WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – The Little League World Series is an event enjoyed by fans of all ages.
Even big-league players and umpires.
When Major League Baseball decided to bring a game to Williamsport to coincide with the city’s annual 10-day tournament, they meant it literally – they brought the game to the Little League World Series. Players from the two teams playing in the inaugural MLB Little League Classic Sunday evening, the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, visited the Little League complex in the borough of South Williamsport during the afternoon.
The umpires working Sunday’s game came along, too.
Gerry Davis, a Major League umpire for over three decades, is not only the home-plate umpire for Sunday evening’s big-league game, he was also the second-base umpire for two innings of the Little League World Series contest between Greenville, N.C., (winner of the Southeast Region) and Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. (West Region champs).
“I’m honored to be asked,” Davis said before the game. “It’s a privilege to be here. I think everyone associated with baseball in any way should visit here.”
Pirates and Cardinals players attracted huge crowds everywhere they went in the Little League complex, as eager youngsters tried to snare every autograph they could.
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Adam Jaffe, 11, of Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., was overjoyed with his haul of signatures. When asked his favorite, he responded, “I got (Mike) Matheny. I think he was a pretty good player.” And now a major league manager, a position he’s held for the Cardinals for six seasons.
Nico Sanders, 8, plays for the Hampton Township Little League in Pittsburgh. Not only did he land Pirates manager Clint Hurdle’s autograph, he was excited to have a ball signed by the players of Mexico’s Little League squad. Why is he rooting for Mexico? “Because they were the first to give me autographs when I got here,” he explained.
The big leaguers enjoyed it as much as the youngsters. “It is really cool to interact with the young fans,” says Jedd Gyorko, Cardinals infielder. “The way they all look up to us is great, plus it’s a way for us to give back.”
A highlight for the players from the LLWS teams from Japan and South Korea came when Pirates players greeted them on the field as their names were announced on the PA system just before the two teams played.
Cardinal players then sat in the stands and watched that game, as Little Leaguers from Holbrook, N.J., (Mid-Atlantic champs) and Emilia, Italy, (winners of the Europe/Africa Region) sat between them.
“It’s really been a plus, if for no other reason than you get to hang out with the Little Leaguers,” Tony Clark, the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, explained to USA TODAY Sports. “That experience is something you can’t replicate – a young person who is dreaming about being in the big leagues and a big leaguer who remembers not too long ago when he was a Little Leaguer. That’s pretty special.”
Three big leaguers on hand Sunday played in the Little League World Series: Cardinal outfielder Randal Grichuk; St. Louis pitcher Lance Lynn and Pirates infielder Max Moroff. The three were presented with framed Little League uniforms by Little League Baseball President and CEO Steve Keener, moments before the start of the Greenville-Rancho Santa Margarita contest. The three then threw out ceremonial first pitches to the young catchers from the two teams.
When MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked why it was important to bring the big leaguers to the Little League World Series, he explained that “these young people playing this game are the core of our next generation. Anything we can do to get them more engaged in the game is worth the effort.”
The result, Manfred said, has been “beyond our wildest expectations. The interaction between our players and the kids is absolutely unbelievable. And this gives us a unique opportunity to showcase the game. It brings attention to our game in the height of our season.”
It is no small matter uprooting a regular season game and playing it in another city, as MLB learned last year when the Atlanta Braves played the Miami Marlins at a temporary ballpark at Fort Bragg, N.C. This year, the Pirates gave up a home game at PNC Park.
Chris Serkoch, the Pirates’ Director of Special Events, noted the club took its famous pierogi race to Williamsport, among other in-game elements.
Most notably, their big league ballplayers.