By Bill Campbell
Bring on the Dragons
Last Saturday afternoon, the minivan carrying five Mountain Ridge Little League players from Las Vegas and their coach pulled to the side of Ballpark Boulevard in Williamsport, PA. The passengers watched as the Taney, Pennsylvania, Little League team passed by on its way to patting practice. The Vegas team rolled down its windows and the players stretched their arms out the windows to high-five the Taney Dragons. The two teams are the last undefeated United States teams to reach the Little League World Series. They’re scheduled to meet tonight at 7:30 p.m. The winner will go on to the U.S final. From what I saw in the Sunday night game that Taney played against the Pearland, Texas, team, these kids are well-versed in the fundamentals of baseball and they come to play.
Taney scored a thrilling 7-6 win over Pearland in the bottom of the sixth inning on Sunday. Mo’ne Davis, the star pitcher of the tournament and the player garnering the most press, should be back on the mound for Taney tonight. When she’s not pitching, she plays third base for the Dragons and she has a strong swing at home plate. The Las Vegas manager, Ashton Cave, watched her pitch last week and said she is “phenomenal”. His team has played with girls before and they will not underestimate Davis. He said that his team won’t “fall into the trap” of playing its opponent’s game. “We tell them, ‘See ball, hit ball. Throw ball, catch ball. Get us outs.” It’s all about the basics. Emphasizing that his players must focus on the fundamentals of the game, Coach Cave said that “everything else will take care of itself.” If Taney wins tonight it will play again on Sunday and Davis could make her third start in that final. If Taney loses tonight, it will play again on Thursday with the winner moving to Saturday’s U.S. final.
It’s an understatement to say that Mo’ne Davis and her performance at the Little League World Series have captivated the sports world at the moment. She threw the first shutout by a female last Friday. She’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week with the headline, “Mo’ne, Remember her Name” – which would be enough to turn any kid’s head. Yet in interviews she seems self-assured but never brash. She talks about her team-mates and the combined effort they are making, declining to shine a light upon herself. The thirteen-year-old South Philly kid has talent, confidence and just plain joy in her step as she walks out on to the field. Up in Williamsport, the fans have filled the seats, the standing-room-only spots and the grassy field to watch her and her team play? So far, Mo’ne is composed and focused on the job at hand. Wouldn’t you like to inject some of Ms. Davis’ spirit into the Phillies right about now? Ruben Amaro, whose job is reportedly in jeopardy, was recently asked about Mo’ne throwing a 70 M.P.H. fastball. Amaro, who played in the majors several years ago, said he couldn’t have thrown one back then and he couldn’t do it now. It will be fun to see what Miss Davis and the Dragons do tonight.
We’re going to have a new baseball commissioner in January. His name is Rob Manfred. He’ll replace Bud Selig who has been in that spot since 1992 when he replaced Fay Vincent. Manfred, who has worked for MLB in various capacities since 1988, was Selig’s choice to replace him though the team owners had to vote on it. He faces a complex and demanding time in the game.
One task for Manfred is determining how to market baseball in the technology age, where the old models just don’t work. It’s a multi-channel universe now and the Internet delivers scores and updates with rapid speed. Teams are communicating with people who are walking down the street consuming baseball. Yet younger people, who are used to everything moving so quickly and whose concentration is limited because of it, are not as interested in the sport as they used to me. It takes too long to play – and with replays, it takes even longer. Boston Red Sox chairman Tim Werner put it well when he said, “We need to do a good job of capturing the youth and we can do better there.” Houston Astros owner Jim Crane owner added, “We have to work on getting more kids into the game in all areas.” An aging demographic is something we must address, according to Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio. “We are faced with it and there are any number of metrics that show we must modernize the game and improve the pace of play.” Thirty years ago the average time of a game was two-and-a-half hours. Now it’s more like three-plus. Young people won’t commit to sticking with it to the end. The players sense the problem too. Mark Teixeira of the Yankees said that the new commissioner’s top priority should be getting kids interested in the game again. “I just know that kids don’t watch games like I did and pace of play doesn’t help.” Hall of Famer Joe Torre agrees: “[We have] to make sure that we find a way to engage young people….I’m talking about …a way to create an interest in the game for kids that will make them want to play. I think it’s our responsibility to look where the future is, and that’s in the young people. But in order for them to be interested in the game, they’re going to have to play it.”
Hey, Joe: Mo’ne. Remember her name? There’s the next commissioner’s audience.
There’s a story in the papers today about NBA referee Dick Bavetta. He’s affectionately known as “The Ironman” and is retiring at age 74 after a thirty-nine year career. He never missed an assignment in his entire career. He has officiated at a record 2,635 consecutive regular-season games after beginning his NBA career on December 2, 1975. Bavetta also worked 27 playoff games and officiated at the 1992 Olympics. He’s most proud of his uninterrupted streak, which is three more than Cal Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive baseball games. We can’t forget that Bavetta worked into his seventies. NBA president Rod Thorn said yesterday that the League is grateful for his contributions and wishes him the best as he enjoys his well-earned retirement. As The Ironman said, “It really has been a great run.” Here’s to him.
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