It was the biggest game of Cameron’s life – and same for all the other players.
Cameron Thorning stepped into the batter’s box on a sunny August afternoon at Howard J. Lamade Stadium with a lot at stake.
Taylor North Little League, Cameron’s team from Michigan, and Honolulu Little League, from Hawaii, were playing a rematch to decide who would represent the Hank Aaron Bracket in the Little League World Series championship the following day.
It was the biggest game of Cameron’s life – and same for all the other players.
Hawaii was undefeated and the clear favorites, as it had already beaten Michigan, 2-0, a few days prior. The club from just outside Detroit bounced back and scored 15 runs in a beatdown of Texas to break its way out of the loser’s bracket.
Now, everything rested on Cameron, a 5-foot-8 dual threat at the plate and from the mound. The left-handed batter was the most feared hitter on the team, and had already knocked out two home runs in the tournament.
His teammate, Lucas Farner, had worked a walk and stood at first base. Rick Thorning, Cameron’s father and the team’s coach, watched intently from the dugout.
Cameron only needed to see one pitch. The ball curved lazily as it crossed over the heart of the plate and he picked up on its movement immediately, taking a mighty swing and sending it into the hedge beyond the right-field wall. He had given Taylor North a lead that it would not relinquish, as it went on to become the first team from Michigan in 62 years not just to play in the Little League World Series final but to win it.
Father and Son
Baseball has earned its reputation as a sport where no one player can carry the entire team. Michigan’s journey through a complicated Little League World Series may not have been possible, though, without the bond between its coach and his son.
Rick Thorning never intended to become as deeply involved with baseball as he was. His two sons, Andrew and Cameron, got into baseball at a young age. He decided to serve as Andrew’s coach ever since he joined a tee-ball team for Taylor North Michigan. Cameron, who is four years younger, had a rockier path. His tee-ball coaches were also just local parents, but they did not know many of the sport’s fundamentals and asked others to help out. Naturally, Rick volunteered, and has found himself coaching both of his sons ever since.
The Thornings live in the small town of Woodhaven located about 10 minutes from Taylor. Rick works as a corrections officer during the day. By night, he coaches two baseball teams.
Rick has felt the pressure of having so many commitments. He has had to get creative with his planning to be able to put aside time for his coaching. “I set my schedule up in advance to be there for the practices and games,” he said. “My job and my family are my priority, but during baseball season, baseball is my priority.”
Rick and Cameron have two relationships: as father and son, and as coach and player. Rick says that despite Cameron being 12 years old, he is mature enough to recognize the difference.
“He does a good job of separating the dad and the coach,” Rick said. “Instead of me saying something and ‘Dad is disappointed in me,’ it’s ‘Coach is saying something to me.’ He maintains eye contact while I’m talking to him and listens to me.”
Rick has always kept a close eye on Cameron’s workload, especially when he is pitching. He was forced to shut down Cameron’s throwing for a few months last year when a visit to a specialist revealed a growth-related shoulder plate injury. He believes that after a certain point, too much practice can be detrimental.
“There’s not a lot of time where me and Cameron are one-on-one, doing reps after reps,” he said. “We put so much work in with the team, it seems like overkill to come home from practice and hit off of the tee. You have to allow his body to rest.”
One of Cameron’s dreams was to play in the Little League World Series, the pinnacle of Little League baseball.
Little League had been forced to cancel its 2020 tournament due to COVID-19, and there was no guarantee that it would happen in 2021, either. After a long wait, Cameron found out in the spring that the tournament would be happening, and Taylor North would have a chance to qualify. There was a caveat: Teams would have to stay isolated during the tournament, and players could not meet with their parents. Since Rick was Taylor North’s coach, he would be one of the few parents allowed in the complex. Taylor North won its regional games and defeated Ohio in the Great Lakes regional championship to earn a trip to South Williamsport.
COVID-19 was a constant threat to shut down the tournament. Before the Little League World Series even began, the Kentucky team, who had been staying in the same hotel as Michigan during the Great Lakes regional tournament, was disqualified after several players tested positive. Taylor North parent Nathan Van Belle wanted to meet up with his son, Ethan, but did not – for fear of jeopardizing the whole team.
“Kentucky was just free-for-all, running around the hotel, and that was before we learned that they were positive,” he said. “That’s when the anxiety really set in. It was such a close contact that we thought for sure one of (the Michigan players) would have tested positive, and the ride would have been over.”
