For kids like Christian Speciale and John Gano, this was supposed to be a special Little League season. As 12-year-olds, it was their final year in Little League — their last chance to run 60-foot bases, face pitching from 45 feet away and swing for the fences 200 feet from home plate.
But for Speciale and Gano and a bunch of their pals from Great Kills, it was also supposed to be an extra special season.
“Little League in general is really fun,” said Gano, a tall, lanky pitcher. “But also, this year, everyone felt we had a good chance to make it to Williamsport.”
As in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the Little League World Series.
The Great Kills National all-star team won the Staten Island District 24, New York City and New York State 10-year-old championships in 2018. Last year, that same group of boys won the Eastern Regional as 11-year-olds.
This year, with Great Kills Little League reducing its number of charters from two to one, the best players from its American all-star team were expected to be combined with the National team to make one super team. The anticipation to see how this team performed in all-star play this summer was building in the early months of 2020 when indoor practices began.
And then COVID-19 happened.
Like just about everything else, youth sports seasons were put on hold, and it looked like there might be a lot of disappointed 12-year-olds who would not get to enjoy their final year in Little League. The national organization announced on April 30 that there would be no national tournament — including the World Series in Williamsport — this summer.
“It was upsetting,” Speciale said. “I wanted to make my last year my best year. But I was most disappointed about all stars.”
Not having a chance to compete for the chance for an unforgettable summer with the all-star tournament was disappointing to the kids and parents alike.
“Not too many teams, when they start the season, have a legitimate shot to go to the regionals in Bristol, Connecticut, to be on ESPN, to go to the Little League World Series and play on TV,” said James Speciale, Christian’s dad and the manager of the Great Kills all-star teams that had all that success the past two years. “This team would have had the talent to do that.
“I really felt bad for the kids. They have been talking about it for a year.”
While South Shore Little League, which was expected to be Great Kills’ biggest obstacle in getting off the Island, and Mid-Island Little League have had teams reach the World Series, no team from Great Kills has made it.
It’s an experience like no other for a Little League player — and their families.
“You can’t replace it,” James Speciale said. “There were 1,200 people at the 12-year-old championship at South Shore last year. Twelve-hundred people! You don’t get that anywhere else. You’re lucky if you get 100 people at a high school game.”
A successful Little League all-star team spends the entire summer with each other and it becomes a family for the kids and their parents.
“From Memorial Day to the second week of August, they’re together every day, six nights a week,” James Speciale said. “Going away, staying in hotels, sleepovers, pool parties. We were fortunate to experience that the last two years.”
Gano and Christian Speciale have played at Great Kills since T-ball and are good friends. They are always at the complex, playing their own games, practicing and hanging out to watch their friends play.
Both were expected to be part of that all-star team this year, Gano a stud pitcher on a staff that James Speciale said would have had “six or seven guys who could pitch, but five legitimate pitchers.”
It turned out Little Leagues in the Staten Island district got the OK to begin play in early July, so most of the 12s at least have had the chance to play their final regular season —albeit with masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer in the dugouts and umpires calling balls and strikes from behind the pitcher.
“The game is just as good as it was before,” Christian Speciale.
His mom, Christina, said he’d love it in any form. “He’s probably the smallest kid out there, but no one has more passion,” she said.
And, while everyone concedes it wouldn’t be the same, there is talk of a possible district all-star tournament in the fall.
“I hope so,” John said. “At least we’d get some games out of it.”
And a chance to extend his last year in Little League a bit further.
Joe LoVerde is a local sportswriter and has been coaching youth sports in Staten Island for nearly 40 years.