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Bucs soak in special day with Little Leaguers

August 18, 2019

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- This was not a new thing for a handful of Pirates. A number of them attended the first Little League Classic two years ago, so they had an idea of what to expect the moment they touched down at Williamsport Regional Airport a little after 10:30 a.m.

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- This was not a new thing for a handful of Pirates. A number of them attended the first Little League Classic two years ago, so they had an idea of what to expect the moment they touched down at Williamsport Regional Airport a little after 10:30 a.m. ET on Sunday.

That didn’t diminish their experience at the Little League World Series this time around. Far from it.

“These kids are lucky, and we’re super blessed to be a part of it,” said starter Chris Archer, making his first trip to Williamsport. “When you’re 10, 11, 12 years old, those memories stick with you more than when you’re like 18, 20, 22.

“To be a part of those kids’ memories forever is going to be really special for us.”

The only warning Archer received as a Little League Classic first-timer was this: It’s going to be a long day, starting with an early flight in and ending with a late flight back to Pittsburgh. By the time Mitch Keller was getting ready to throw the first pitch of the night, Archer smiled and said it “definitely exceeded” his expectations.

“Honestly,” he added, “it’s been all worth it.”

Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the Pirates’ second trip to the Little League Classic presented by GEICO:

Welcome back

As they descended the steps from their chartered plane, the Pirates were greeted by cheering Little Leaguers from Rhode Island, Louisiana and Venezuela. Manager Clint Hurdle led the way as the big leaguers passed out pins, took photos, signed autographs and exchanged hats with their Little League counterparts.

As he fist-bumped players from New England and Latin America, Pirates lefty Steven Brault congratulated them on making the Little League World Series.

“Waking up today knowing we were going to get on a plane and have the kids waiting for us was really special,” Archer said. “It was just fun to see that there was no cultural divide. The American teams were very engaging, and so were the Latin American teams. Just being welcomed so warmly felt really nice.”

Catching a ride
The Pirates left the airport in three groups. On one bus, a handful of Little Leaguers joined the majority of the Bucs' roster and coaching staff en route to the Little League complex in South Williamsport. One shuttle took Brault, Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier directly to The Grove, where players live while they’re in Williamsport for the tournament.

The other was mostly full of Little Leaguers from the three teams that met the Pirates at the airport but also transported a few special guests: Archer, Josh Bell, Felipe Vazquez, Joe Musgrove and Bryan Reynolds.

Near the back of the bus, Vazquez chatted and posed for photos with his fellow Venezuelans while signing a steady stream of autographs. Musgrove showed off his crowd-pleasing "Avengers"-themed glove and showed Little League pitchers from Rhode Island how to properly grip a four-seam fastball to get more spin on the pitch. The right-hander was quite impressed that the younger generation so easily grasped topics like spin rate.

At the front of the bus, the coaches picked Reynolds’ brain and pointed out landmarks around the Little League complex. Bell held court. Archer laughed and joked while answering questions about everything from his youth baseball experience -- he won the state championship game by hitting a go-ahead homer off his friend, then he closed out the game -- to his recent role in the Pirates’ benches-clearing brawl with the Reds.

“That’s the best part of it all,” Musgrove said. “It’s cool to get that experience and see the kids and what they’re going through. The level of play that they’re at for 12 years old, with that kind of crowd and stuff, it’s pretty incredible.”

Hero’s welcome
When their buses pulled up near Volunteer Stadium, the Pirates were once again swarmed by players and coaches taking part in the annual Little League World Series.

The Major Leaguers were on the receiving end of more autograph and photo requests, though one Little Leaguer from Rhode Island was quick to note that they’d been the ones signing autographs around here before Sunday.

The group made the short walk to Lamade Stadium, with some Pirates -- most notably Josh Bell -- stopping early and often to take pictures and sign hats, baseballs, T-shirts and more.

Bell was arguably the Pirates’ most sought-after player. Two years ago, he may have stood in the shadow of more established veterans like Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and Gerrit Cole. This time, Bell was the All-Star and the star of the show.

