Mid-Island generating buzz again

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette New York's John Calabrese celebrates with his third base coach after hitting a triple in the third inning during a game earlier in the Little League World Series at Howard J. Lamade Stadium against Iowa.

This is not the first time the Mid Island Little League All-Stars have generated a big buzz.

Two years ago, the Staten Island, New York team entered the 10-year old district tournament as a favorite. That team, however, lost in the loser’s bracket final. The loss stung, but Mid Island never forgot the feeling.

And it has not lost since.

Mid Island is competing at the Little League World Series for the first time since 2006 and that 2016 loss may have provided the spark. Not only have the Mid-Atlantic Regional champions gone undefeated since that game, but they entered the Series having never even trailed since then. This is a champion that hates to lose as much as it enjoys winning.

“It’s just an amazing group. They lost that game and from that day forward they were motivated,” Mid Island Little League president John Pleszewicz said. “That loss humbled them and gave them the drive and as you look back, that was probably the best thing that could have happened. They thought they were invincible and they don’t want that feeling ever again of being eliminated.”

“It definitely showed them that you don’t just show up and have people lay down for you. You have to come to play and be prepared mentally and physically,” Mid Island manager Joe Calabrese said. “These kids play with a little chip on their shoulder and thrive on the pressure. They like the big spot and want to compete.”

That has been evident all summer. Mid Island, representing a small league that fields just 278 players, has never taken a play or inning off. Calabrese preaches that each game is actually six games in itself with every inning representing another one. Players have bought in, relentlessly worked hard and Mid Island entered the Series 15-0 while outscoring opponents, 158-20. It earned its Series berth last Sunday when Gregory Bruno threw a perfect game and Mid Island captured the Mid-Atlantic championship with a 4-0 win against Maryland.

The wins provided added fuel. Mid Island’s motto is “the more we win, the harder we work.” The team epitomizes those words. Even when there is no practice, players are practicing. They are kids and they have other interests and play other sports. But baseball is their passion and why they are competing on Little League’s biggest stage reflects who they are.

“It hasn’t been a 2 1/2-month thing. It’s been going on for years. Their dream always was to get to Williamsport and they have been chasing that for three years, working and grinding,” Calebrese said. “They don’t stop. They love to play the game and they play the game the right way and are doing the little things right.”

Calabrese also coaches high school football and holds workouts during baseball’s offseason for any Little Leaguer who wants to attend. It is a testament to the team’s work ethic that nearly everyone attended. Talent can go a long way but to reach this stage it takes something extra. These players have become bigger, stronger and faster and that makes a big difference.

“By winning last year at 11, they knew it was a special thing, but that they would have to work harder. They worked all winter long together, trained together and their ultimate goal is to get six banners and there’s two more to go now,” Pleszewicz said. “Their work ethic is second to none. They practice hard every day and they compete hard all year long, whatever game they are playing. They all want to win and they’re all competitive.”

Mid Island sure has looked powerful as well. Every player has homered during all-star competition and all 11 players have shined at different times. The defense has been sensational, too. First baseman John Calabrese made a sensational, fifth-inning diving catch one batter before right fielder Robert Cavalieri threw out a runner at first as they both preserved Bruno’s perfect game against Maryland.

All 11 players can pitch and the staff features five especially powerful arms. As strong as the top of the lineup has been, the bottom of the order and the substitutes often have ignited game-changing rallies. They have become weapons lower in the lineup, setting the table for the top hitters and always keeping the pressure on opposing pitchers. This group epitomizes what a team is.

“These are kids that have great instincts. They play the game year-round and have a great feel for everything on the diamond,” Calabrese said. “They play every facet of the game the right way.”

As driven as Mid Island is, it can flip the switch. It can be as polite off the field as it is dominant on it. Mid Island has earned accolades for its sportsmanship and behavior, representing everything that its league strives for. They have become not only champions, but quality ambassadors.

That is one reason the New York community is so excited. So are the league’s alumni which includes the 1964 world championship team and the 2006 Series qualifier. Yes, people like a winner. But they really embrace those who shine a positive light upon the community.

That 2016 tournament loss hurt Mid Island’s players. But look what has happened since then. This journey has become one huge win.

“They are like a family, like a bunch of brothers and they are all great kids,” Pleszewicz said. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing. It’s such a great thing for a tiny league. It’s pretty emotional.

“This is a special bunch that comes along once in a long time.”