As I browsed through that day’s water ice flavors at my local Rita’s on the 2100 block of South Street, I noticed both people behind the counter wearing Taney shirts.
It was only hours after star pitcher Mo’ne Davis hurled a shutout to lift Philly’s own Taney Dragons past Tennessee in their first game of the Little League World Series, so naturally we started to chat about the local baseball team that has taken this city – and country – by storm.
“You know, she comes in here all the time,” one of the Rita’s employees told me, referring to Davis, who less than a week later would incredibly grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. “The catcher comes even more. They’re regulars.”
I can’t remember how exactly I responded, but I do remember feeling way more excited than I probably should have been. Wait, so THE Mo’ne Davis once stood at the very place I’m now standing? And you’re saying that 13-year-olds like water ice and frozen custard too???
Of course, I’ve been surprised a lot recently by how I’ve reacted to things. For instance, I never expected to jump out of my seat when a kid named Scott Bandura (THE SAME KID WHO GOES TO THAT RITA’S) led off the sixth and final inning in Taney’s last LLWS game by beating out a bunt. I didn’t expect to hurt my arm doing the round-the-bases motion when Bandura raced from first to home to score the game-tying run on a clutch two-out triple from Zion Spearman (who used to be bad but is now really good). And I certainly didn’t expect to scream like a maniac when Spearman scored the winning run in walk-off fashion to lead Taney to a dramatic 7-6 win over Texas on Sunday, setting up a showdown vs. Las Vegas tonight with a berth in the U.S. championship game on the line.
But that’s the beauty of sports. Sometimes, they take hold of you when you least expect it. And this Taney team has certainly done that for me – and for so many others.
For the record, I understand why some people might not get into the Little League World Series considering youth sports are rarely given this kind of attention (truthfully, I didn’t really watch much before this year). I totally get the skepticism of those who believe that the pressure of playing every game on national television is not necessarily a positive thing for kids that age (though 700 Level colleague Steve Moore, who used to cover the event in Williamsport, makes a good argument why those critiques are mostly overblown). And I can’t argue with anyone that doesn’t gravitate toward a team that will only be on TV for a couple of weeks when they’ve spent their whole lives watching their favorite pro teams practically every day.
But for me, the reasons to get excited about this Taney team all stem back to that conversation I had at Rita’s. Simply, it’s about neighborhood pride and a sense of community. Many of these Taney kids began playing baseball for the Anderson Monarchs at 17th and Fitzwater Streets, a few blocks from where I live. Their current home, at Markward Playground, is also a short walk from my house. I drive past Taney Street almost every day. Some of my best friends have kids that play in the Taney Little League program. My own son will play there one day, just as soon as he gets that whole walking thing down. If my next kid is a girl, she can play there too. How cool is that?
As a native New Yorker who came to Philly for college and never left, I don’t have the same kind of connection to the local sports teams as the people who grew up here (for some reason, Enrico still lets me write for this site anyway). But I do have a fierce love for this city, and especially my Graduate Hospital neighborhood. My wife and I cheer local businesses and exciting development projects and anyone that shares our plan to raise their kids in Philadelphia, despite the never-ending drama surrounding our schools. The city has more than 1.5 million people in it but it has a funny way of feeling small when you know many people your age will likely end up fleeing to the suburbs. Sometimes, at least for me, it feels like the people committed to the long-term growth of your neighborhood are your teammates and that we’re all part of something together, only there’s nothing tangible to really connect us.
And then a bunch of Philly kids – many of whom are part of the embattled public school system – come onto your TV sets one day and everyone suddenly becomes unified around one thing. These are kids from our neighborhood, from our city, that are beating the far more established suburban Little League programs and damn, are they fun to watch. I imagine this is how people feel in neighborhoods, cities and states across the country. I imagine this is why the Little League World Series has become so popular.
Win or lose, Taney’s wild ride will soon be over. It doesn’t really matter how it ends because they’ve already given us City Hall viewing parties and a Sports Illustrated cover and celebrities tweeting about a girl who is literally fazed by nothing. And, at least for me, it’s only cemented my desire to raise my family in Philly because if a city Little League program can be built from nothing to everything in just a couple of years, well, then maybe our neighborhoods and schools can follow the same path.
Twelve kids playing baseball shouldn’t have that kind of power, but that, too, is the beauty of sports: They have a funny way of making you believe in things.