Taney's magical season ends

(Evan Habeeb/USA Today Sports)

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - It was the game everyone wanted to see.

Chicago's 6-5 win over the plucky Taney Dragons in the Little League World Series losers' bracket elimination game was, at its extreme, a beacon of hope.

It sent Chicago to the U.S. final tomorrow against Las Vegas. It sent Taney home . . . but only after the gritty dozen made themselves Little League legends, thanks largely to the demographic they share with Chicago.

They are two Little League programs whose presence here refuted the common assumptions: Inner-city kids, especially black kids, don't like baseball because, compared with basketball and football, it's slow and boring and there are few black stars in the major leagues.

When the Philadelphia kids played those from Jackie Robinson West, it was the first time two urban programs met in the tournament's 75-year history, and it was fun. Taney settled down after a rocky first two innings, clawed back but left the go-ahead run on first base.

A couple of the Taney kids got a little watery-eyed, but surely thousands more in Philadelphia and around the country wept at the beauty of the moment and the disappointment that the Dragon Train finally, quietly ended.

The truth is, every team that reaches the LLWS is comprised of winners. Taney coach Alex Rice, a measured and quiet man, stressed this.

"I told them to be incredibly proud of themselves. None of us in a million years would've guessed we'd spend 2 weeks in Williamsport," Rice said. "I told them I loved them."

Rice said he and the team would remain in Williamsport through Sunday's title game.

The hope is that the dozen or so kids on each team continue to achieve; that their lives take off at age of 13; that this is not the apex.

The Taney team seems rich with that hope.

On their way to Williamsport both benefited to some small degree from the Little League Urban Initiative and MLB's RBI programs, but the foundation for both programs predate those initiatives. Steve Bandura, who runs a deep feeder program for Taney called the Anderson Monarchs, last year sent a 15-page report to MLB commissioner Bud Selig and routinely harangues the Phillies for more real support: bricks-and-mortar baseball academies in all major league cities that emphasize development athletically and academically.

The progress has been glacial.

Still, they are here, and Philly, LL-affiliated for just 2 years, brought with it the support of a region and state - and, of course, the best selling point conceivable.

Taney brought its ace pitcher Mo'ne Davis.

Her talent and her looks and, of course, her race and her gender focused the sporting world's spotlight on the Susquehanna Valley for the past week. She shut out Tennessee on Friday, the first win by any of the 18 girls who have played here and the first appearance here by a black girl.

It has been amazing to witness her ability to deal with the eruption of her fame. Rightsholder ESPN made her the trademark for the event. National talk shows fell over each other to line her up. Sports Illustrated made the 13-year-old its youngest cover person ever and its first Little Leaguer. The New York Times sent three top reporters to the tournament - the last inner-city club here came from Harlem in 2002 - and local Philadelphia media outlets essentially relocated to north-central Pennsylvania.

First lady Michelle Obama, Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Philly icon Bill Cosby tweeted her and her team well wishes, but she is a basketball player first, so the hoop shout-outs meant the most to Mo'ne: NBA MVP Kevin Durant tweeted at her, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma called her Monday, and, yesterday, the Harlem Globetrotters named her their Junior Phenom.

Only 21,119 came last night, but then, it was rainy - the game was delayed for 35 minutes - and it was Mo'ne Mania that drew crowds of more than 37,000 Sunday, when she didn't pitch, and Wednesday, when she started but lasted just 2 1/3 innings and gave up three runs in an 8-1 loss.

She remained in the game, to the delight of the legion of viewers. ESPN managed the highest rating - 3.4 - in Little League history for a non-championship game, and it was higher than all but a few title games, according to the network.

She did it all with grace inconceivable for a kid.

"I knew she was terrific beforehand. What she just went through cements that," said Rice, who figures she will keep baseball among the sports she plays. "The world is her oyster, right?"

Mo'ne started at first base last night, flied out softly to start the second inning - she has one hit here - and left the game in the third.

By then, the Dragons had blown a 2-0 lead and committed three errors. Erik Lipson, a lefty who started on the mound in place of No. 2 starter and top shortstop Jared Sprague-Lott, committed a killer, two-out overthrow that gave Chicago two extra runs in the first, after which Chicago led, 4-2.

Chicago scored took a 6-2 lead in the second when catcher Scott Bandura overthrew third base trying to pick off a runner.

Lipson left for Sprague-Lott after two innings, none of his runs earned. Taney left the bases loaded in the third, but, in the fourth, Zion Spearman's two-out single scored two and cut it to 6-4. Cerebral outfielder Kai Cummings' first homer of the series cut it to 6-5 in the fifth.

"He was due!" exclaimed Kimberli Smith, his mother, smiling ruefully after the game. "It was fun."

Sprague-Lott, who struggled in a start against Texas on Sunday, managed three clean innings in relief, allowing just two hits. Rice started Lipson because Lipson has several pitches, while Sprague-Lott relies on velocity. Chicago typically hammers fastballs.

It was a monumental moment, yes, but it was mostly an exciting, sometimes messy Little League baseball game.

But monumental.

"I've been looking forward to playing Chicago since we got here. Little League and Major League Baseball can see the potential of what they can find in the inner city, Rice said Wednesday night.

Last night, he added, "I see a lot of them in us. It's the way baseball should be played. It was terrific to play them."

"Kids will play anything that's fun and that they're good at," said Bandura.

The key is inclusion, consistency and progress. Rice anticipated that Taney's run would benefit the program with increased enrollment, more playing sites and more funding.

Maybe seeing Taney play Chicago, some kids will realize how much fun baseball can be.

Maybe some adults will realize how much it can mean to a kid of any color, in every town.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

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