SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — A female pitcher from Philadelphia and a team from Chicago have created a buzz at the Little League World Series.
Philly’s Mo’ne Davis and the Jackie Robinson West squad are the talk of the series; professional athletes and politicians alike are following their every move. They’ve Skyped with the Los Angeles Dodgers, had shout-outs from NBA star Kevin Durant on Twitter and the Pennsylvania governor was in South Williamsport on Friday.
Davis, one of two girls in this year’s tournament, is the unquestioned fan favorite, even being pictured on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, the first League Leaguer to do so.
The crowd cheers her every pitch and at-bat. Canada’s Emma March also felt the support before her team was eliminated Saturday.
Former Negro League star, 78-year-old Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, called Davis “the best thing since food.”
The all-black Chicago squad shows there is still interest in the game in urban communities, even though African-Americans accounted for only about 8 percent of major league teams’ opening day rosters this year.
Paul Graziano, an LLWS press box announcer since 1980, has never seen this level of excitement so early in the tournament.
“We always got good crowds on championship weekends, but I’ve seen more growth and more people coming now for early games,” Graziano said. “You’ve got two girls and a team from the inner city ... I think it will just bolster” Little League, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Davis has become a must-see performer. Her Philadelphia squad came from behind Sunday night to set up the showdown with Las Vegas on Wednesday.
“She’s unflappable,” said Philadelphia manager Alex Rice, adding it’s “highly likely” that Davis will pitch Wednesday. “All the attention — she’s getting a little tired of the same questions and we’re getting past that — but the attention and everything isn’t getting to her. She’s having a blast.”
Davis, who delivers a 70-mph fastball, received standing ovations from the crowd of more than 15,000 en route to becoming the first female to throw a shutout in Little League World Series history.
Nashville manager Chris Mercado said his team had seen faster pitching and “that kind of stuff” from other opposing pitchers, but the Davis hype caught up with his squad.
“It’s a hard situation to come into. This stadium, 20,000 all over the place, cheering for one player,” Mercado said.
David Stoker, a native of Mifflinville, Pennsylvania, said from his perspective as a LLWS usher and Little League umpire for the past 48 years, Davis has become the “spotlight” of young girls’ eyes.
“She, as a young lady, has opened doors for many other young ladies to participate not only in baseball, but also in softball,” said Stoker, sitting back in his chair outside the stadium, peering out onto the concourse through his brown-tinted sunglasses as his pin-covered hat flickered in the sunlight. “She has proven that girls can compete with the guys, and the guys know there’s a new girl on the block.”
Jackie Robinson West is a rare group of guys in the tournament. The Chicago group dominated its first game, but were blown out by Las Vegas on Sunday.
Still, the second team from Little League’s Urban Initiative to make it to the series has created a buzz of its own and has done its part to put the tournament on a bigger stage.
“Hopefully (Chicago’s success) will foster more growth in urban cities to help grow Little League,” Graziano said.
The overflow of attention that Davis and Chicago have garnered — in the stands, around the concourse and sports talk shows around the country — generates more pressure.
Stoker cautioned fans, especially adults, to keep in mind these players are still just kids.
“The boys have come through this, the girls are now on the same level and I think we as adults should let them grow up,” Stoker said. “Let’s not make them into superheroes.”
Stoker makes a good point, but Davis and Jackie Robinson West have already elevated interest in this series — and in them.