Baseball Reaches Out to the Next Generation on Their Own Turf
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — In Section I of BB&T Ballpark here on Sunday night, Logan Castellano had the rare opportunity to sit next to a major league pitcher. So he took advantage and asked Steven Matz, a Mets starting pitcher, for tips on throwing a changeup.
“He asked me how I gripped the ball and how I threw it,” said Castellano, 13, an outfielder and pitcher for the Mid-Island Little League team from Staten Island. “It was exciting, because I’d never done that before.”
For a few innings during Major League Baseball’s second annual Little League Classic, in which the Mets defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-2, four Mets starting pitchers — Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Matz — jammed their large frames into the bleachers and interacted with some of the world’s best young baseball players.
It was exactly the sort of exchange M.L.B. and Little League International, which promotes itself as the world’s largest youth sports organization, wanted when they dreamed up this event.
It was a regular-season game for the Phillies, who are in the thick of the National League East race, and the Mets, who are far from it, so the game mattered. But it doubled as a promotional tool for both groups.
“Our games are on television all the time, but this one is a little bit more special,” said Paul Sewald, a Mets relief pitcher, adding, “This one was associated with Little League, so you get a little bit different crowd.”
Played annually since 1947, the Little League Baseball World Series is one of the marquee events in the multibillion-dollar industry of youth sports. The entire tournament, not just the title game, is televised on ABC and ESPN.
From M.L.B.’s perspective, Sunday’s game was a chance to help build the sport among the youngest generation of fans. In recent years, youth participation in baseball has dropped. And of the big four professionals sports leagues in the United States, M.L.B.’s television audience skews the oldest, leading Rob Manfred to make youth sports participation a priority since he became baseball’s commissioner in 2014.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals took part in the inaugural event last year, and it was determined last fall that this year’s game would be between the Mets and the Phillies.
BB&T Ballpark, normally the home of a Phillies minor league affiliate, was spruced up for major league needs with features such as instant replay, television camera stands and extra office space. Players jammed into a small clubhouse and played in a stadium with a listed capacity of 2,500 and field dimensions smaller than typical major league stadiums.
“In the dog days of August and we’re not in the pennant race, this breaks the routine and gives you a little humbleness,” Sewald said. “Remember we were kids that age and one time saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to play just one game in the major leagues?’”
Before the major league game, a large-scale hangout was coordinated for the professional players and the little leaguers.
The youth players met the major league teams at Williamsport Regional Airport midday Sunday and rode with them to the Little League World Series Complex in South Williamsport. The players talked to the little leaguers, watched some of their games, signed autographs and posted photos on social media. Little leaguers played catch with the major leaguers before the game, accompanied the managers to the exchange of lineup cards with the umpires and then watched the major leaguers play.
Jose Bautista, the Mets outfielder, came bearing gifts: Because he loves visiting Barcelona, he brought three boxes of baseball gear to give the Little League team from there, where baseball is growing little by little.
“It’s just cool to come back and watch Little League baseball because it takes everyone back to when they were out on the field having fun and messing around with their friends,” said Phillies infielder Scott Kingery, who played in the 2006 Little League World Series with the Ahwatukee, Ariz., team.
When Phillies first baseman Carlos Santana stepped off the team bus, he asked for a selfie with the team from Spain. He urged them to follow their baseball dream but also to get good grades in school. He then spotted Ronald Vizcaino, a 13-year-old pitcher listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 248 pounds, the tallest on his team.
“Are you Dominican?” an impressed Santana asked. “You eat a lot of plantains?”
Vizcaino laughed because he was indeed from the Dominican Republic. His family moved to Spain when he was 3. He said he has loved testing his skills against teams from all over the world.
“For many of these kids, this is the first time they’re in the U.S.,” said Oscar Roman, the manager of the Barcelona team. “It will be the first time they see a major league game and meet major league players. And for many of them, it’ll be the only time they do this. They’re so happy but a little nervous, too. But it’s a unique experience that they will never forget.”
While baseball equipment, team fees and travel costs can add up, the Little League World Series still draws teams from around the world: This year, there are teams from Kawaguchi, Japan; Matamoros, Mexico; Queensland, Australia; Honolulu; Des Moines; and Peachtree City, Ga.
“I’m supporting my son’s dream,” said Silka Villalba, who traveled from Panama to cheer on her son, Francisco, 11, of the Vacamonte Little League team.
Added Corey Hannah, the father of Jayson, 13, an outfielder on the Staten Island team: “If it wasn’t for my son’s passion and love for the game, I probably wouldn’t do it. He’s the one motivating me for hitting lessons, going outside and going to work out. It’s worth it.”
Before a game between the teams from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., and Hawaii, Mets third baseman Todd Frazier threw out a ceremonial first pitch and was surprised by teammates and coaches from his 1998 Little League World Series-winning team from Toms River, N.J.
Adding to the youthful atmosphere, the Mets and the Phillies wore gear from M.L.B.’s Players Weekend, a tradition that started last year in which baseball’s strict uniform rules are relaxed. Players wore jerseys with self-chosen nicknames on their backs and specially designed cleats, which many said help baseball compete with other sports that feature more individualization, such as the N.B.A.
Frazier applauded the Little League Classic and said he wished it had started a while ago. He said the event and the colorful uniforms would help baseball’s attraction to younger fans.
“It’ll only make more people watch it,” Frazier said. “Baseball in a good state right now. There’s still a couple more things that need to be changed or fixed and I think we’re be fine. But I think the younger generation is just fine where they’re at.”
The Mets’ day on the field was an easy one, thanks to solid pitching by Jason Vargas and the hitting of Amed Rosario. After the Mets notched the final out, both teams lined up and shook hands with their opponent — a simple gesture of sportsmanship exercised regularly by the little leaguers that had rubbed off on the major leaguers.