Pitcher Cody Webster didn’t realize the magnitude of what he and his friends had accomplished until he saw the front page of a Chicago newspaper during an airport layover.
It was 1982, and Webster had helped lead his Kirkland team to a Little League World Series championship over perennial powerhouse Taiwan. The victory snapped a five-title and 31-game winning streak by Taiwanese teams.
Webster and his teammates were 12, and at the time they’d just been playing baseball and having fun with their friends. Even after they lifted the LLWS trophy 40 years ago in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, they hadn’t anticipated the fame that followed. They suddenly became heroes, Webster said.
“That amount of attention, there’s no training for it,” outfielder Mike Adams said.
During that layover, when Webster noticed a picture of himself and teammates in the newspaper, he had a moment of realization — this wasn’t local news in Seattle or Pennsylvania. This was in Chicago, and people there also thought the title was significant.
“That kind of hit me like, ‘Ohhh, OK, this is a big deal,’ ” Webster said. “By then I kind of knew, ‘Life has changed.’ I didn’t even know back then how much something at 12 years old can affect somebody.”
Forty years later, and as Sunday’s 2022 final nears, six former Kirkland players spoke about the lessons they learned from playing on that team. They reflected on the positives of the experience, which all agreed outweighed the handful of negative attention that followed. And in the aftermath of the title, the slew of publicity helped mold who they’ve become today.
“You didn’t really know how to deal with it. Everybody kind of dealt with it differently,” second baseman Shawn Cochran said.
Teammates didn’t remember the Chicago newspaper that Webster described, but all had their own moment of realization. Outfielders Bill Cook and Adams said theirs was seeing Sea-Tac Airport packed with friends and family. First baseman Mark Peterson remembered 35,000 people lining the streets of Kirkland for the parade.
Years later, Cochran said he’d hear college classmates — who weren’t even from the Northwest — recall the events of the 1982 championship. And third baseman Dave Keller said it was when ESPN produced a 30-for-30 documentary about the team in 2010.
“We were getting some attention for winning state, winning regionals, going to the World Series, things like that,” Adams said. “But there was such an escalation after the fact.”
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Some experienced more fame than others following the title, but Webster took on the majority of that. He was the team’s star pitcher who delivered big performances on the biggest stages, but he always felt his teammates deserved more credit.
He also was a shy kid, one who preferred being an overlooked offensive lineman, like he later was on the Juanita High School football team, than being in the spotlight as a pitcher. It wasn’t easy.
After the parade in Kirkland, Webster flew to New York to be on “Good Morning America.” He shook hands with Washington Gov. John Spellman and received a congratulatory telegram from President Ronald Reagan. Fan mail from people throughout the country with newspaper clippings about him and his teammates accumulated.
“That made it hit home,” Webster said.
In the year that followed, the team got invited to eat in restaurants for free with their families. They autographed baseballs and other memorabilia. They ran through the tunnel of cheerleaders onto the Kingdome field before a Seahawks game and were invited on the Coliseum court for a Sonics game, Peterson said.
“We’d go in and get the red-carpet treatment,” Peterson added. “That stuff was cool, because it seemed like people were appreciative of it. Fans would stand and cheer.”
That amount of attention did get to some of their heads. Adams said he was arrogant after the title, partially because of the championship but also because he was just a teenager. Peterson and Cochran agreed.
“There were some of us who were like, ‘We’re kind of the [expletive],’ ” Adams said.
Eventually, looking back on it, they learned valuable lessons about humility. Peterson said he learned to let his actions speak for himself instead of words. Adams got caught up in thinking he was “special.”
Webster said he never developed an ego about the championship. His parents didn’t want him to miss too much school, either, so they limited his media requests and other such activities.
“I’ve always been very grounded about this thing,” Webster said. “I know what it is. All it was for me was playing baseball with my buddies at 12 years old.”
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But some people didn’t seem to understand that the 12-year-olds weren’t seeking the attention, Cochran said. And the kids couldn’t avoid it — the more they tried to stay away from it, the more it came toward them, Cochran added.
Some negative media attention eventually followed, and it was challenging. Webster said some reports framed aftermath stories as if the ex-champions were “bitter” about later failures. That was difficult to comprehend as a 13-year-old. He and his teammates became more guarded about talking with the media.
