WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – The Pirates’ first experience at the MLB Little League Classic presented by GEICO, manager Clint Hurdle said, was “like a trip to an amusement park.” From one experience to the next, the 2017 trip was a thrill that left everyone with a smile on their face.
The Pirates are ready for another ride in Williamsport on Sunday, a full-day celebration of youth baseball at the Little League World Series that will end in the third annual MLB Little League Classic, this year against the Cubs.
"When I found out that we were going there, I was pretty stoked about it," said Cubs reliever Rowan Wick, who grew up in the same region as Canada's Little League World Series team. "I remember playing [in Williamsport] in Short-Season ball and they've got a great baseball following there. But it'll be cool to see it with the Little League World Series going on."
Right-hander Mitch Keller will start for the Pirates against Cubs lefty José Quintana in front of a crowd full of Little Leaguers and their families at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. Before the main event, the Major Leaguers will sit in the stands, watch the Little League World Series and think back to that time in their own lives.
“It’s a very impactful, memorable time in your life. You’ve got no stress, no worries. You can’t drive. You don’t have a job. It’s the summer! All you do is play baseball,” Pirates righty Chris Archer said. “These times for these kids are going to be so memorable, and the fact that we get to be a part of that is really special.”
“I think it'll kind of put things in perspective, too. We're going to watch the Little League World Series and hang around the kids and see how happy they are,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant added. “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 [winning] situation for both teams.”
What is the MLB Little League Classic?
Put simply, it’s a Major League game in a Minor League ballpark in front of a Little League audience, a celebration of youth baseball and a representation of baseball’s lifelong impact. The now-annual tradition began in 2017, when the Pirates and the Cardinals played in front of a crowd of Little League players and their families at Historic Bowman Field during the Little League World Series.
It all ties back to MLB’s PLAY BALL initiative, the league’s signature youth engagement program that is supported by Little League International, USA Baseball, USA Softball, Minor League Baseball and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. After the last out of Pittsburgh’s 6-3 win two years ago, and again in 2018 after the Mets' 8-2 win over the Phillies, both clubs formed a handshake line in a display of Little League sportsmanship.
Where will the game be played?
For the third straight year, the MLB Little League Classic will take place at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., home of the Phillies’ Class A Short-Season Williamsport affiliate. The ballpark opened in 1926, making it the second-oldest Minor League park in the United States, and it was renovated prior to the inaugural MLB Little League Classic in 2017.
How can I watch the game?
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m. ET. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball crew -- Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez, Jessica Mendoza and Buster Olney -- are set to call the game.
What other events are planned in conjunction with the trip?
It will be a full day for both teams. The Pirates will fly into Williamsport first Sunday morning, and they will be greeted at the airport by teams playing in the Little League World Series. A little more than an hour later, the Cubs will follow suit and receive a similar welcome.
From there, both clubs will ride with their Little League counterparts to the Little League World Series site and spend hours watching games, sitting in the stands, hanging out and visiting The Grove (the area where Little League players stay and relax during their down time). Then they’ll flip roles, with the Little Leaguers attending the Major Leaguers’ game on Sunday night.
What should I know about Williamsport?
Located northeast of Pittsburgh and northwest of Philadelphia, the central Pennsylvania city with a population of 28,348 is the birthplace of Little League Baseball. Before that, in the 19th century, Williamsport’s role in the lumber industry led to it becoming known as the “Lumber Capital of the World” -- the inspiration for the Class A team’s “Crosscutters” nickname.
South Williamsport is officially the home of Little League Baseball and the annual host of the Little League World Series, which was first held in 1947 and was originally known as the National Little League Tournament. This year, the tournament is being played from Aug. 16-26 at Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Volunteer Stadium.
Are there any Little League World Series connections to these teams?
The Cubs have three players whose home countries have teams participating in the Little League World Series. That includes Willson Contreras (Venezuela), who is on the injured list and not on the road trip with Chicago. The others are starting pitcher Yu Darvish (Japan) and Wick (Canada).
Wick is from North Vancouver, British Columbia, which is about a half-hour west of Canada's Little League team, which hails from Coquitlam.
"It’s pretty cool," Wick said. "I played in a Little League growing up in Canada. Obviously, we didn't play in the Little League World Series, but I played on a team that went as far as Provincials at least. I’ll have to keep an eye on it."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon hails from Hazleton, Pa., which is about 70 miles east of Williamsport. And Hurdle has some history in Williamsport, as he managed the Mets’ Double-A affiliate there in 1991.
The Pirates’ most notable connection is catcher Elias Díaz, who is from Maracaibo, Venezuela. The Latin American Region Champion in this year’s Little League World Series is Cacique Mara Little League from Maracaibo. Pirates closer Felipe Vázquez, corner infielder/outfielder José Osuna and bullpen catcher Heberto Andrade are also from Venezuela. Two years ago, catcher Francisco Cervelli -- currently on a rehab assignment -- met with both the Venezuelan and Italian teams represented in Williamsport.
Pirates setup man Keone Kela expects to meet with the Little League team from Hawaii, as his father’s family is from the town of Hilo, Hawaii.
Who will join each team as a 26th man for the game?
Each team gets to call up an extra position player for the night due to the unique mid-series travel arrangements. The Cubs' 26th man will be outfielder Mark Zagunis, who joined the team during its tour of the Little League World Series complex on Sunday afternoon.
And it’s technically the 25th man for the Pirates, as they’re playing short without Osuna while he’s serving a five-game suspension. The Pirates got creative with their move. Independent of Sunday’s special rules, they optioned shortstop Cole Tucker and recalled reliever Montana DuRapau from Triple-A Indianapolis. Then they recalled Tucker from Indianapolis specifically to serve as the extra player in Sunday’s game.
Are there special uniforms being worn?
Special just for this game, in fact. Both teams’ jerseys will feature a “Thank You” patch on the sleeve that players and coaches can use to recognize people who played a key part in their development from Little Leaguers to Major Leaguers.
The Cubs will wear a uniform that has "Cubbies" across the chest and nicknames -- the same ones being used later this month for Players' Weekend -- on the back.
The Pirates will also have their Players’ Weekend nicknames on the back of their jerseys. On the front: “THE BURGH,” written in black letters across a thick, gold horizontal stripe. The Bucs will also wear bright gold caps.
• Quintana takes the mound having gone 6-0 with a 3.40 ERA in his past eight turns out of the rotation.
• Keller, the Pirates’ top prospect, is getting an extended look in the rotation as the Bucs evaluate their options for 2020 and beyond. The right-hander from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who picked up his first Major League win on Monday in Anaheim, will be making his fifth big league start and his first against the Cubs.
• Outfielder Nicholas Castellanos launched five home runs in his first 12 games with the Cubs, who acquired him from Detroit at the Trade Deadline.
• Pirates rookie infielder Kevin Newman won Friday’s series opener with a walk-off single up the middle. He is responsible for three walk-offs this season: a walk-off double in April, a walk-off walk in June and Friday’s game-winner. He is one of three Pirates rookies in the last 100 years to record at least three walk-offs in one season, joining Al Oliver (four in 1969) and Jose Martinez (three, also in ’69).
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.