Young baseball players dream about it. Few actually get the chance to live it. And even fewer gain the national attention that the Phenix City All-Stars did in 1999.
More than 7,400 teams begin the journey every year. Twelve boys from Phenix City began practicing June 15, 1999, dreaming they would make the “big stage” of Williamsport, Penn. And now, 10 years later, those grueling practices still stick out as a lasting memory.
“One of my best memories had to have been those six-hour days of practicing,” Heath Owens said. “Before we began the tournaments, we were practically living together on the baseball field.”
They ended up “living together” for more than three months. Phenix City’s 11- and 12-year-old team won the United States Little League Championship on Aug. 27, 1999, against the “Beast from the East,” Toms River, N.J.
“The whole experience was just movie stuff,” head coach Tony Rasmus said just days after returning from the whirlwind trip. “It just didn’t seem real. There wasn’t a time we didn’t get back to the room that the coaches would go, ‘Can you believe this? Did you ever dream this place was like this, and that we could be a part of something like this?’”
That movie didn’t have a storybook ending, as Phenix City lost to Japan in the World Championship game 5-0. The story of their lives, however, continues.
Ten years later, they still resemble their old headshots.
Still in baseball
For some of the players, the summer of ’99 was just the beginning of traveling across the country for the sport they love.
Colby Rasmus played first base and pitched for the All-Stars. Rasmus was the No. 28 overall draft pick in the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Now an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Rasmus said the experience was something he could never forget.
“Dealing with thousands of people and interviews,” Rasmus said, “that really made the experience eye-opening. We really got after it that summer.”
At 12, Rasmus was the boy who goofed around to keep things fun and loose. Now, after turning 23 and winding down his rookie season, things are a bit different with Albert Pujols as a teammate.
“I’m playing as hard as I can and trying to stay healthy,” said Rasmus, who is recovering from a heel injury he suffered in late July.
Colby’s younger brother, Cory, played catcher on the championship team. He’s now a pitcher in the Atlanta Braves farm system.
Cory Rasmus was the No. 38 overall pick by the Braves in 2006. He had surgery last year to tighten his shoulder capsule.
“I’m mostly throwing out of the bullpen right now to build some strength and get use to everyday stress,” said Cory Rasmus, who pitched a seven inning no-hitter for the Danville Braves just last week. “But the goal is to get back into the pitching rotation.”
For the younger Rasmus, the pressure of the first game at the Little League World Series and the United States championship game opened his eyes.
“I don’t know if I’ve been under more pressure since those games against the East,” Rasmus said, referring to Toms River. “All those fans from the East cheering against you. It helped me not get nervous in front of crowds.”
Pressure is something Bryan Woodall never really noticed.
Woodall, who played pitcher and third base 10 years ago, was nicknamed “Ice Man” by his teammates because he never got flustered under pressure.
Woodall is putting himself in those situations a few times a week. Drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 21st round of the 2008 draft, Woodall has been coming out of the bullpen since his college days at Auburn University.
“You go different places and people see your name … some still ask me about those days,” Woodall said. “I’ve even met up with some of the guys we played against during that run.”
Lance Lynn, a pitcher in the Cardinals farm system, was on the mound when Phenix City’s Kyle Tidwell hit the game-winning grand slam against the Brownsburg, Ind., team. Colby Rasmus said he talks to Lynn often.
Brandon Monk spent three years in the Braves system before being released. He is now preparing for his last year of eligibility with Columbus State University. Drafted in 2005 as an infielder, Monk’s career with the Braves was tainted by a 50-game suspension, which was due to a failed drug test. Monk later said he didn’t file the proper paperwork for a prescription he was taking.
Now, Monk has moved to catcher with the Cougars.
“I think catcher is a better fit for me,” Monk said. “I broke my ankle last November, so I’m just trying to get it better and see what this season holds for me.”
It could be another nervous draft day in May 2010.
“That would be great if it worked out that way,” Monk said. “But if not, I’ll just finish school and see what happens.”
Eric Skinner, a teammate of Woodall’s at Auburn, also is at Columbus State after playing two years with the Tigers. The infielder once described as a quiet and emotionless 12-year-old said he gets excited around this time of the year.
