Rarely does Wayne Hardee go a day without at least a glancing thought about the magical summer of 1998.
The framed pictures on his office wall greet him each time he walks to his desk at Hardee & Hardee Attorneys at Law. Brack Massey, a partner in the firm, played for Hardee on that Greenville Tar Heel all-star team that became the city’s first to reach the Little League World Series. And then there are the conversations with new clients or anyone who stops by who might have a connection to the team.
Memories are shared, and Hardee invites them to the wall.
Framed pictures in Wayne Hardee’s office serve as a reminder of the 1998 Greenville Tar Heel team’s trip to the Little League World Series.
“It’s been like that since ‘98 when we got back,” Hardee said. “I’m very proud of that wall. It’s a great memory; it’s fun. … It continues to be at least a weekly topic for the last 19 years, and I anticipate that will not stop.”
Especially now that Greenville is sending a team to Williamsport, Pa., 19 years later. North State’s 12-year-old all-stars won the Southeastern Regionals last week in Warner Robins, Ga., and will open play Friday at 8 p.m. against Sioux Falls, N.D.
Hardee and several of his 1998 team members plan to be there.
“I’ve got my hotel and plane ticket booked,” said Justin Hardee, Wayne’s son and a shortstop on the 1998 team. “It’s going to be nice to kind of soak it all in and enjoy it from a fan’s perspective.”
Kevin Hodges, the 1998 team’s star pitcher who won two games in the LLWS, also embraces the opportunity to return. Hodges, who now lives in Wilmington, will be driving to Williamsport on Friday along with former teammates Alex White (not the major leaguer) and Pat Warrington, as well as another former Greenville Little League player, Jared Acheson, who played in the 1996 regionals.
Hodges said he hopes to glean a deeper appreciation of the LLWS this time around.
“I was just dead set on playing,” he recalled. “That’s why I am so excited about going back now. I’ll be able to see what everybody else saw.”
Brack Massey shows some of the pins he collected during the 1998 Little League World Series.
Just before his team marched on the field for opening ceremonies, Wayne Hardee said he urged his players to “treasure the moment.” Now they are passing on that message to the 2017 team. Justin Hardee, Massey, White, Mike Lilley and J.D. Morgan visited North State’s practice at Next Level Training Center on Friday, and the team received not only care packages but plenty of nuggets of advice.
Manager Brian Fields said seeing the bond the 1998 team has nearly 20 years later is special.
“For them to come out and share their experiences and share what they went through and to show how they’re all still together and how they have been bonded ever since shows how really special this experience is,” Fields said. “For those guys to get together and to come back up here and get to experience it with another Greenville team is absolutely incredible They have shown such support for this team. … I think us getting to the Little League World Series has really brought back a lot of those memories.”
Long road to Williamsport
Williamsport seemed a longshot after a 2-1 loss to Morehead City in the opening game of the 1998 district tournament, but Tar Heel battled through the losers’ bracket then won the state tournament to earn Greenville’s third regional trip in six years.
The South Regional then was headquartered in St. Petersburg, Fla., and included 13 teams competing in two double-elimination divisions. Tar Heel defeated Alabama (7-2), Virginia (11-9) and South Carolina twice (11-0 and 5-2) before shutting out Tennessee 6-0 in a championship game shortened to four innings by lightning.
Hodges threw a perfect game in the championship.
The regionals ended on a Thursday night. The Greenville team remained in St. Petersburg in the barrack-style complex until flying to Williamsport on Saturday. With parents headed home, Wayne Hardee and assistants Mason Lilley and Randy White were left with 14 pre-teens to entertain — and feed.
“I think I had $96 of Little League funds,” Wayne Hardee recalled. “I had a couple of personal credit cards.”
The team went to see “Something About Mary,” “which I realize now was an R-rated movie,” Hardee said.
Justin Hardee holds a team-autographed ball and Tar Heel’s U.S. runner-up trophy.
Some players went armed with laser lights, one of several mischievous things they did, Massey said.
“We were not an easy group to deal with,” he said. “I hope these kids are better than we were. We had to run laps — multiple times — in the middle of the night, like 3 a.m.”
Wayne Hardee didn’t dispute the running — or the time.
“They deserved to run them,” he said.
But three weeks together away from home also created lasting bonds and memories.
“The people I played baseball with when I was that young are still my best friends to this day,” Hodges said. “It’s a bond that you will never lose. It’s a lifetime bond. … You’re together, you’re going to fight like brothers. You learn a lot about each other when you’re together for that long.”
‘It’s just surreal’
Arriving at the LLWS headquarters as the first North Carolina representative since 1952 left Tar Heel awe-struck.
“From the time you land, you’re treated like a Major League athlete,” Justin Hardee said.
There are interview sessions with ESPN, height and weight measurements, and photo sessions. In their free time, players trade pins — a Little League tradition — and challenge one another in ping pong and billiards.
Justin Hardee savors getting the best of Todd Frazier in ping pong. Frazier went on to play for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox and now is a member of the New York Yankees. He also won the All-Star Game Home Run Derby in 2015.
“You have the best Little League baseball players in the world in one area,” Hardee said. “You never know which stars that you’re playing against or even on your team one day could be at the top, in Major League Baseball.”
Frazier’s Toms River, N.J., team defeated Greenville twice and went on to win the LLWS title. Frazier was 4-for-4 with a home run in the final game.
“I can sleep better at night knowing somebody of his caliber beat us versus somebody that we no longer keep in touch with or see on TV,” Hardee said.
Hodges said the chance to match up against the world’s best remains a highlight.
Brack Massey holds his South jersey and the ball from his home run in a 2-1 win over California.
“I just always like competition,” he said. “If that’s something you like, you’re never going to get more than you would there. You’re playing against the best in the world. You’re playing for a world championship. Somebody that likes winning or that’s what their goal is, there is no better thing than trying to be the best in the world at something.”
There’s also nothing better for a 12-year-old than playing on TV and at Howard J. Lamade Stadium which seats 3,300 and has had as many as 45,716 attend a game.
“At that age, it’s just surreal to be in that kind of stadium and playing in front of that many people and to have the TV cameras and ESPN,” Massey said. “Just to play in front of that crowd, on TV, represent Greenville, our state, our region and to do as well as we did … I’m still a little bitter that we didn’t win it because I felt like we had the best team, but we made it that far, and we’re proud of that.”
Greenville’s newest celebrities finally came home — led by a police escort — and a massive, enthusiastic crowd was waiting at Elm Street Park.
“I started crying,” Wayne Hardee said, “It was very, very emotional for me. I could not believe how many people were at Elm Street.”
Massey and Mike Lilley got off the bus carrying the South Region championship banner.
“As soon as we walked out, there was the loudest roar,” Massey said. “ …. At that point I did, to some degree, realize how much support we had. It felt like the entire city of Greenville showed up to congratulate us. That was a great feeling.
“We had no idea when we were driving home,” Massey said. “We knew there were police escorting us, but we didn’t know there was a huge crowd at Elm Street. We took that corner to turn in the parking lot, I still remember being in awe.”
It’s hard to believe that was 19 years ago, Massey said.
“I remember after we got back from the World Series, a lot of people asked me, ‘Has it hit you yet?’’ he said. “I would say, ‘I don’t think so,’ but honestly this past week is really when it hit me because I realized the magnitude of it for Greenville, how big of a deal it is, and it’s brought back so many great memories, and it’s just been fun to relive those.”