SweetSpot: LLWS

PHILADELPHIA -- Every once in awhile, Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon hauls out the video clip of his performance in the 1971 Little League World Series championship game and watches it for fun. But it’s more a bonding ritual with his 26-year-old son, Bo, than a desire to cling to baseball heroics from a distant past.

“I’ll look at it and freak my son out, because I look just like he did at that age,” McClendon said, laughing. “And he’ll tell me, ‘Turn that off.’”

The LLWS is attracting a lot of attention this summer because of some spirited competition and charismatic young players. Mo’Ne Davis, the star pitcher for Philadelphia’s Taney squad, is a “Sports Illustrated” cover girl with almost 20,000 Twitter followers. Mexico’s Ruy Martinez, all 4-foot-8 and 80 pounds of him, has emerged as the Jose Altuve of youth baseball. And the all-black Jackie Robinson team from Chicago is outpacing the Cubs and White Sox with its television ratings in the city. ESPN has provided blanket coverage of the tournament, with Barry Larkin and Nomar Garciaparra among the luminaries in the broadcast booth.

[+] EnlargeMo'ne Davis
AP Images/Gene J. PuskarMo'Ne Davis has fans everywhere right now, including in the Mariners' manager's office.
The event was a much quainter affair 43 years ago, when McClendon and his Gary, Indiana, squad made history as the first all-African-American team to advance to Williamsport. After leading Gary past opponents from Kentucky and Spain in the first two games of the single-elimination tourney, McClendon oozed shyness in an interview with Jim McKay and Mickey Mantle that aired before the finale with Taiwan on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Although McClendon finished with five home runs and five intentional walks in 10 plate appearances in Williamsport, Gary lost to Taiwan 12-3 in the finale. He reacted like a typical preteen, but some comforting words from his father and coach endured long after the sting of losing had passed. McClendon experienced some flashbacks earlier this week when David Belisle, coach of the Rhode Island Little League team, gave an uplifting speech to his players after they were eliminated by Chicago.

“I was very blessed,” McClendon said. “I came off the field crying, but the first words I heard from my coach and my dad were, ‘We’re very proud of you. You did the best you can do. Hold your head high.’ That’s such a powerful lesson for young players, but also for coaches and parents -- to understand the magnitude of what’s going on and how positive words can shape and form kids for the future.

“I hope these kids are gathering the same types of memories and friendships that we had when we were able to go there. I hope this isn’t about kids being exploited. The biggest problem is coaches and parents that want to win at all costs. Let the kids enjoy it. Let them have fun, because it’s their moment in the sun.”

Although McClendon’s schedule with the Mariners has prevented him from watching the Little League World Series in-depth, he's seen enough to become a big Mo’Ne Davis fan. He can join celebrities from Magic Johnson to David Price to Ellen DeGeneres in that club.

“God bless her,” McClendon said. “This is something she'll be able to tell her grandkids about and show them one day. I think it’s just awesome and well-deserved. I hope this community here in Philadelphia surrounds her and that team and keeps encouraging them. What they've done is tremendous.”

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