Adams said the players learned about cynicism. They learned what “haters” were too, long before the term became common.
Beyond the media, Webster said he saw an ugly side of the public. Following the LLWS, adults at games hurled nasty comments at him about his weight. They seemed to hate him, and they didn’t even know him.
“Adults didn’t know how to handle it either,” Cochran said. “Other adults hadn’t seen kids at 12 years old getting all this attention, either.”
Mostly, Webster’s teammates say he held in those emotions. He said he dealt with it because he didn’t have another option. There were nights when Webster said he cried himself to sleep, but eventually he grew up and things changed.
Now he says the experiences probably made him more cautious about who he trusts. They also made him empathetic and open-minded, reminding him not to judge people he doesn’t know.
“It’s the hand I was dealt, and I think I handled it well, and I think I learned a lot from it,” Webster said. “Like I said, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
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The victory and its aftermath were still positive experiences. Cochran was surprised that the ninth-grade cheerleaders — two grades above the Kirkland players — lined up to cheer for them as they got off the bus for the parade in Kirkland. Keller remembers how they bounced around like “wild animals” and piled on top of each other after securing the victory. Webster remembers when the stadium went “berserk” after his 280-foot home run, something Cook said they’d seen Webster do multiple times.
Many expected Webster to continue playing as well as he did at age 12 for the rest of his life, Cook said. They expected the team to remain together through professional baseball, for the 12-year-olds to become major-league All-Stars, Adams said.
The players and their families knew that wasn’t realistic. Little League has been around for 83 years, featuring millions of competitors — just 64 from the Little League World Series have made it to Major League Baseball.
“[Webster] said it best: ‘I was really good when I was 12, and I wasn’t when I was older,’ ” Adams recalled. “I don’t know what the barometer is for what a 12-year-old is supposed to do for his whole life. But I don’t think it’s to be the best forever.”
Webster remembers a coach at Eastern Washington University joking, “C’mon, I thought you were a Little League hero” when he made mistakes. He’d heard phrases like that throughout high-school baseball, too.
The pressure and expectations led Webster to quit baseball in college. Cook and Keller played at Spokane Falls Community College before transferring to Gonzaga. Adams and Peterson played at Portland State before reaching minor-league baseball.
The attention didn’t die down until they all stopped playing baseball. But it’s still a lifelong label, one that’s difficult to escape, particularly when trying to accomplish other things. Adams said he’s still introduced as the guy who won the Little League World Series in 1982.
“That’s not my full name, but people will say that in a full sentence,” Adams said. “It happens to all of us.”
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That success at age 12 certainly did give the players an upper hand in youth baseball, though.
Many continued playing at Juanita, and the group remained among the best in the area. They won a state championship as juniors and finished second as seniors.
They also learned how to perform under extreme pressure. The crowd that day in 1982 featured more than 30,000 people at the start, and it continued to swell as people got word that Kirkland was winning.
There’s no way for a 12-year-old to simulate playing in front of such a big crowd, they said, but they felt so prepared that they weren’t nervous.
“That’s the beauty of our situation, that we were prepared and we knew it,” Cochran said. “That kind of helps you in life.”
Webster said he didn’t feel pressure. That has helped him deal with the day-to-day stresses of his job as a manager in the lumber industry. Cook said understanding the preparation that was necessary back then translated to his business presentations. Keller said the mental toughness his coaches emphasized, specifically Pat Downs, has stayed with him.
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There’s one question that Webster used to get all the time. He’d get it at school from people who didn’t know him. It’s become less frequent over the years, but it still pops up on occasion — when he’s in the grocery store, for instance.
They ask: Well, what happened to you?
It’s their way of calling Webster a failure because he didn’t play professionally. Adams hears it, too, calling Webster “one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life” when people unfairly assert that he never amounted to anything.
“It’s like, ‘I don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about,’ ” Webster said, pausing for a moment.
Over the years, he’s found that people will have an opinion on how his life went. In the end, though, he’s learned that it doesn’t matter. What counts are the experiences he cherishes and the lifelong friends he made from that Little League team.
He continues: “I was just playing for fun with my buddies.”