Taney's helping hand can relate
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - The hope, of course, is that all of the Taney Dragons wind up like Julian McWilliams: TempleTough, PhillyProud and, now, a mentor for ace Mo'ne Davis and her teammates.
The hope is that all of the Taney Dragons avoid the pitfalls of some of McWilliams' Little League World Series teammates from the 2002 Harlem club, the first Little League Urban Initiative team to make it here.
At the prompting of a fraternity brother, McWilliams, 24, served as a volunteer instructor for the Anderson Monarchs during the winter of 2012-13, his senior season at Temple. The Monarchs program feeds the Taney Little League. Surgery on his right pinky finger has shortened his pro career, so he is here, a welcome and familiar face for the kids who have become rock stars, with ace Mo'ne leading them.
"I thank him a lot," Mo'ne said, between "SportsCenter" hits, Sports Illustrated and talk-show interviews. "He's been very good to us."
When stoic Mo'ne sees McWilliams, she always gives him a hug, a display of affection she offers no one else.
"He helped us with our hitting and fielding. He's successful," second baseman Jahli Hendricks said. "And he's been here before."
"He's been like a big brother to them," said Monarchs coach Steve Bandura, who was glad to see McWilliams show up 2 years ago. Bandura is white. McWilliams is black. "For the kids, to see guys who look like them teach them and be successful as baseball players, is important."
For his part, said McWilliams, "I can't believe they're here!"
McWilliams played second base most of his youth then moved to the outfield at Ohio University and at Temple, then graduated with a communications degree. He interned for a year at Major League Baseball's corporate offices before trying independent pro baseball this summer with the Las Vegas Train Robbers. Many of his Harlem teammates have been just as productive.
But not all have.
Alibay Barkley was the Mo'ne Davis of 2002, a celebrated slugger hounded for autographs and interviews. It was his finest hour. He was drafted in the 50th round out of high school by the Angles in 2009 but played only six games. He had seven hits in 18 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League but was, shockingly, released in February 2010. He is between stints of college baseball, hopeful to play again one day.
Even so, Barkley has been lucky, so far.
McWilliams said Harlem ace Javier Lopez is serving time in prison on drug and murder charges. McWilliams' father, Morris, attended the sentencing.
"Javy called me about 3 weeks ago on my cell," McWilliams said. "It's sad, man."
Barkley, meanwhile, is languishing back in Harlem, rueful that he did not fulfill his massive potential in Williamsport for the team that reached the semifinal, the game in which Taney plays Las Vegas tonight. A giant in 2002, Barkley's combination of power and coordination awed his peers and coaches.
"It was like art, watching him hit. He was like Ryan Howard but with better contact," McWilliams said. "If there was anybody who should be in the major leagues now, it was him. He was the best hitter at the Series. Zion's a good hitter, but he's not even close to Ali."
Lopez was nearly as good a pitcher, but, said Barkley, Lopez went off the grid quickly.
"He was in high school with me," Barkley said. "I mean, I knew he was into some things, but I didn't think it was going to lead to this."
Barkley sees where McWilliams is, and where Lopez' cousin, Jeremy Lopez, wound up - playing shortstop at Southern University in Louisiana, where he still lives and works. Jeremy Lopez gave up the game-winning homer at the LLWS, a moment that helped him persevere later in life.
He became a fine student but simply stopped attending school after his best friend was shot and killed his junior year: "I was in shock," he said.
That truancy cost Jeremy a scholarship to Maine. However, within a year he righted himself and avoided the fate of his cousin.
"There are plenty of times I think about Javy and think, 'That could have been me,' " Jeremy said.
Discipline issues have dogged Barkley through high school, during his brief professional career and now, with his eligibility reinstated for NAIA competition, in college. Last year, he said, he walked away from playing at Wiley College in Texas after butting heads with the new coach.
Angels and Wiley officials did not respond to interview requests yesterday, but Barkley knows he should have done better.
"If I'd had a better group of friends, I'd have been better off in my life," said Barkley, who advised the Taney kids thus:
"Stay in school. I regret very highly that I didn't. I'd have been better off if I'd gone to school, even for 1 year, then been drafted again, maybe.
"I was always looking for the easy way out."
It wasn't easy being Harlem in 2002.
On the heels of the Danny Almonte scandal - the dominant Bronx LLWS pitcher who later was declared ineligible - Harlem was minutely scrutinized. Little League investigated the eligibility of three players, including Barkley and Jeremy Lopez. They were cleared.
"There was nowhere near the positive attention Mo'ne and them have received," McWilliams said.
The Almonte hangover initially soured the experience somewhat for Harlem, but, by the time they faced Massachusetts in the semis, they had become celebrities, suffocating then like the Dragons are now.
"I got kind of angry at it, at first," Barkley admitted. "I didn't understand. Then, I liked it."
Just when things became pleasant for the Harlem kids, they lost in the semis to that overmatched club from Worcester on a three-run, walkoff homer by Ryan Griffin, who had never hit a home run before in his short life.
"It was horrible," McWilliams recalled. "That was, by far, the worst loss of my career."
That's saying something . . . but that moment helped Harlem's players, the way trials always do.
McWilliams overcame shoulder surgery 3 years ago to play pro ball. Jeremy Lopez sputtered but thrived. Even Barkley hasn't given up hope.
"The experience there helped me out in my life," said Barkley, 24. "Life gets tougher as life goes on."
He said he cannot help identify with Taney, mainly because of the way things have gone for Mo'ne.
"She's so good. I think Philadelphia's got a chance," said Barkley, who acknowledged that Vegas tonight would be her toughest test to date.
That said, Vegas has no one to match Barkley's abilities 12 years ago. Could he have hit Mo'ne?
"I don't know," Barkley said. "Maybe."
Really, most of the Taney kids are more fortunate than the Harlem crew. Barkley was raised in a rough area in a fractured family. McWilliams wasn't.
McWilliams hopes to pursue a career in sports writing (his blog: itsallrelativesports.wordpress.com). Bandura thinks McWilliams might be better served coaching the next Taney Dragons.
"He's got the energy and the empathy to do this type of job," Bandura said. "Julian is the type of kid who can absolutely make a difference."
He already has.