Mike Ruggiero is exhausted. The manager of the has a lot on his mind. His team of 11 12-year-old boys, along with he and his coaches, are on a bus to Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series. The by virtue of a Sunday afternoon 1-0 victory over Delaware's Newark National team in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament in Bristol, Conn.
The minute the game ended, life changed for Ruggiero and his boys.
"Yeah, Little League took control," he told Patch from his seat on a bus traveling southwest toward Pennsylvania. "I haven't been home in 10 days. But they told us we were getting on a bus and heading right to Williamsport, so here we are."
Ruggiero is tired, but as David Letterman used to say, it's a good kind of tired.
Having his team, which includes his own son, chosen as one of the nation's eight best Little League baseball teams and one of the world's top 16 teams, he said, is a dream come true. Hearing about the support the boys are getting from the folks back in Parsippany "touches my heart."
"I'm happy for everybody that's enjoying this and so happy this is getting everyone pumped up," he said. "This was always the plan."
Actually, it was a plan that he said sneaked up on him.
"Obviously, we wanted to play in the World Series," he said, thinking about the boys he has coached since they were a team of 8 year olds. "I had this group that kept getting farther and farther along [in tournament play] every year. So at some point you think, 'Why not us?'"
Last year, the All-Stars won the district and state titles. In 2012, they repeated that feat. Ruggiero started to have a sense of something positive happening for his boys.
"We did the travel league in the spring," he recalled. "We played a lot of AAU teams and started beating some very good teams. That's when I had a feeling...
"This is a very talented group of boys who grew every year and got better and better," he said. "The teams we'll see in Williamsport, I'm sure they're all good teams. And we're one of them, one of eight teams left in the country. We're so honored to be sharing this with everybody at home. Hearing about how happy everyone is in Parsippany, it really touched me."
Ruggiero said the experience is about more than baseball.
"Baseball doesn't last forever," he noted. "Making the big leagues is very hard to do; the big diamond is the great equalizer. I want these boys to work hard and do their best and have fun. And hopefully what they learn about hard work and teamwork will help them in their futures. Hopefully they'll be successful in life, whatever they do."
Make no mistake, though, Ruggiero and his All-Stars want to win.
"We definitely don't want to lose," he said with a laugh. "We'll see what happens."
Asked how his team is coping with all the media attention, the necessity to play well under pressure and the sheer stress of being on the road away from home for more than a week, the manager said there is no need to worry.
"The boys are fine," he said. "I'm actually surprised, but they are really fine with it. It was cool to watch them celebrate when they got the final out, when they realized they were going to the Little League World Series. I went [to Williamsport] last year just to see it, and now, to be able to play on the field..."
He said the Parsippany residents who made the trip to the regional tournament in Bristol, Conn., really made him, the coaches and the players feel special.
"There must have been 500 people, easy," Ruggiero said. "Young people, old people, people who've been with the league 15 years... I never came this close with my older sons. To do this with my son Dan is... it's priceless. Absolutely. The other two coaches have their sons on the team as well.
"But I think of all of these kids as mine. I'm proud of all of them and I love all of them. All I ask them to do is to work hard—and they do."
If there is any secret to Ruggiero's success, it is setting high standards for his players and holding them accountable, he said.
"We're no nonsense from the word go," he said. "Sometimes you've gotta be a little stern. But since they were all 8, it's been about no nonsense and respect, taught right from the beginning. They come to work. And I tell them to give me their best for a couple of hours. That's all I ask."
Of course, the players are all business on the field, but during down time, they're 12-year-old boys whose job description includes having fun.
During the regional tourney, Ruggiero said the team members spent their off hours watching movies, playing in the game center—and of course watching other Little League players in their games.
"They spent 10 days there, and they've been OK living together," he said. "And more than anything I want them to enjoy the experience at Williamsport."
Ruggiero noted that no New Jersey team ever won the state championship two years a row—until Par-Troy East's 11/12 All-Stars achieved the feat. Now, they follow in the footsteps of the Toms River All-Stars who went to Williamsport in 1998—and departed as the nation's Little League champions that year.
"And who knows? If we win enough games, we become the USA's team," he said, the marvel audible in his voice.
"I'm just so proud of these boys."