Where are they now: Looking back on the 2008 PONY World Champions

This week on What Up, Long Beach?! JJ and Mike are discussing the Long Beach PONY All-Star success with president and manager Ken Jakemer (2:30). 

Subscribe to What Up, Long Beach?! on Apple Podcasts or Podbean.

20:00 Long Beach Football Previews
33:00 Either, Or: Hard Knocks or Last Chance U?
39:00 Fam Jam

Ken Jakemer makes his living as a software project manager, but inside his chest there’s a beating baseball where his heart should be. He’s been volunteering at the Long Beach PONY youth baseball league at Whaley Park for more than a decade, and has coached four All-Star teams of 14-year-olds to the PONY World Series in Washington, Pennsylvania—including the group that returned home just last week.

Jakemer has a good eye for talent and an intuitive sense of how to put a team together. Ten years ago, when he stood before his 2008 All-Stars for the first time, he knew it was going to be a special group.

The 14 boys kneeling on the grass at Whaley that day went on to do something that hadn’t been done in Long Beach in a half-century, winning a PONY world title. They did it without losing a single game, a magic summer season of 15 games and 15 wins. The scoreboard in right field at Whaley Park has a picture of the team on it, and the words, “Scoreboard Donated In Honor of the 2008 PONY World Champions.”

“Nobody has matched what they did,” says Jakemer. “They’re by far the best team that’s come out of here.”

Starting Out

The PONY team the year before, in 2007, had made it to the World Series and lost in the championship game to Puerto Rico. It was Long Beach’s first trip to the World Series in a long time, and the 2008 kids had been hearing all year from the 2007 players about how they would never live up to their performance.

Chase De Jong starting for the PONY team in 2008

Chase De Jong starting for the PONY team in 2008

“We were tired of hearing about them making it to the World Series,” says Chase De Jong, the 2008 team’s ace pitcher. “We knew we were better than them, and we were very motivated.”

Jakemer says that motivation was obvious from the first practice the team held.

“I’ve never seen a team like that, they pushed each other every day in practice,” says Jakemer. “They knew the game inside out.”

Older baseball fans might gripe about the younger generation not playing outside enough, but nobody could have leveled that complaint at the 2008 Long Beach kids. The bulk of the 14-man roster grew up playing baseball together in Little League, at the Tom Hicks Baseball Camp, and on youth travel teams.

“We had a high baseball IQ,” says Thomas Walker. “Baseball was our lives, it’s all we did was play together our whole lives growing up.”

Beating Heartwell

The team easily beat Lynwood 11-1 in its first game, setting up a showdown with its historic rival, Heartwell PONY. Representing the Lakewood area, Heartwell’s PONY program and Whaley’s have been battling it out for more than a half-century—and for most of that time, Heartwell got the better of the rivalry.

“In 2007 we get all the way to the World Series championship game, but we still lost to Heartwell, 5-0,” says Jakemer. “The 2008 team really wanted to beat them.”

A good portion of the city’s baseball fandom turned out to see the game, which was held at Whaley.

“It was probably the most attended game in Whaley history,” laughs Walker. “There were people everywhere, down both base lines, in the outfield. It was the most important game of any 14-year-old’s life.”

The Long Beach kids didn’t just win, they won 15-1 via mercy rule, a shocking upending of the status quo.

“We thought that was our World Series,” says Walker.

Walker hit a grand slam in the first inning, and De Jong, Matt Heavin, and Matt Maccarrone all hit homeruns.

With the Heartwell monkey off their backs, the Long Beach kids kept ripping off wins. They won the Section Tournament, they went to Whittier and won the Super Regional Tournament, and they went to Fullerton to win the Zone Tournament, riding pitchers Oliver Van Buskirk, Brett Harper, Ty Provencher, and Soloman Williams to wins over the best programs from California, Arizona, and Utah and earning a trip back to the big show.

Team photo.

Team photo.

The World Series

Jakemer and his assistants Rick Romo and Victor Merrill had just a few days to coordinate the travel of 14 kids and their families across the country to Washington, Pennsylvania. The team arrived with Long Beach swagger, as WIlliams had his barber cut a “562” into the back of his hair.

“It was the trip of a lifetime,” says Heavin, who was a player on the 2008 team and a coach with the 2018 PONY team. “I told the kids this year about going to Pennsylvania—baseball is great, but that trip is where we became best friends.”

The players were packed in four to a room in the hotel but one of them brought a Playstation, which meant it was often more crowded than that.

“We’d have 14 guys in one hotel room playing video games,” says Walker. The team went to a Pirates game together, and spent practically every other waking moment playing wiffle ball outside the hotel. “We’d play with any team that was awake in the morning, we played with the kids from Taiwan, we played with anyone.”

For some, there was too much playing. De Jong is a famously focused athlete and he likes to make sure he’s rested before game day, especially when he’s pitching.

“Well I was in a room with Chase and Brett Harper and Jake Hardy,” says Heavin. “We were playing Playstation and being loud and Chase locked me out of the room. I ended up stuck in a room with Thomas and Soloman and Daniel DeWolf and they had to lay some sheets and towels on the ground for me to sleep on.”

