Cleveland has a blast with Little Leaguers

August 22nd, 2021

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – As much as the MLB Little League Classic was designed to give Little Leaguers an unforgettable experience, the day proved to be just as memorable -- if not more -- for the big leaguers.

Ping-pong, corn hole, conversations, autographs, ladder golf, Wiffle ball and cardboard box rides down the steep hill in the outfield at Lamade Stadium with Little Leaguers and their families was how the Indians players spent their Sunday afternoon.

A group of guys in their 20s and 30s channeled their inner child for a few hours, starting with hijacking an ESPN baseball cart to make a grand entrance into the Little League complex. After a group of Little Leaguers met the buses in the parking lot with signs welcoming the big leaguers to the area, the herd walked up the hill behind Volunteer Stadium to get to the heart of the complex.

Leading the way was a cart shaped like a baseball that appeared to just be an escort. Suddenly, third baseman José Ramírez made it known that he was at the wheel, driving in his teammates Franmil Reyes and Amed Rosario through the crowd.

“They wanted me to be in the front of the cart,” Reyes said. “I jumped in the back seat with Amed and I let José take over driving the car. The lady asked me if we wanted to drive. He said yes. It was pretty fun. She asked us about naming the car. We named it the Home Run Car, because the ‘Home Run Pitch’ guy was driving it. It was pretty cool.”

For Reyes, it’s not hard to put himself in the Little Leaguers’ shoes. He vividly remembers the days when Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Juan Uribe -- who were from his hometown in the Dominican Republic -- would bring in superstars for softball games, giving him a similar feeling to how the kids in Williamsport felt when Reyes was walking around the complex on Sunday.

“Just going today and hearing all those kids say, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Franmil Reyes,’” Reyes said, “it’s something really special for me.”

It didn’t take long for the youth players to figure out who the most jovial players were on the team. Reyes, Rosario and Ramírez all jumped into an intense ping-pong game with the Little League team from New Jersey. When Reyes was asked after the game if he won, he shouted, “Of course," as if there was no other possible outcome.

“I didn’t know I was that good at ping-pong,” Reyes joked later. “I had a good time with them.”

As reliever Nick Wittgren took over the ping-pong table with a Little League team from Ohio, Reyes, Ramírez and Rosario took on Little Leaguers in ladder golf, where the premise is to land a short rope that has golf balls on either end on any of three poles stacked on top of each other. The trio wasn't too sure of the rules, but it didn’t prevent Reyes and Rosario from immediately accusing each other of somehow cheating their ways to victories, prompting chuckles from the kids.

The biggest laughs came later, when Reyes, Ramírez and Rosario joined Daniel Johnson, Myles Straw, Oscar Mercado and Triston McKenzie in a game of Wiffle ball with other young players. At times, McKenzie was the hitting coach, Straw was the pitcher (one who McKenzie claims is nasty with a Wiffle ball), Ramírez was the home-plate umpire, Rosario was a catcher who wanted instant replay reviews for some questionable calls and the rest enjoyed playing at different positions in the field.

A handful of guys left the game to go to the top of the hill at Lamade Stadium with Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti to do the most famous tradition of the Little League World Series: slide down on a broken down cardboard box. Antonetti took the strategic approach, picking the brains of the kids who had spent the entire morning making runs down the hill to learn proper strategy. After his seamless head-first slide down the hill, he encouraged his players to follow suit, although Reyes chose to sit down on a small piece of cardboard. When Antonetti asked Reyes if he wanted a bigger box, Reyes shot him down.

“No, papi,” Reyes yelled, with a big laugh. “I’m good.”

Reyes awkwardly stumbled his way down the hill and slowly climbed his way back up as the rest of his teammates tried to be as smooth as the eight- and nine-year-olds beside them. Mercado broke his sunglasses in the process and Johnson ended up sliding down the majority of the hill on his stomach instead of the box, but all left with grins on their faces.

“Chris Antonetti, our president, sliding was pretty cool,” Reyes said. “Diving head-first. Amed Rosario kind of falling. It was fun.”

“My first slide down the hill, I did pretty well myself,” McKenzie said, “but DJ hit the hill and his cardboard stopped and he kept going, so that was fun.”

The visit was cut slightly short due to torrential downpours, but it didn’t stop the big leaguers from still boasting smiles during their warmups at the big league park, excited from the day. And as soon as the Little Leaguers started to funnel into Muncy Bank Ballpark at Bowman Field, McKenzie ran over to continue his conversations with them and take selfies.

“Going back to the little things like the interactions with the kids in any aspect you can,” McKenzie said, “signing autographs, taking a picture, sliding down the hill, letting them see you be an actual human being as opposed to the guys they see on the screen. All put into how they view you and how they view growing up as a baseball player is.”