Fortunately, the team’s tests came back negative and they made their way to Pennsylvania. The players had achieved their dreams, but were facing what could be weeks of isolation.
Rick could tell that his team was feeling homesick even before the World Series. “You could see it in the way they moved and the way they talked,” he said. “It was probably cool to be away from home for the first few days, but after that they wanted their mom and dad.”
Another Michigan star, Ethan Van Belle, saw it a little differently. He was gone from home for “three weeks, I think my longest before that was maybe a week,” he said. “I was having a lot of fun.”
“He said it was the best three weeks of his life, he talks about how he’d love to go back and do it all over again,” added Nathan Van Belle, Ethan’s dad.
In many ways, the Little League World Series was still the same opportunity for team bonding and spontaneous fun that it has always been. The players’ bunk beds were predictably messy, and they played hide-and-seek and tag after the games. They even had some interactions with their regional rival, Ohio, who lived next to them.
“We were sharing a bathroom with Ohio, and people were playing football with them and stuff,” Ethan said. “A couple of shampoo bottles exploded on the floor, and people were spraying them everywhere. It was pretty awkward after, and we really wanted to beat them.”
“It was probably cool to be away from home for the first few days, but after that they wanted their mom and dad.” Rick Thorning
A Championship to Remember
The tournament field usually consists of 16 teams, half from the United States, and half representing foreign countries. Due to travel restrictions – thanks again, COVID-19 – international teams could not participate and were replaced by the eight American regional runner-ups, referred to as “A” teams and “B” teams. Michigan’s first opponent in the tournament was Florida, a “B” team that it shut out, 8-0. Cameron logged a hit and an RBI in the win.
North Taylor then held on against another “B” team, Texas, in a 6-5 nailbiter. Cameron led the way with a home run and four runs batted in, and recorded the final out of the game as a pitcher.
Although attendance was limited, millions of viewers tuned in to the tournament on ESPN. In a way, the Michigan team was playing in front of the largest audience they had ever seen. Cameron was initially overwhelmed by the attention, but eventually recovered his wits.
“The first game was the most pressure I’ve felt, because I knew that there were a bunch of people watching us,” he said. “I just tried tuning those people out and focusing on myself. After that, it just felt like I was playing normal baseball.”
Cameron was the starter for Michigan’s semifinal game against Hawaii.
Taylor North was clinging to a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, off the strength of his home run. When Rick saw that Cameron was nearing his pitch limit and was starting to labor, he called for a mound visit.
“When I went out to him, he said (his shoulder) was tight, but he could go one more batter,” he said. “For a second I thought about leaving it up to him, but immediately after realized that it needed to be up to me. We had other pitchers who could come in and get the job done, there was no need to leave him in there.”
Michigan’s run in the tournament ended the same way it started, with another big matchup against Ohio, just as in the Great Lakes tournament.
Six innings later, Taylor North had won, 5-2, and was the first Little League team from Michigan to win the World Series since 1959. Jackson Surma drove in four runs, while Cameron singled, scored and, playing catcher, caught an Ohio runner off third base in a huge defensive play.
He finished the tournament leading his team in nearly every offensive category and accounted for all three of Taylor North’s home runs. As a pitcher, he allowed a single unearned run in five innings, recording 13 strikeouts and just one walk.
After Taylor North returned home, the Detroit Tigers invited the players for a ceremony before one of their games.
“They treated them like royalty,” the elder Van Belle said. “They had their names plastered on plaques, and they got to take pictures with the 1984 World Series trophy. (Ethan) got to talk to Miguel Cabrera for a little while, which was pretty impressive.”
Rick believes that Cameron’s experience in the tournament helped him grow as a person.
“I always preach to both of my boys about how baseball is a very humbling sport,” he said. “Cameron had a little bat flip (after) his home run against Texas, and he cringes every time he watches that video. It wasn’t directed at anybody, but he knows how difficult it is to play this game.”
Just months after becoming a champion, Cameron will go back to playing against local teams in games with slightly lower stakes. He thinks that performing under pressure taught him how to stay concentrated on the field.
“I want to be more humble playing in districts, states, and regionals,” he said. “Even if there are a bunch of people watching me, (I will) stay to myself and focus on the game.”
Rick’s favorite memory from the Little League World Series was not from a game, but simply seeing how far Cameron and his friends had come.
“After one of the games, I got to do a press conference with Cameron and Lucas Farner, who has been Cameron’s best friend since they were born,” he recalled. “To have Lucas and Cameron next to me and watching those guys answer questions was a special moment.”
Leave a Reply