Editor's note: This column was originally published on Aug. 15, 2004.
They were 11, 12 and 13 years old, so how could they possibly understand the magnitude of what winning would do for their hometown?
When the Phenix City National Little League All-Stars arrived home from Williamsport, Pa., five years ago, they were welcomed by a pulsating crowd of 4,000 that included the governor, a congressman, three state legislators and two mayors.
The presence of so many luminaries, of so many people, in the amphitheater on the Chattahoochee said as much about the history of Phenix City as it did about the all-stars' unlikely run to the U.S. championship. A town gathered to celebrate the triumph of a youth baseball team, but it might also have been making peace with its past that summer night.
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And why shouldn't it? It's a close-knit community where there are few strangers. For every dilapidated storefront with peeling paint and crumbling brick, there are at least two other businesses opening or thriving.
Unfortunately, the Phenix City of old was all anyone outside this region knew until ESPN cameras started following around coach Tony Rasmus and his amazing team of tow-headed pre-teens who endeared themselves to TV viewers across the country with their diminutive statures, their bright smiles, their "yes sirs" and "no ma'ams," their late-inning dramatics.
Before the team went to Little League World Series in Williamsport, before it beat mighty Toms River in the U.S. championship game, before it lost to Japan in the world championship game, the nation didn't know Phenix City for its baseball. In many ways, it didn't know Phenix City, period.
The city carried an infamous reputation for its gambling, bootlegging, rabble-rousing days, even after the 1954 cleanup put an end to the corruption and organized crime. Its national story was "The Phenix City Story," a sensationalized movie that may be the most widely circulated item among the three books, two documentaries and numerous Internet sites that attempted to tell what really happened here in the 1950s.
''These young fellows didn't realize what they were doing,'' former Phenix City mayor Peggy Martin said. ''They did so much for the community as a whole. They put us on the map in a positive way, so that people would look at us with a smile and people could be proud to be from Phenix City.
''It definitely gave us a shot in the arm. Some people might have said before, 'Can anything good come from Phenix City?' They were the proof in the pudding.''
Hearts swelled and citizens stood tall five years ago as the Phenix City All-Stars won the state, won the region and soon had ESPN announcers Dave Ryan and Harold Reynolds fawning over Colby Rasmus' curveball and Bryan Woodall's glovework at third base.
When Phenix City played during the Little League World Series, the two cities straddling the Chattahoochee River stopped to watch. Businessmen played hooky to watch afternoon telecasts at local sports bars. Students watched their classmates with a mixture of pride and envy. Even Hall of Fame baseball players paused the remote on ESPN when Phenix City played.
Hank Aaron talked to the team via teleconference, while Robin Yount and Gary Carter spoke to the boys in person. Other Hall of Famers who didn't see the all-stars play live were there in spirit.
Bill Benton of the Russell County Historical Commission remembers hearing a radio interview with former Braves pitcher Phil Niekro that year.
"They asked him, 'What have you been doing the last couple days?' '' Benton recalled. "He said, 'I've done what a lot of other people have been doing. I've been watching the Little League World Series and pulling for that Phenix City team.' "
Even after losing to Japan in the world championship game, Phenix City's star didn't fade. There was a visit to Yankee Stadium on the trip home. But before leaving New York City, outfielder Heath Owens, facing a television camera and several million households, said "Hi, we're the Little League national champions from Phenix City, Ala., and we're here to say . . ."
"Good morning, America!" his teammates and coaches bellowed from the set of "Good Morning America."
"They brought more good publicity to Phenix City than anything had in quite a few years," said Benton, who occasionally leafs through a scrapbook featuring news articles and photos from the team's trip at the Historical Commission office.
Perhaps it's fitting that the anniversary of the Little League all-stars' U.S. championship coincides with Phenix City's "50 Years of Progress" celebration. The players have no tie to Phenix City's sordid past, but they certainly helped shape the community's present and will have a lot to say about its future.
"These are our future leaders," Martin said.
The boys of five years ago have matured into young men. Most of them have become outstanding high school baseball players, and a fortunate few will soon be able to pursue college and professional careers.
It's been fun watching them grow up.
It's also been nice to see an entire city grow with them.