Fun, no matter the size: Pros, kids unite at LLWS

Historic weekend culminates with Bucs-Cards matchup in Little League Classic

August 19th, 2017

The squad from Lufkin, Texas, had just won its regional tournament in Waco, securing advancement to the sacred sporting ground that is Williamsport, Pa., and the Little League World Series. Steve Keener, the president and chief executive officer of Little League International, was there at the team hotel afterward to congratulate the kids and to remind them that this would be an LLWS unlike any other, because the big leaguers from the Pirates and Cardinals would be paying them a visit and then playing a game mere minutes from the Little League site.

That's when a young boy, who just so happens to idolize , shrieked with sudden delight.

"You mean," the kid said incredulously, "I'm going to get to meet my hero?"

Excitement builds for first Little League Classic

This was the small moment when the meaning and the magnitude of this long-planned weekend, which culminates with Sunday night's MLB Little League Classic at Historic Bowman Field (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), really hit home with Keener. It's a story that gets to the core of what this bridge-building expedition -- meant to engage with a young audience and give back to an organization that has served as a starting point for many a Major Leaguer -- is all about.

The players, coaches and umpires associated with this National League Central tilt will arrive Sunday morning, watch some of the Little League games taking place, maybe offer a little instruction to the kids taking swings at Play Ball Park and visit both "The Grove" where the Little Leaguers sleep (or in some cases, certainly, pretend to sleep) and, naturally, the well-known hill beyond the outfield wall at Lamade Stadium that serves as a sliding surface.

Then they'll go play a game of their own, at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field, the humble home of the Class A Short-Season Williamsport Crosscutters.

Historic Bowman Field set for MLB spotlight

So yes, that kid and so many others will meet their heroes, and the big boys will feel like kids again. You get a sense of that when Buccos second baseman Josh Harrison, for instance, readies his spanking new white cleats for the day trip across the state and notes that he'll be bringing a black Sharpie so that the kids can sign the shoes before he wears them on the field.

Williamsport, which will hold a downtown viewing party of Sunday's game, has long represented what is true and what is best about the soul of this sport, and so the month of August in that small town has never been short on festivity.

"Broadly defined," said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who will be in attendance Sunday, "it's a part of Americana."

But as you might imagine, there has been a bigger buzz on the grounds on recent days, kids asking question after question (as kids are prone to do) about when the big leaguers will be getting there and where they'll be sitting, plotting what they'll say to them, wondering aloud whether they'll faint.

The Little League Classic will present the delightful dichotomy of a big game in a little place. Though recently renovated, Bowman Field is the second-oldest Minor League ballpark in the U.S., and it houses just a shade over 2,000 seats.

On Sunday night, those seats will be filled primarily by Little Leaguers, an atypical audience and one that signifies so much.

"Typically, you come to the ballpark and you have fans and you have players," said Cardinals reliever (no known relation to J. Walton Bowman, for whom the field was named). "Here, we'll go to the ballpark and we'll all be players."

Whether they realize it immediately or many moons from now, these kids are about to make memories they'll carry for the rest of their lives. They can brag to their buddies and someday share the snaps and the stories with children of their own.

And yet, if we know anything about how the world works, how the magic and mischief and marvel of youth typically tends to light up the lives of the wizened, the bet here is that the members of the Cards and Pirates, who will be wearing their Players Weekend uniforms replete with nicknames and brighter colors, will get even more out of it than the kids do.

"It's a cool opportunity for all of us to take advantage of," said Pirates first baseman , himself a former Little Leaguer. "To let the kids get close and let them see what big league life is kind of about -- and for us to remember what being a kid and playing this sport is all about, too."

Keener is accustomed to that latter reaction. Many Major League players have visited Williamsport over the years, and no matter what they've done or seen in their own career, the place always inspires them on some level.

There was the time that Hall of Famer Eddie Murray showed up and was being escorted to Volunteer Stadium to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

"Wait a minute," Murray said when he arrived at the park. "Where's the hill?"

Keener explained that the hill is at Lamade Stadium, next door.

"Oh, I've got to go over there!" exclaimed Murray, a man not prone toward exclamation. "I've been watching these kids slide down that hill for 30 years!"

This is what Williamsport can accomplish, and the thought behind this weekend is that scaling down the big leagues for one summer Sunday can accomplish so much in the long term. There is no sure spark of baseball fandom than participation at the youth level, and Manfred has made engagement with the youth level the crux of his commissionership. This weekend marks the beginning of a more formal partnership between MLB and Little League International, as the two entities will collaborate on various youth and fan initiatives on digital and social media and at jewel events like the All-Star Game and the World Series.

"I think we both understand that we need each other," Keener said.

The Little League Classic is itself a jewel event, a rare pairing of big and little and a welcomed reminder that, when you get down to the core of the competition, big and little are very much the same.

"Just getting the picture up close," said Cardinals broadcaster Ricky Horton, "of kids wide-eyed and excited about watching people who are at the elite level of something they want to do, I think that's pretty exciting."

In Williamsport, as the players have poured in from far and wide this week, that excitement has been building. Their heroes are coming. And for little guys and gals, that's a big, big deal.