'El Mago' a fan favorite at Little League Classic

August 19th, 2019

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- When was a kid, he looked upon Derek Jeter as one of his favorite players. Now, Baez has become a fan favorite -- quite literally -- at the Little League World Series.

"El Mago" was voted by the Little Leaguers as their favorite MLB player, topping Mookie Betts and Mike Trout for the honor. Baez earns his respect largely in the same way Jeter earned his: from the incredible feats of fielding he consistently shows.

Sunday night's Little League Classic presented by GEICO was just another day of grand glovework for the Cubs shortstop.

In the first inning of the Cubs' 7-1 win over the Pirates, Baez played a ball deep in the infield off the bat of Starling Marte. Realizing he didn't have time to double up the speedy Marte, Baez flicked an accurate backhand shovel pass to Tony Kemp to catch Kevin Newman at second.

The next inning, Baez snagged a hard liner with a few quick steps to his right to take away a hit from Colin Moran, and his slick transfer in the sixth inning helped him fire a bullet to turn a double play on Adam Frazier.

It's no wonder what the Little Leaguers see in him. And Baez, who attended two Little League World Series but never played in one, considered it a big honor to be named their favorite.

"Great to know that little kids follow me and they want to do the things I do and have fun out there," Baez said. "It's my advice for every kid out there: to practice and to have fun out there."

During the game, Baez had a little fun in the on-deck circle, where he got to spend time fist-bumping, chatting and taking selfies with the young players, who sometimes got a little eager for more than just his presence.

"They were asking me for my bat, for everything," Baez said. "I was like, 'I'll let you hold it, but I need it back.'"

Rizzo's generous gesture

There are moments at the Little League Classic that become classics of their own. Some even cross vast distances.

After crossed the left-field boundary at Historic Bowman Field for a two-run homer in the fifth inning, "Tony" crossed international boundaries with a simple gesture.

Rizzo decided to give his home run ball to the Team Japan section, which was perched behind the Cubs' on-deck circle.

"I gave daps to one of the kids, and that at-bat, I hit the home run," he said. "... So I was like, 'I've got to give him the ball.'"

Rizzo was drawn to the Japanese squad after watching its shortstop, Kazuhiro Kishikawa, make a nice play in the game the Cubs watched earlier in the day. Rizzo even confessed to wanting Kishikawa's autograph. However, Rizzo, an English speaker, knew he needed someone to help him express his desire to the Japanese players.

"What better way than to get to translate for me," he said. "I had a perfect translator and got to talk to the team for a little bit there."

Rizzo is well-adapted to international baseball. He played for Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and he spent time Sunday with the Italian team from Bologna that represented the Europe-Africa region in this year's Little League World Series. The interaction he had just gave him more energy in the nightcap.

"It was fun," he said. "It was just the smiles on their faces."

Other sights from the night

• Remember a certain late September night in 2014 at Citizens Bank Park, when Phillies fans mercilessly imitated 's pre-pitch pose?

Well, the Little Leaguers behind home plate took a page from that book Sunday, when Kimbrel entered and recorded the first two outs in the ninth. The group of copycats, led largely by the Southwest team from River Ridge, La., gave Kimbrel a miniature mirror of sorts to deal with.

•  spent part of the game sitting in the stands with the New England representatives from Barrington, R.I. The town south of Providence sits just a tick over an hour from where Cishek grew up in Plymouth, Mass., where he earned his Players' Weekend nickname. He worked as a gas station attendant in his youth, where "Speedpass" -- his name choice -- was a device used as a payment option.

• Darvish spent time on the field talking with Japan's contingent before a game in the LLWS, but he also returned to share more interaction during the Little League Classic with the players from his native country. The team traveled 6,640 miles from Chofu City, Japan, which lies nearly in the middle of Darvish's birthplace (Sendai) and where he grew up as a teenager (Habikino).