In the moments after his team had been eliminated from the Little League World Series in a 4-1 loss to Louisiana, New Jersey manager Jairo Labrador was seen giving an emotional final message to his players in their last huddle of the season.
On the Williamsport, Pa., field, one phrase stood out above the rest as ESPN cameras and microphones showed Labrador display his gratification.
“For the rest of my life, I’m proud that you guys get to call me coach,” said Labrador, fighting back tears behind a pair of sunglasses while looking into his players’ eyes.
That was the same raw emotion that Labrador showcased all week during the club’s run to the Mid-Atlantic Regional championship Aug. 4-10 at the Giamatti Little League Center in Bristol.
It was at Breen Field where the Elmora Little League team from Elizabeth, N.J., began its journey of becoming one of the standout teams across the country.
From its bounceback from a dramatic, potentially soul-crushing loss in the regional opener, to the love for 5-foot-10, 200-pound Yady Mateo - a 12-year-old who became a breakout star at the regional and then the LLWS after showcasing 75 mph fastballs and rocketship line drives - it all added up to New Jersey becoming one of the fan favorites in Williamsport.
“They had an entire city and a state and all the fans out there in their corner,” Labrador said in the postgame press conference. “Not a lot of kids have that support system at home and just to feel that love. We’re just gonna be there for the boys now.
“They’re 12 years old. We have 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds, and even though he’s the size of a grown man, kids deal with things in a different way. And I just wanna keep reminding the boys that no matter what, you’re loved, and that’s the most important thing.”
As for the game against Louisiana itself, Labrador says a lack of concentration may have contributed to the loss, as his club had a quick turnaround from a late-night win over Rhode Island on Tuesday into an 11 a.m. first pitch Wednesday - though he did say Louisiana was in the same type of situation with having to wake up for an early game.
Labrador wasn’t upset about his team’s lack of performance, labeling the outing he got from starter J.R. Rosado “amazing,” but Louisiana was just a great hitting team that took advantage of three New Jersey errors that led to four runs allowed by Rosado (who threw five innings and struck out seven).
“We were a little careless with the ball sometimes,” Labrador said. “In a game like this, when you have really good pitching, it’s the team that makes the first mistake that usually [loses].”
New Jersey didn’t make many mistakes throughout its World Series run. Outside of the three errors in the final game, the club averaged just one error per game in its other three contests.
That helped lead to a memorable experience, including victories over Oregon and Rhode Island that helped the team come within two wins of reaching the U.S. championship game.
“I’m just proud of our boys for battling and sticking with each other,” Labrador said. “We went out like champions. I’m OK with it. I’m proud of these boys.”
He later said: “We were a top four team in the country. We played in Williamsport in the Little League World Series. [Just] some boys from Elizabeth, New Jersey.”
Some of those Jersey boys were seen scooping up infield dirt to take home as mementos during a once-in-a-lifetime experience they will remember forever.
“That’s been the message since we got there. Every step of the way, you’ve just gotta soak it all in,” Labrador said. “For our 12-year-olds, it was graduation day, and what a way to hold a ceremony in Williamsport. Grab the dirt, put it on a shelf, on top of the mantle, wherever you put it - with your baseballs that you hit your first home run with - there’s a select few who have dirt from this place, and that’s a special cup.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or