“We want to honor our organization while we’re here. We want to honor our fan base while we’re here. We want to honor the game of baseball while we’re here,” Hurdle said. “And from my standpoint, looking back on it, all our players did a wonderful job of being sound ambassadors for the game.”

In the seats

One of the defining attributes of the Little League Classic game itself is that the Little Leaguers get to sit in the stands and watch the big league game. But one of the highlights of the morning and afternoon is that the Major Leaguers get to watch a Little League game.

The Pirates spread out in the seats at Lamade Stadium to watch the Loudon South Little League team (South Riding, Va.) beat Coon Rapids Andover American Little League (Coon Rapids, Minn.), 11-0, while sitting with players from other Little League teams.

Everyone came away impressed by the Little League complex itself, with Archer and Cubs manager Joe Maddon both comparing it to a college baseball facility. One other thing stood out to Musgrove: The Little Leaguers were having conversations just like the big leaguers do.

“When you’re sitting there watching [Max] Scherzer on the mound or you’re watching [Clayton] Kershaw, there’s a different kind of buzz in the dugout. Same in the stands with those kids when you’re sitting there,” Musgrove said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, this kid right here from Southeast throws 74 mph, so he’s like the big dog in the tournament.’ It’s super similar to what we’re going through right now, so it’s cool to see kids at that age experiencing it.”

Like kids out there

During the game, Archer took on the role of reporter for ESPN and interviewed a handful of Little Leaguers. (During the Sunday night game, Archer returned to the stands to hang out with a group of Little Leaguers.) Hurdle was interviewed in the stands by players from Eastbank Little League (River Ridge, La.).

It wasn’t all business and media obligations, though.

At one point, Musgrove headed for the concession stands with a few Little Leaguers and brought back more than a dozen bottles of water. Archer and rookie Cole Tucker left their seats alone in pursuit of Italian ice.

Taking the field
The Pirates left Lamade Stadium and headed across the complex to Volunteer Stadium, where teams from Japan and Mexico were getting ready to play. The Bucs split up to support each squad, even playing a little catch while they were at it.

By the Japanese team's dugout, Musgrove and catcher Jacob Stallings received a surprise gift from a Little League parent in the stands: a pair of hachimaki headbands, which they immediately put on. Meanwhile, Keone Kela leapt up to deliver autographed baseball cards to young fans and fist-bumped players on their way back from defensive drills.

Then the Pirates lined up to help introduce each team’s lineup, gathered behind the mound for a group photo and watched as Hurdle threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Not like it used to be

No Pirates offered a particularly close connection to the Little League World Series, but Hurdle has history with historic Bowman Field, site of the Little League Classic. He managed the Mets’ Williamsport affiliate in 1991, long before BB&T Ballpark was renovated and upgraded.

Back then, Hurdle said, they used to water the outfield grass by having the local fire department dump the water they’d carried in their trucks all day. It was a far cry from the Minor League ballpark’s current playing surface.

“You would not recognize the park if you walked back in time and looked at this facility, what it is right now and what it looked like in 1991,” Hurdle said, smiling, during his pregame press conference.

Play ball

The ceremonial first pitch was as unique as the experience. After all 16 Little League World Series teams and both Major League teams lined up around the infield, one player from each Little League team relayed the ball from center field to the mound to Pirates reliever Kyle Crick behind the plate.

As the Venezuelan team walked off the field and the Pirates prepared for the game, catcher Elias Diaz -- fittingly wearing his “El Maracucho” nickname on his jersey -- took the time to high-five every player and coach from his hometown of Maracaibo.

Back in the seats
Archer reassumed his role of field reporter during the second inning of the Pirates’ 7-1 loss to the Cubs, hopping out of the dugout and grabbing a seat in the middle of the Little League team from Elizabeth, N.J.

Archer conducted an interview with the players sitting around him, asking them about their team’s best dancers, the most likely player to join him in the big leagues and more.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.