SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Ryan Howard can’t stop talking about Taney Dragons outfielder Zion Spearman.
The Phillies’ first baseman was in town Thursday to visit with all the teams remaining in contention at the Little League World Series. He played whiffle ball, challenged some kids to ping pong and dispensed plenty of advice during a day he called “an awesome experience.”
But it was Spearman, the Dragons’ outfielder nicknamed “The Preacher” (see story) that made the biggest impression.
“He’s challenged me to a home run derby,” Howard said. “I had to stand my ground on him a little bit. … I said, 'Where are we supposed to do this? Are we supposed to do this at Citizens Bank Park? Are we supposed to do this on one of the fields here?' He said, 'I’ll let my teammates decide.'”
Howard wasn’t able to stay in South Williamsport for Thursday’s elimination game between the Dragons and Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West League All-Stars, but promised he would be watching. After all, now he’s got a real sense of the kids competing in the tournament.
And it was Spearman, the hero of the Dragons’ come-from-behind win over Texas’ Pearland East on Sunday, who made the biggest impression on the Phillies’ veteran.
“Obviously there was a lot of hype around Mo’ne [Davis], so [getting to meet her] was cool,” Howard said. “But I’ve got to say, my man Zion. He came right at me. He’s a big kid, I’m not gonna lie. He’s a big kid. He came up, sized me up a little bit. I went, 'OK, we can have some conversations.'”
The trip to South Williamsport, Howard said, took him back to the days of his childhood. He played youth baseball growing up around St. Louis, but didn’t play for a Little League-affiliated team, so wasn't ever eligible for the Series.
It’s something that always bothered him, he said -- he estimated he was equally as talented as the kids playing in the tournament now back then, although probably not quite as tall. Spearman, at 5-foot-6 and 168 pounds, probably had him beat.
Despite that, though, Howard has long been a fan of the tournament. In fact, most major leaguers are -- and that was a big part of what he hoped to convey to the kids he spoke to during his visit.
“We try to watch as much as we can before we have to go out to the field or take batting practice,” he said. “We’ve definitely been watching. Every year this time, we’re always fans. One of the things I relay to the kids, we’re watching them in the clubhouses. We go from you guys looking at us to the opposite, us watching you guys.”
The same can be said for the entire city of Philadelphia. Almost 10,000 more fans attended Wednesday’s game between the Dragons and Las Vegas at Lamade Stadium than the Phillies' game against the Mariners at Citizens Bank Park that afternoon. Taney’s TV ratings blew the Phillies’ out of the park, too.
But Howard has no issue playing second fiddle to a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds.
“As far as what they’re doing, I think it’s great,” he said. “I think it’s great for the city. We’re fans watching them. We want them to go out there and do the best that they can and give their best effort. For us, if you want to call it playing second fiddle, hey, that’s fine. It’s their time to shine.”
He's pretty sure the Dragons haven't fully realized just how excited about them their home town is. They've had plenty of media attention, but won't fully understand until they return to Philadelphia -- and that's a good thing.
"It's great," he said. "I don't think they understand the magnitude about what they've been able to accomplish, for themselves and for the entire city of Philadelphia.
"When they get back ... it'll really going to sink in for them. Until then, it's good they can go out there and continue to focus on playing."