Cubs become kids again with Little Leaguers

'It put a smile on everybody's faces,' Epstein says of fun day at Little League Classic

August 19th, 2019

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- The doors to the bus opened and kids began running as soon as their shoes hit the tarmac. They were from the United States and Canada and Italy. Wearing colorful uniforms, the Little Leaguers packed around the bottom of the stairs leading down from the Cubs' plane.

Naturally, Pennsylvania's own, Cubs manager Joe Maddon, was the first person to emerge from the doorway on Sunday afternoon in Williamsport, where the Cubs and Pirates arrived for the third Little League Classic presented by GEICO. Before the big league teams met at historic Bowman Field, though, there was a lot to do en route to and at the Little League World Series site.

"You always wanted to get to Williamsport. Not easy to do," said Maddon, who is from Hazleton, Pa. "Every kid wants to do that. And then you get off the plane and all the kids are lined up, the uniforms and how excited they were.

"And I'm thinking about me being them -- not really wanting to see the manager walk off, but the players come off the airplane. We have so many recognizably great players from the kids' perspective. It had to be a wonderful moment for them."

Maddon handed out hats, pins and high fives as he made his way through the line of kids. The first player to appear at the top of the stairs was Jason Heyward, and then the rest of the team soon folllowed to cheers from the young athletes.

Javier Baez and Kris Bryant took plenty of selfies as they made their way to the team bus. Players signed baseball cards and baseballs as they went. The team from Bologna, Italy, took a group photo with Anthony Rizzo. It was the start of a long day that stripped away the stresses of the Major League environment and put the players in a situation that reminded them about why they picked up a ball so many years ago.

"I've been looking forward to this since they announced it," Bryant said earlier this weekend. "We're going to watch the Little League World Series and hang around the kids and see how happy they are. They're just playing a game. And I think if we can take something like that from this experience, then it doesn't matter if we win or lose. It's a win situation for both teams."

Riding the bus

Tony Kemp, Victor Caratini and Pedro Strop grabbed seats in the last row of a bus taking players -- Major and Little Leaguers alike -- from the airport to the Little League World Series complex. Kyle Hendricks and Rowan Wick found spots among kids a few rows up. Maddon was also along for the ride.

They chatted about the ongoing tournament, their favorite players and laughter broke out on more than a few occasions.

"Wait, you've got a girlfriend?" Hendricks said to one Little Leaguer to an eruption of laughs.

Wick sat with a group of players from the Canadian Little League team, which is from Coquitlam, British Columbia. The Cubs reliever grew up in North Vancouver, B.C., which is about a half-hour west of the Little Leaguers' hometown. Wick played for Highlands Little League when he was young.

"They beat you guys, right? That's the word on the street," Wick teased. "That's all right. You guys made it this far."

Wick opened packs of baseball cards with the Canadian players and then grabbed a baseball and showed them how he throws his knuckle-curveball. One by one, each boy grabbed the baseball and tried out the grip as Wick showed them where and how to place their fingers.

Going downhill

Once at the Little League World Series site, the Cubs filed out of their buses and headed up the walkway behind Volunteer Stadium. The destination for part of the traveling group was the grass hill seating area behind the outfield at the larger Lamade Stadium.

Once atop the knoll, Rizzo grabbed a large square of cardboard, hopped on and rolled the bottom towards his chest to create a makeshift sled. The first baseman then went sliding down the hill to cheers from the fans and players. Maddon turned his hat around backwards and followed Rizzo's lead.

Maddon gave a thumbs up on his way down before quickly clutching the board again.

"The sledding was great," Maddon said. "I felt like I was back on the hill back home. Rizz went first. I jumped on it second. It was great."

Bryant and Cole Hamels were among the other players to sled down the grassy hill.

"I had to get the big cardboard box. Had to make sure I had the big one," Rizzo said. "And I mean, everyone else was doing it, so I was like, 'I'm going to do it, too.' ... I just kind of went off everyone else and hoped for the best. It's pretty steep. And the walk back up was no joke."

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein laughed when asked if he approved of the sledding.

"Yeah, I was fine with it," he replied with a smirk. "I did a little double-take at first, but they were safe enough. I was more concerned with Joe's first pitch than the hill sledding."

Attending the games

Maddon's ceremonial first pitch came before the LLWS pairing of the Mid-Atlantic and West teams. He received an adoring response from the crowd and then fired the pitch into the dirt, sending it skipping away from the young catcher.

After a large groan from his audience, Maddon requested a second try. Again, the Cubs manager fired the baseball into the dirt to groans and laughs from the fans. They say the third time is the charm, so Maddon threw the "first" pitch again, finally getting it to the catcher on the fly.

"Inappropriate warmup," Maddon said. "I was trying not to suck, but I did."

Maddon was blown away by the complex.

"You see it on TV and you can imagine," Maddon said. "But just like when people come to Wrigley for the first time, when you come to Williamsport for the first time, it has some impact."

While Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and David Bote hung out and played games in The Grove with some Little Leaguers, other players headed to the stands to watch some LLWS action.

At Volunteer Stadium, Yu Darvish met with the the Little League team from Tokyo, Japan. The Cubs pitcher chatted with the players briefly and posed for a photo with the team.

Bryant, Heyward, Jon Lester, Brandon Kintzler, Derek Holland and Darvish were among the players who mixed in with fans and Little Leaguers in the crowd to watch a couple innings of the game between the teams from Japan and Mexico. As Hamels made his way from one ballpark to the other, a young fan yelled out, "Cole! Philly still loves you!"

"To a man, it's exceeded all of our expectations," Epstein said. "It brings everyone back to why they fell in love with the game in the first place. The kids out here are treated so great and they're having so much fun playing the game. It put a smile on everybody's faces."