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HOLMBERG: Tuckahoe Little League – bigger than the Beatles?

If the Tuckahoe Little League 12-year-old All-Stars whip up on South Nashville in the regional finals Friday at 7 p.m. (watch on ESPN), this team will join three other Tuckahoe teams that have made it to Williamsport, Pa., for the World Series of Little League.

No other Virginia team has a record like Tuckahoe’s, making the world series in 1968, 1976 and 1993. This 55-year-old western Henrico County organization is sort of like the New York Yankees of little leaguers, with a vast complex off Church Road, deep pockets, serious coaching, parental involvement, practically year ‘round practice and a tradition of winning that is more contagious than a summer cold.

Just go there, and on the wall, any aspiring baseballer can see the faces of the legends who proceeded them, says 57-year-old Gray Oliver, the first baseman for the storied ’68 team –  the only Virginia team to make it to the final game of the series.

Oliver says a young player can think, “hey, they look just like us.”

It was amidst kisses from Eastern Airlines stewardesses that the Tuckahoe Nationals arrived in Williamsport, Pa., to begin their 1968 run. They had handily whipped everyone in the state and regional championships.

They had Roger Miller on the mound, a youngster with ice water in his veins, “completely unflappable . . . a man among boys,” as Oliver recalls. Backing Miller up was Hank Stoneburner and Jim Parkovits, who went on to have a pro career.

The big hitters were the above flamethrowers and Johnny Mizelle, along with steady contact batter Gray Oliver.  Second basemen Tim Cecil said everyone else on the team knew their role: “don’t make mistakes.”

And they didn’t, at least not until the final game.

Richmonders had baseball fever. Tens of thousands listened to the games on WRNL radio, and later, watched the final game on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”  Oliver recalls the extra pressure added by the network cameras and production.

But both he and Cecil said all the glare faded soon after the first pitch was thrown.

The final game: Tuckahoe versus the Japanese team from Wakayama, Japan. A Richmond fan went to Williamsport with a sign made just for the event: “Win American style, hominy grits and black-eyed peas, we’re going to beat the Japanese!”

But here’s some important background from a story I previously wrote about team.

A crucial twist occurred 12 years before the game in a field of wildflowers.

Little Tim Reid was but 6 months old when his brothers took him out picking flowers. He fell out of his carriage and cut his right eye on some brush. For weeks the doctors were confident the eye would be fine. “Then gangrene set in,” Reid told me 24 years ago.

The youngster grew up seeing life through one bright green eye, and didn’t think anything of it. In `68, when the Tuckahoe Little League moved to its new field where Darrell’s Restaurant and Plata Grande now sit across from Regency Square, he was already a hot-handed catcher.

A handsome boy, tall for his age with an adult-like, quiet reserve, Reid made the Tuckahoe All-Star team in `68, where he stood head and shoulders above his teammates. As the summer grew hot, the team began its historical run on the world championships.

Clearly they were dominant as they advanced through the district, state and regional championships. Home runs flew off their bats in record numbers.

Still, “There was an incredible amount of good luck involved,” Coach Wesley Voltz told me back then.

A rain shower saved one close game. The Tuckahoe team seemed destined for glory.

Then came Aug. 24 and the Japanese.

The Japanese team had sung together before the game. They were relaxed. They didn’t make a mistake, not one.

The Tuckahoe team was tight, a little nervous. Pitching legend Roger Miller, who could do no wrong throughout the year, pitched an uncontrolled game — his worst. Still, he managed to pitch himself out of one jam after another.

But the mighty bats of Johnny Mizelle, Roger Miller and Jim Pankovits were strangely silent. The tall Japanese pitcher had an unusual lurch in his delivery that mystified.

The title was up for grabs.

Then, in the bottom of the fourth, the wheels fell off.

Miller walks T. Nishide of Japan with one out. Young Reid tries to pick off the runner at first, but misjudges his rocket toss and it rips past Oliver into right field. By the time the ball is relayed to home plate, Nishide is bearing down for the score. An umpire has crowded in. Reid can’t collect the ball. Japan scores!

The one-eyed catcher is credited with two errors, the only ones of the game.

“Everything we trained for fell apart on that play,” Reid told me 24 years ago. “Especially on my end.”

In the fifth inning, Reid makes two spectacular plays to cut down a Wakayama uprising, setting up what appears to be come-from-behind heroics.

With men on first and second, two outs, home run hero Johnny Mizelle steps to the plate and smashes the ball into right field.

Tim Cecil, standing by the on-deck circle, figures the game is saved. The runners streak for home. The ball rips between center and right field – easy hit zone, for sure, Cecil is thinking. The center fielder can’t get there.

But a million groans sound across the nation as right fielder Nobuhiko Funaoka dives headlong for the ball, scooping it just before it hits the turf.

The game is over. Just like that.

Back home, a parade awaited the boys. Interviews. A special night at Parker Field and bumper stickers that had been confidently printed: “Tuckahoe — World Champions.”

“It was really a traumatic experience,” Reid told me 24 years ago,  “I never thought I’d get over it.”

But he did. And his teammates don’t blame him. They all had a rough game.

Oliver recalls the tears in the locker room, but also the pride in knowing they still almost managed to win the world series while playing far from their best.

Cecil says right from the final out, coaches and parents reminded them how much they accomplished, a record no other Virginia team has matched to this day.

All the members of that ’68 team are still alive, save for the unflappable pitcher, Roger Miller. Oliver, only half-joking, says that experience as a 12-year-old was the pinnacle of his life.

Both he and Cecil, as well as Stoneburner (who we spoke with by phone) are watching and rooting for the 2013 Tuckahoe team.

Wouldn’t it be something, Oliver said, if they could go all the way and win the championship?

Yes it would?

Go Tuckahoe!

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