“I usually watch the World Series as much as I can,” Skinner said. “I think we all kind of get noticed more around this time of the year. People start asking me if I was that kid.”
Another tie to Auburn, Zach Martin redshirted his freshman year before transferring to Andrew College in Cuthbert, Ga. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 but decided to return to Andrew for his second year. He is now recovering from Tommy John surgery, an elbow reconstruction procedure, and hoping to man Troy University’s third base position next spring.
“I guess the biggest thing for me has been marrying Lindsey this summer,” Martin said. “I had surgery soon after. Now I’m just getting ready to get out of this (mobile cast) and get things going.”
Martin said he hopes to be drafted again next summer but will continue school if that doesn’t happen.
Close to home
Alex Acuff, who played right field in 1999, once competed in gymnastics when he was younger. It may explain why he did backflips around the bases when he hit a home run once.
It also explains his newest endeavor — cheerleading. For the last year, Acuff has been a part of the Columbus State cheerleading team as well as a student ambassador. He keeps busy with his fraternity and dabbles in college flag football.
“That summer was really the best times of my life,” Acuff said. “I’d love to see all those guys again.”
Heath Owens isn’t far. One of four attending CSU, the ’99 team’s center fielder is a business major who said he gets recognized all the time.
“I guess since it’s been so long not many of us still talk about that summer,” Owens said. “But it was a humbling experience and I’m glad I got to do it with those guys.
“Winning games was great, but the connections we made will never go away.”
While Ben Carter isn’t as close to home as some others, the Auburn senior accounting major still tries to get in some baseball.
“For the last two years I’ve been playing in men’s league baseball,” Carter said. “It just keeps me busy.”
Carter played high school baseball at Brookstone. He was one of three who played high school baseball in Georgia; Martin played at Columbus High and Monk at LaGrange.
Willie Gaston remembers the summer of ’99 as the moment he realized the world was at his feet. The University of North Alabama senior hasn’t played ball since his freshman year at Chattahoochee Valley Community College. But he has his hands busy with other instruments.
Gaston started playing guitar when he was 16 and is part of a jazz/rock ‘n’ roll band influenced by the Beatles and Van Morrison.
“I’m an entertainment industry management major,” Gaston said. “I love music and want to be around it.”
Kyle Tidwell is married and has a child. He’s working for his family’s business, Tidwell Plumbing, and hopes to one day return to school and take over the business.
“Back then, I didn’t realize how fun it was,” Tidwell said of the championship. “I don’t think we realized how big the moment was until afterward. Now it’s bills and bills. But we will all be lifelong friends.”
Maybe it’s because of the game-winning grand slam, or maybe it’s because Tidwell still looks the same, but he said he still gets recognized at least once a week.
Perhaps the most removed from baseball is Jeff Smith, a boatswain’s mate in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Smith gave up baseball in junior high to play football at Glenwood.
The Coast Guard has taken Smith to Alaska, New Jersey, Virginia and now Mobile, Ala., where he is the father to a 3-month-old boy, Hudson.
“I’ve seen so much over the last few years, I’m not sure where I’ll eventually settle,” Smith said. “But I’m just focused on now and seeing my kid as much as possible.”
The 12 players are scattered across the country, but at this time of year their minds wander back to the one place that marked the beginning of it all — the practice field. While half of the team can still be found on the diamond during the summer, the other half are either in the classroom or beginning their professional careers.
But all of those “Scrawny Bunch from Alabama” kids are doing well, perhaps because they still carry a few qualities coach Tony Rasmus said they had 10 years ago.
One day, as the pitchers continued running on the practice field, Rasmus told position players they were through with their mandatory running. Rasmus then asked for volunteers. They all ran.
“Just because they wanted to show me that they were dedicated,” Rasmus told Ledger-Enquirer columnist Guerry Clegg in an interview for his book. “And if one guy was dragging, they wouldn’t leave him behind. … As a coach, that just gives you chill bumps, because that’s what you want. You want those kids to pull together.”
They pulled together for an entire summer 10 years ago. Some of their successes are still measured on a baseball field. Some of their successes are measured in a classroom or in the professional world. But all feel their success goes back to that practice field.