I had the great honor of covering the first MLB Little League Classic for USA TODAY. It took place in the middle of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA on August 20, 2017, which was the fourth day of the annual ten-day celebration of youth baseball that crowns a true “world” champion.
On the heels of the incredible success of The Fort Bragg Game (Presented By Chevrolet) on July 3, 2016, MLB wanted to continue to stage “jewel events” in fascinating places. “We like the idea of taking Major League games to places where we’re not playing now,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said while I was interviewing him for one of my USA TODAY stories. While last year’s game at Fort Bragg was staged to honor America’s service men and women, this was one was clearly “youth focused,” as Manfred put it.
And when the headquarters of MLB wanted to bring big-league baseball to the Little League World Series, they didn’t mean merely playing a game nearby. They meant to bring MLB literally to the LLWS, as they bused the full rosters of the Cardinals and Pirates (the two teams playing in the “classic” game that evening) to the complex where two Little League games were underway.
The big leaguers enjoyed mixing with the youngsters every bit as much as the other way around. And as the adult players moved around the complex, they were like Pied Pipers as the youngsters eagerly followed their every step.
Above is Pirates manager Clint Hurdle posing with enthusiastic kids. The other photo shows members of the Cardinals taking in the action of a Little League game in the smaller of the two stadiums at the complex (Volunteer Stadium). Yes, players from teams not currently in action are interspersed within the block of seats. How cool would that be if you’re 12 years old?
Just before the teams from Japan and South Korea faced off, their players had the unique opportunity to be greeted by members of the Pirates as they were introduced (above).
The MLB players and coaches weren’t the only ones on hand at the complex. The umpires working the evening’s game also made an appearance, first at the Play Ball area where skills were being taught. The crew chief was Gerry Davis — just days removed from infamously ejecting Adrian Beltre for failing to stand in the batter’s circle — and he actually worked two innings at 2B of one of the LLWS games before heading across the river to be the home-plate ump for the Cards-Bucs tilt.
About working the Little League game, Davis told me, “I’m honored to be asked. It’s a privilege to be here. I think everyone associated with baseball in any way should visit here.”
In the above photo, Davis posed with seven-year-old Charlie Hutchinson of nearby Montoursville, PA.
Across the West Branch of the Susquehanna River from the Little League complex is BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field (above) in west Williamsport. It’s the second oldest regularly used park in Minor League Baseball, having opened in 1926. And for one day, it was a Major League ballpark.
MLB utilized an all-star crew to prepare the facility for this big-league game (see my article on USATODAY.com here for insight into the work that went into to this transformation).
While there were plenty of structural changes that had to be completed (bigger dugouts, new fencing and seating sections, tents for clubhouses, a video board, etc.), the biggest challenge was the playing surface.
Murray Cook is the president of BrightView Sports Turf, and for years he’s been MLB’s top “ballpark and field consultant.” He told me that at Bowman, “We had to replace the field entirely because the grade was off to a huge extent.” The top 1-1/2 feet of playing surface was removed and replaced with 4,500 tons of sand and root-zone material before new sod could be laid.
When the Cardinals and Pirates arrived from the Little League complex that afternoon, they were greeted by a real gem of a facility — although it was the smallest that most of the players had seen in years. The official attendance for the sold-out Classic game was just 2,596, making it the smallest capacity for a regular-season MLB game ever.
Most of those in attendance were the players and coaches of the 16 Little League teams doing battle in the LLWS. They were given seats nearest the backstop and dugouts.
For the pre-game festivities, though, they were on Bowman’s field. All 16 squads were positioned around the park’s infield. A special “ceremonial first pitch” was conducted in which one player from each Little League squad participated in a special relay, bringing the ball from the center field wall to the plate (above). A really nice touch.
Just as it was at Fort Bragg in 2016, an important partner for MLB in this Classic game was ESPN. The Sunday Night Baseball crew was on hand to bring the action to TV viewers around the world. On the left, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is chatting with Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone and the producers prior to the gates opening. On the right, Karl Ravech and Tim Kurkjian are battling the blazing sun to do the Baseball Tonight pre-game show.
In the first MLB Little League Classic, the Pirates defeated the Cubs 6-3. I hope the TV audience sensed the feeling of goodwill that was present at the event. And make no mistake about it, the big leaguers enjoyed this every bit as much as the Little Leaguers.
Following the final out, the two teams lined up to shake hands — just like they do following Little League games. Was this gesture arranged beforehand? Sure, but it was a fitting tribute to the sportsmanship that permeates everything that Little League stands for.
Did Major League Baseball view the Classic as a success? Obviously the answer is a resounding YES since it’s already been announced that there will be a second annual MLB Little League Classic in August 2018, right back here in Williamsport.
Read the article I filed for USA TODAY following the Classic game here. I think it sums up the atmosphere at the event.