Concord Little League team competes with family legacy


Monitor columnist

Published: 08-09-2022 5:37 PM

The storyline is so good that even ESPN wants a piece of it.

Once the sports network heard about a different sort of Craigue’s List – one that has nothing to do with selling a couch or buying a chair – it reached out to Nate Craigue, whose connection to local Little League success and Concord baseball, in general, is stronger than most.

Baseball is in this family’s DNA, spanning 50 years of youth and high school-aged coaching and playing. The latest chapter in this long-running show stars the Concord Little League All-Star Team, which plays Middleborough, the Massachusetts state champ, in the New England Regional Tournament on Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. in Bristol, Conn.

If Concord wins that game, then beats Maine on Thursday, the city will have its first representative ever to compete in the Little League World Series, held annually in Williamsport, Pa. Games are shown live on ESPN.

Rhys Craigue, Nate’s son, is on this year’s state championship team. The 11-year-old plays shortstop and center field and said pitching and defense are the team’s strong points.

Concord’s previous state title occurred in 1988, the year Nate was a star and his father, Kenny Craigue, coached the team.

And before that, Concord won the states and qualified for the New England Regional Tournament in 1968. Kenny played on that team.

That background, that chronology of sports history cherished by anyone who lived through it, continues to spark conversation amongst the now middle-aged players who were part of it.

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For example, in the 1988 New England Regional Tournament, Nate Craigue, a shortstop who later had a cup of coffee in the Minnesota Twins’ minor-league program before hurting his arm, was forced to pitch after Tyler Grant, the staff’s best pitcher, was injured when someone accidentally slammed a car door on his hand.

Concord lost to East Hartford, 13-6. Back then, the Regionals was a single-elimination event, meaning Concord was one-and-done after a long buildup and lots of local media hype.

“To this day, we still joke about it,” Nate said. “There’s a photo of (Grant) holding up his wrapped-up hand, and that got into the Monitor.”

Nate explained that his father, known as one of the fiercest competitors in area sports, tried to keep the boys focused on the task at hand. No distractions. No fat heads because the local paper wrote about you and ran photos with the story.

“He was all business,” Nate said. “We were getting a lot of attention with all our wins, so he kept us level-headed. We had a Kangaroo Court, and if you had a quote in the paper or a photo, you ran a lap.”

Two quotes? That meant two laps. And so on.

Nate recalls driving to Bart Giamatti Stadium in Bristol, which, by the way, happens to be where this year’s Concord all-star team is competing.

Nate admitted that East Hartford intimidated him and the team. This was a team based in a more populous area than Concord, and that meant a larger stable of talent to choose from. Plus, Nate recalled, these kids were big. Certainly bigger than Concord’s players.

“I was nervous the whole week with that build-up for that first game,” Nate admitted. “It was the big stage and the place was packed. They were a lot bigger than me and our team, and we were kind of star-struck.”

Nearly everyone, in fact, was bigger than Nate, a tiny, wiry figure at the time who would later fill out and get a shot at the big leagues. He mentioned former teammate Rob Garofoli.

“He was full grown at that time,” Nate said, laughing. “Now I’m five inches taller.”

The thread that ties the family together in baseball, the tradition that has made the Criagues one of the city’s first families of the sport – similar to how the Bonners are viewed in basketball – began to take shape in 1968.

That’s when Concord won the state title and advanced to the New Englands. Kenny played on that team. So did a player named Joe Lefebvre, who later played for the Yankees and hit a home run in each of his first two big-league games. Other stars on that team included Rick and Tom Flanders, Steve DeStefano and Ralph Prescott.

A story involving the Craigues is not complete without mentioning the horror endured by the family after Kenny, working to renovate a barn roof, fell 35 feet onto a wooden floor in 2001.

He suffered severe head trauma and was unresponsive for three months. Following extensive rehabilitation at Crotched Mountain in Greenfield, Kenny was able to gain some mobility and speech, but the rehab center is now his home.

Nate said he’s spoken to his dad about Concord’s advancement to the Little League Regionals this year.

“I mentioned it to him,” Nate said. “Anytime we bring up the past, we get a little smile.”

Kenny’s grandson is trying to do what Kenny’s or Nate’s teams could not: win the New England Regionals.

Rhys Craigue is the latest family member to take center stage. Nate said he plays hard, with a chip on his shoulder after his two older brothers, Brooks and Trevor, had hogged the headlines in years past.

But no one can ever take the state title from Rhys. Neither brother made it that far. “(Rhys) won it,” Nate said, “so now he thinks he’s the man.”

He’s after a New England championship and a berth in the Little League World Series which will be broadcast on ESPN. But before that, the network had heard about the family tree of baseball players here and called Nate.

“They called yesterday,” Nate said. “They wanted my old shirts and photos.”

As for ESPN and others publicizing the Craigues’ baseball history, Nate said he never paid much attention. He just played. They all did.

“I did not think anything about this until people brought it up to me,” Nate said. “That’s what we do and that’s what we did. We played baseball, and if you play long enough, you’re going to win some games.”