawaii players and coaches came over to the Georgia dugout to present their friends with gifts. Each Honolulu player gave a Peachtree City player a Hawaiian Lei.
Resembling a garland, a lei is a series of objects — most commonly flowers — woven together and is meant to be worn as a necklace of sorts. Lei’s can have many meanings, but the ones the Honolulu players made for their Peachtree City comrades were for gratitude.
“We wanted tell Georgia, ‘thank you,’ because they had done such a selfless act by making a donation for the hurricane relief,” Oda said. “We’re competitors, but it’s just a game ... Giving those lei’s to the kids was just our way of letting them know, ‘We’re going to play hard, but we wish you the best.’”
Oda presented Gloriod with a special lei, made out of Kukui Nut, the olil from which ancient Hawaiians used to make light. It was considered something for royalty, in those days. On Saturday, Oda wanted to let Gloriod know that he is an inspiration.
“I told Patrick, along with his coaches, that he is the light for his kids, because we see it,” Oda said. “... How he coaches his team and how they play, actually resembles our kids… We played a team that looks just like us, it’s just a different part of the country.”
Gloroid didn’t expect the gifts from Oda and the Hawaiian players and called it “a cool moment.”
Hawaii went on to beat Georgia in the U.S. Championship, but on Sunday, they were fans of each other. Georgia fell in the consolation game, but stuck around to watch their buddies face off against South Korea in the Little League World Series title game.
And just before that final game, Peachtree City and Honolulu shared the field for one more time. The two teams were presented with the Jack Losch Sportsmanship Award, which is voted on by coaches, volunteers, media and Little League World Series staff. It was the first time in the award’s 15-year history that two teams shared it. The award is given to the team that best exemplifies sportsmanship and Little League values, on and off the field.
Spotted in the stands during the title game were many black-and-yellow hats, jerseys and t-shirts, the colors of Peachtree City, the Southeast representative. When Honolulu won, beating South Korea 3-0, some Peachtree City folks felt like they won too.
Gloriod watched from a few rows up in the stands behind third base. When Ka’olu Holt tossed his 79th pitch of the day for his eighth strikeout to seal the win, Gloriod, wearing his Kukui Nut lei, smiled and raised both fists in the air.
His friends were world champs.