WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – Every member of the Nationals’ traveling party arrived here Sunday morning with some personal expectation what the experience would be like. And every one of them left town at the end of the night with the same reaction: It was nothing like they expected it to be. It was so much more than that.
CJ Abrams: “Growing up and watching Little League, and actually getting to go to the field, it’s a lot more exciting than you think it is.”
Josiah Gray: “A lot bigger than I expected. Because on TV, you see just the field and some of the crowd. But to see the field itself and how big the stands were, along with how expansive the hill was, it was huge.”
Kyle Finnegan: “It was pretty crazy. A lot of kids, a lot of fans.”
Davey Martinez: “It blew me away. TV doesn’t do it any justice of what it is. I was amazed.”
It was, to be sure, an exhausting day. The Nationals woke up in D.C., took a bus to Dulles Airport and flew to Williamsport, where members of the teams from Needville, Texas, and Sydney, Australia, greeted them on the tarmac shortly after 11 a.m.
They all boarded busses bound for the Little League complex, players nervously asking questions of their big league counterparts, who were just as curious to ask the kids questions.
“They were very intimidated,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I talked to some of the coaches, and a lot of kids, some of them had never left their town. It’s a big limelight for them as well.”
Upon arriving at Lamade Stadium, the Nationals were treated like rock stars. Everyone wanted an autograph, or a selfie, or to exchange commemorative pins. As they made their way into the stands, seemingly half the crowd was obsessed with them, the other half obsessed with the tense elimination game taking place on the field between Smithfield, R.I., and Media, Pa.
Players and coaches found seats on the third base line, flanked on both sides by Little Leaguers, all of them watching the game with equal levels of interest.
“We signed a lot of autographs, but when we got to actually watch the game, it was cool to talk the game with them,” Gray said. “It was a close game, and it was like: ‘This kid’s going to go deep.’ They’re like: ‘No, you see how small he is?’ ‘Hey, you never know!’ That was really cool.”
“It was an unbelievable game for a while there until the last inning (when Smithfield broke a 2-2 deadlock with five runs),” Martinez said. “I’m watching the game and thinking to myself: These kids are fundamentally good. They know where to throw the ball. They stay down. And I’ve got to teach my knuckleheads this every day!”
Eventually, the Nationals departed the stands and made their way around to the famed hill that sits beyond the outfield fence. Several of them were convinced into hopping aboard cardboard sleds and sliding down the hill as fans cheered and kids tried to get as close as they could without getting run over.
“I didn’t know much of anything,” Abrams said. “I saw the hill, and everybody was sliding down. So I said: I want to do that!”
Up in the ESPN broadcast booth, Martinez watched Abrams and Gray and Dominic Smith and Alex Call and Jeter Downs take the plunge and couldn’t help but hold his breath during each run.
“I didn’t know how big that hill was. And then when I saw it, I thought maybe I shouldn’t slide down the hill,” the manager said. “Nobody got hurt, thankfully.”
The Smithfield-Media game at Lamade Stadium was the centerpiece of the afternoon, but across the plaza at Volunteer Stadium, several Nationals players were having just as much fun watching the teams from Tijuana, Mexico, and Regina, Canada, square off in the international bracket.
Joey Meneses made a point to speak to the team from his home country, encouraging them not to be nervous and to ignore the fans, the cameras and everything else unfamiliar that distracts from the familiar game of baseball they’re playing.
The 31-year-old Mexican native, unknown to the world until he finally made his major league debut one year ago, was humbled so many of Tijuana’s players immediately knew who he was.
“It’s something really cool. I never expected it,” Meneses said. “They know you, and they want to be a big leaguer. It’s something very special. It made me feel so good.”
The Nationals were only scheduled to be at the Little League World Series until 1:30 p.m. before heading to Historic Bowman Field for their own game against the Phillies. Few of them, though, wanted to leave. Many stuck around as long as they could, with Meneses, Call and Michael Chavis finally departing at 3 p.m., only 45 minutes before they needed to take the field to begin batting practice.
“This tournament is something very exciting for them, because it’s something they’ll never forget,” Meneses said. “I wasn’t playing there, but it’s cool being there and sharing it with them.”
The MLB Little League Classic was nothing like a typical major league game. It was played in a minor league ballpark originally built in 1926, with tiny clubhouses and an overflow crowd of 2,473 made up of the Little Leaguers, their families and other local residents and volunteers watching. Little Leaguers interviewed big leaguers as the game was going on. Cheers and chants could be heard by everyone.
Oh, and the Nationals won, 4-3, riding a four-run bottom of the first, six scoreless innings from Trevor Williams and then just enough outs from the bullpen without surrendering the tying run to improve to 23-14 since July 8, the fifth-best record in the majors during that prolonged stretch.
And when it was all over, when an exhausted group of players and coaches had showered and begun to board their busses back to the airport for an 11 p.m. flight to New York in advance of Tuesday night’s series opener against the Yankees, there really was only one thing left to say. Martinez said it on behalf of everyone else.
“I want to come back!”