EASLEY—With Textile League, successful Little League and high school teams, and a long tradition of winning on American Legion Post 52 teams, Easley has been known as a baseball town.
The Big League World Series has given the local area a chance to showcase that success to the world.
Over the previous 11 years the tournament has been held at the JB “Red” Owens Recreation Complex, the host team has reached the semi-finals or the championship game eight times. The local team has won the World Series four times —- 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007.
The players on that those teams have experienced success after their Big League World Series days were over. All but two of the players on rosters those four seasons played college baseball and 16 were drafted in the Major League Baseball Draft. Seven are currently playing in the Minor Leagues and at least two are coaching baseball at the college level. One of those, Scott Wingo, a member of the 2007 championship team, was the MVP of the College World Series, leading the University of South Carolina in the second of two consecutive College World Series championships.
After losing in the semi-final round to the eventual World Series champion in 2001 (California) and 2002 (Puerto Rico), the Easley team won it all in 2003. The Host team outscored opponents 36-5 en route to a 4-0 record in pool play. Easley then dominated a Brenham, TX team in the semi-final round, winning 18-0 and then defeated Thousand Oaks, California 6-3 in the championship game. The championship was the first for a host team at any level of the Little League program as well as the first for Little League programs in South Carolina.
“We knew we had a good team, but to beat Texas 18-0 was unbelievable,” said Gregg Powell, who managed the host team for the first time in 2003. “That game turned the tale and showed people South Carolina had come up with Texas, Florida and Calfornia.”
Powell, who has managed all four World Series championship teams and is managing the 2012 team, said the team was very talented.
“Riverside High School was the No. 1 baseball team in the country that year and we got seven or eight players from that team and they also played travel ball. They played a lot of baseball together.”
Powell said one of the highlights of the series was meeting former Major League pitcher Bret Saberhagen, whose son pitched for the Thousand Oaks, CA team. Saberhagen’s son pitched in the loss to Easley in the championship game.
“We had great players and it was a real reward to win that first championship.”
A year later, the host team was more dominant en route to its second World Series championship. Easley outscored opponents 64-6 in four pool play games. The Host team had its closest game of the tournament in the semi-finals, defeating Anaheim, CA 6-3 in 14 innings. The game was postponed because of a midnight curfew for games at the time. The game resumed the next day and the Host team pulled out the victory. Easley then won its second straight championship, beating Pennsylvania 9-1.
“We played until they wouldn’t let us play anymore,” said Jesse Dunn of the semi-final game against the California team. “Andrew Crisp hit a game-tying home run for us in the eighth inning. I think we knew it would come down to us and the California team.”
Dunn, a catcher at Easley High and on the World Series team, played college baseball for Coastal Carolina, Pfieffer and Walter State, runs a roofing business in Easley today. He played on a JUCO (Junior College) National Championship team at Walter State, but said winning a championship in front of hometown fans was special.
“Anytime you win a championship it means a lot, but it was special to do it in front of a home crowd with people that I knew and grew up with. “There were not a whole lot of friends and family there when we won the JUCO championship (at Walter State).”
Dunn had advice for this year’s host team.
“I hope the kids playing in it now enjoy it and leave everything out on the field,” he said. “I would say don’t take it for granted. A lot of kids don’t get this opportunity.”
A year later, Easley outscored its opponents 29-7 on its way to a 3-1 record in pool play. In the semi-final round, the Host team handed Maracaibo, Venezuela its only loss in the series, a 7-5 win. In the championship game, Easley again defeated a team from California, this time 10-5 to win a third straight Big League World Series title.
Chas Anthony, a Pickens High standout who later played college baseball at Erskine University, said the team felt the shadow of the championships of the championship teams in the previous two years.
“We didn’t want to let everybody down” Anthony said. But, we had experience. Once we got started, we were confident.”
Anthony, a chemist who will soon be attending dental school, said the success of the previous two years caused made them the target of other teams in the tournament.
“Everyone from Florida to California wanted us to lose. We had a big team rivalry with the California team.”
Kyle Root, an Easley High graduate who played third base for the 2005 Big League team is Assistant Baseball Coach the University of Charleston (West Virginia), where he played college baseball.
“We had some big shoes to fill,” said Root. “We lost to the Florida team and had to win the next two games to make the semi-finals. I don’t think we were the best team in the tournament but we played the game the right way, made good plays and took care of the baseball.”
JD Burgess, who played baseball at Pickens High and Clemson University, was also a member of the 2005 Big League World Series team. He is on the coaching staff at Pickens High School and in the process of getting his teaching certification.
“Some of the greatest memories I had was winning the Championship in ‘05, but also playing against teams of different ethnicity than my own,”Burgess said. “Getting to know the other players on my own District One team and also other teams from around the world was a great experience for me as a young baseball player.
“ It was a great group of guys that loved playing baseball, he added. “From the first practice when we were together as a group, I knew we had a chance to win the tournament. We worked hard and knew our game plan and stuck to it. Our pitching staff preformed outstanding along with timely hitting.”
Burgess said the 2005 championship is one of the baseball accomplishments he is most proud of.
“It ranks very high,” he said. “I had many great experiences in high school and in college playing baseball, but being able to say you won a Big League World Championship is something not many others can say.”
After falling 6-1 in the semi-finals to Puerto Rico, the District 1 team entered the 2007 Big League World Series with that loss motivating them to a fourth championship. The Host team defeated Thousand Oaks, California 10-0 in the semi-finals and then won the title, avenging its loss in 2006, defeating Puerto Rico 11-3. That championship game was the first time of what has become an annual broadcast of the championship game on ESPN.
“There was not much pressure, but we were playing on TV and I hadn’t done that before,” said Matt Ramey, who started and was credited with the win in 2007. “We didn’t the pitching that we needed in 2006. In 2007, we had way more pitching.”
A graduate of Pickens High and Lander University, Ramey said the 2007 the talent on the team was the biggest factor in the championship.
“It was definitely the best team I ever played on,” he said. “Everybody from the top on down to the bottom of the lineup could hit. We had speed and power along with good pitching.”
Matthew Youngblood, a Travelers Rest High and Erskine University baseball standout, is now an assistant baseball coach at Erskine. He played on the Big League World Series teams in 2006 and 2007 and said the loss in 2006 was a motivating factor for the team.
“We came so close to the championship game (in 2006) was a sickening feeling,” said Youngblood. “The will to win pushed us through. We were not going to accept losing. We just wanted it so badly.”
Youngblood pointed to the first game of the tournament, a 5-3 win over Greenville, SC, as a pivotal game in giving the Host team confidence that they could win the championship.
“We battled them back and forth and felt that whoever won that game was going to win it all,” he said. “We knew every guy on that team and they knew us. It was a pride thing. We were a very good team but we were kind of the underdog. We were getting pushed under the radar because Greenville was getting all the hype.”
The team’s only loss was 12=11 to Louisana. Easley had been down 11-3 and came back to tie the game 11-11 before Louisiana won the game.
“We just never quit; we showed fight,” Youngblood said of the game.
Youngblood said the championship was special because his father, Bobby, was an assistant coach on that team.
“It was more enjoyable because I was able to win it with a loved one. “I loved seeing how proud my father was of me as a leader.”