“I was bigger than him so I actually picked him up and threw him in the other room,” says De Jong. “I’m still that way. At 10:30 I’m going to bed, I don’t want to stay up and play video games.”

Walker says that on another night the team was being too loud, De Jong threw a quarter at the wall in frustration. The 6-foot-4 pitcher was the team’s ace for a reason—the quarter stuck in the wall.

The Championship

In between all that off-field fun, the team played some great baseball, too.

They dispatched the state champions from Florida and Maryland, and earned their way into a championship game against Chinese-Taipei. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Long Beach was trailing 2-1 and feeling the stress, just three outs away from losing a second consecutive world championship.

Maccarrone hit the first pitch he saw through the 5-6 hole to get on base, and then Van Buskirk stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter and delivered a Hollywood ending. He drove a long fly into right center, and put enough power into it to carry it over the fence. Van Buskirk came in from the dugout and delivered one of the city’s great sports moments: a walkoff world championship homerun.

“For me it was relief as much as elation,” says Jakemer. “We’d been there and lost in 2007, we were losing again in the seventh. There was elation but it was just, ‘Thank God.’”

De Jong didn’t see what happened.

“I felt like I let my team down, we were losing and I felt like it was my fault, so I was in the back of the dugout with my head in my glove,” he says. “Then I hear BAM and everyone’s running out of the dugout.”

The players jumped up and down around home plate, screaming at each other not to touch Van Buskirk until he touched home plate and the win was complete. As soon as he did, they mobbed him. The fans in the stands were going crazy, the announcers were screaming into their microphones. Back home, fans had gathered at Legends to watch a livestream of the game—their cheers could be heard for blocks.

The Decade Since

Van Buskirk’s jersey went to Cooperstown for a year and now resides permanently in the PONY Hall of Fame. The Long Beach kids came home and went straight to Whaley, where they were greeted by friends and fans. The city threw them a parade, and the kids spent the rest of the summer as local celebrities, honored everywhere they went.

Twelve of the 14 players ended up at Wilson High, with the exception of Walker, who went to Poly, and Avery Flores, who went to Millikan. They all spent their high school years battling it out at Blair Field. The Wilson players won a California Legion state championship in Yountville together in 2010.

As the years unspooled from that magic summer of 2008, Jakemer’s impression that this was an uncommonly talented team was proven correct. According to the NCAA, about 2 percent of high school varsity athletes receive athletic scholarships; a whopping six of the 14 players on the 2008 PONY team went on to play college sports. A seventh could have, but De Jong skipped playing at USC because he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays.

While Heavin was playing at Chapman, while Provencher was suiting up for the Dirtbags at Blair Field, while Walker went to Oregon and Williams went to Cal State Bakersfield, while Flores was grinding at a college program in Texas, while Harper was playing football at Pomona, De Jong was working his way up through the minor leagues. He made his Major League debut for the Mariners last spring, and is now in the Twins’ system, hoping for a September call-up.

“I’ve done some pretty cool things in baseball and I’m going to continue to do some,” he says. ”But that summer is one of the most special memories I’ll ever have.”

The baseball IQ that carried the team through 2008 has continued to show up. Despite the fact that the players are just now entering their mid-20s, several of them have already begun careers as coaches. Williams and Heavin have both coached at Wilson and co-founded a travel team, the Long Beach Quakes. Walker coaches junior college ball and coached the Rochester Honkers over the summer, a college summer baseball program, becoming the youngest-ever head coach of a Northwoods League program, and Provencher is coaching in Orange County.

Scoreboard today at Whaley honoring 2008 champs.

Scoreboard today at Whaley honoring 2008 champs.

Unbroken Bonds

If you’re friends with a few of the former players on Facebook, you get to see a lot of their faces pretty regularly. That’s because most of the team has remained close over the last decade.

“I’m getting married in November and four of my groomsmen were on that team,” says Heavin. “Probably 10 of the guys will be going to the wedding. Soloman and I are business partners now, Chase and Thomas coach with us when they’re in town. We’re all good friends still.”

Walker says the enduring bonds have something to do with the success they first tasted together in 2008.

“I’ve played in NCAA Regionals, I’ve played in some big games,” he says. “Whenever someone asks what my greatest memory is, it’s always the 2008 World Series team. It was the best time of my life. It was a group of friends who grew up together winning a world championship for Long Beach, the city we loved, the city we had on our chests. You never break that bond of winning together.”

“What can you say?” asks Jakemer. “It was a perfect summer.”

The 2008 PONY World Champions

Coaches: Ken Jakemer, Rick Romo, Victor Merrill

Players: Chase De Jong, Daniel DeWolf, Cody Elder, Irie Elizalde, Avery Flores, Jake Hardy, Brett Harper, Matt Heavin, Matt Maccarrone, Victory Martinez, Ty Provencher, Oliver Van Buskirk, Thomas Walker, Soloman Williams.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.