August 20, 2017: Little League and the Big League
As a kid, I loved watching the Little League World Series. Even though I did not play baseball, I always looked up to the 12 and 13-year olds playing on TV. In early April, I read a news article that my St. Louis Cardinals were going to play the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-off game in a minor league park during the Little League World Series, I knew this was my shot. I invited my friends Ben and Becky to join me.
After arriving in Philadelphia, we drove out to the town of Hershey and spent the day eating chocolate and riding roller coasters.
The next day we drove north towards Williamsport. The road crept along the wide yet pristine Sesquehanna River.
Two hours in, the road climbed over a steep hill and curved left to reveal the town of Williamsport. Unfortunately, it also revealed 2 miles of traffic.
20 minutes later, we started to see parking lots. One guy was charging $5 while everyone else was charging $10, so we went with the $5 guy. We then walked 10 minutes past all the traffic to the entrance to the Little League complex.
After clearing security (yes they have security), we finally made it into the sprawling complex. Immediately in front was Lamade Stadium, the famous stadium with the iconic hill. Behind Lamade was the less-famous Volunteer Stadium. Additionally, the Little League headquarters, museum, and complex for the players wereon site.
Williamsport seems like an odd location for an international competition like the Little League World Series. It turns out that Little League was actually founded in Williamsport in 1939. The very first Little League World Series was played in Williamsport in 1947 and exclusively had teams from within a 45 minute drive of Williamsport.
The very next year 1948, Little League expanded to 94 leagues and a team from Florida was the runner-up in the World Series. The rapid expansion continued. In 1951, the first international Little Leagues were founded and in 1953 the World Series was televised for the first time. By 1955 every state has a Little League and in 1957 the first international team, from Mexico, wins the World Series. Just like that in 10 years, Little League and the Little League World Series became a worldwide phenomenon.
Today, Little League operates in over 80 countries and has over 2 million players. The World Series is broadcast on ESPN.
A game between Canada and Venezuela was happening at Volunteer Stadium. Almost all of the 3,000 seats were full, but we were able to snag a spot on the benches behind the Canadian parents.
As the 5th inning ended, I saw a few tour busses pull up in a parking lot behind right field. I figured it must be one of the MLB teams- hopefully the Cardinals. We positioned ourselves on what appeared to be the clear path between the buses and the stadiums. Lo and behold 10 minutes later, each and every Pittsburgh Pirate walked right by us and hi-fived us. David Freese, a former Cardinal, asked if we wanted a picture. We said yes of course (as I freaked out inside).
We waited another 30 minutes and finally the Cardinals made their way right by us! While I didn’t get any pictures, I got to shake hands with all the players- quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For the next two hours, the players and team management roamed the complex. They were mostly swarmed by kids asking them to follow them on Instagram. Ben and I were able to chat a bit with Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak. Becky got a hi-five with Dexter Fowler. I got on TV standing behind Matt Carpenter. It was so incredible to see the players in a casual setting.
Eventually, the players went to watch the final game of the day at Lamade Stadium. The three of us sat down on the famed hill in the outfield. There, we melted in the sun as North Carolina crushed California 16-0.
In order to avoid postgame traffic, we stopped at the Little League World Series Museum. As a special treat, they had the Commissioner’s Trophy, the award given to the winner of the real World Series. It was brought to Williamsport for the MLB Classic. According to the trophy’s handler, this trophy normally stays in the MLB Commissioner’s office and copies of it are given to the winning teams.
The museum had lots of other facts and was fantastic. I would highly recommend a visit if visiting Williamsport at any time of year.
We then got back into the car and struggled through the traffic and made our way to BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field-America’s second oldest minor league park-located just 6 miles northwest of the Little League Complex. The 2,000 tickets to the game were not available to the public, so I could not get one. However, I checked earlier on Google Maps and saw a spot in left field that might have a view into the stadium. We walked over and lo and behold we were able to see right in! We were not the only people there- about 200 more locals were camped out on lawn chairs.
Other locals were more creative. One guy brought a ladder from home to look over the outfield fence. Another local construction worker brought in a construction elevator. Another family hand-built scaffolding next to their house.
We plopped down on the grass in front of a group of lawn chairs. It was at that moment that we realized that we were starving and there was no food service outside the stadium. So, we ordered Papa John’s pizza and set a nearby house as the delivery address.
The pizza showed up, but Ben had to run over a bit early to make sure the delivery guy didn’t knock on the door.
The lawn chairs then got occupied by a group of locals including a lady named Bernice. Bernice was 84 and lived in the house just beyond the left field fence. Her house apparently was featured multiple times on the ESPN broadcast of the game. We ended up chatting for almost the entire game. Bernice knew all the small-town gossip and was the self-proclaimed mayor of the town. In the mix, a lady tried to set me up with her daughter.
At some point, Bernice’s friends left and she let us sit in the lawn chairs as long as we brought them back to her house after the game. We agreed to her terms and got the comfiest seats anyone has ever had at a professional baseball game.
One guy drunkenly told us his grandpa was the founder of Little League. We also learned about a crazy game played here in Williamsport. Before that game, a catcher for the Williamsport team peeled a potato to look like a baseball. In the 5th inning with a runner on 3rd, he threw the potato way behind the third baseman fooling the runner into thinking it was an errant ball. When the runner ran home, the catcher tagged him out with the baseball. The catcher was kicked off the team the next day and his number was also retired. Nearly everyone around us had been to that game- or at least claimed it.
This game ended up going down to the last Cardinal batter who hit a deep ball that almost scored the game winning home run. Unfortunately, it went to the warning track, ending the game.
In the spirit of Little League, the players all shook hands. We then returned the chairs to Bernice’s house.
Even though the Cardinals lost the game, I had so much fun. The small-town atmosphere with the major league players was truly a unique experience. Unlike Spring Training, this game counted for real and both teams used their full top rosters.
I was so impressed by the Little League World Series and would highly highly recommend a visit by anyone remotely a fan of baseball and unusual sporting events. The positivity there was unparalleled to anything I have seen in televised sports.