SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - They traversed the country two years ago in a refurbished 1947 touring bus, a group of 11-year-olds from inner-city Philadelphia whose coach wanted to teach them the legacy of Jackie Robinson.
The Anderson Monarchs' 2012 summer journey - a "barnstorming tour," their coach Steve Bandura called it - made trips to Chicago's Wrigley Field and Detroit's Comerica Park. They toured the Baseball Hall of Fame and visited Robinson's grave.
But they did not pull through Williamsport. Playing in the Little League World Series was not even an option then, Bandura said. But now it is their reality. Three of the Monarchs from that excursion are at the World Series this week as members of Center City's Taney Dragons. The team is Philadelphia's first-ever representative in the Little League World Series.
Taney will open play Friday at 3 p.m. against South Nashville, in a game televised by ESPN.
"Did I think they were talented? Yeah, we had talent, but we were never going to have that chance because there wasn't a Little League-affiliated program in our area," Bandura said.
That changed in 2012 when Taney obtained a Little League charter. The Taney Youth Baseball Association, which is celebrating its 20th season, selects a tournament team from its in-house program. Bandura said he always sent his players to Taney because it was a well-run club that would give his players the chance to play extra games and against each other.
The charter, and the chance to go to Williamsport, made it "even more interesting," Bandura said.
The 12-player Taney team was assembled as a tournament team or all-star team from the Taney in-house league. Mo'ne Davis, Jahli Hendricks, Carter Davis, Zion Spearman, Jared Sprague-Lott, Jack Rice, and catcher Scott Bandura play for both the Monarchs and Taney.
Scott Bandura is Steve Bandura's son. Jack Rice's father, Alex, manages the Taney team.
"We've been together at the Monarchs since we were 6," said Hendricks, who was on the bus tour with Davis and Scott Bandura. "We've just been really confident together, really mentally tough and can do anything together."
Bandura started the Monarchs in 1995 at Graduate Hospital's Marian Anderson Recreation Center, where he began in 1989 as a volunteer. He wanted to give the inner-city youngsters the same opportunities as those in the suburbs. The Monarchs play in an elite three-state league and travel to major tournaments, usually facing off against suburban competition.
The fields behind the recreation center were unkempt when Bandura took over, with open gates that allowed neighbors to walk their dogs over the grass. He slowly transformed the field at 17th and Fitzwater Streets into a stadium. Anderson Yards has a home run fence, on-deck circles, and snack stand. The field is guarded by high gates, keeping the grass neat for the players.
The right-field fence, which is 222 feet from home plate, is covered with local advertising, which helps make the program possible. Signs recognizing former Monarchs who have graduated from college hang on the infield fence.
Rice took his son to Anderson for the first time when he was 6 to use the batting cages Bandura had set up in the locker room for winter hitting practice. The recreation center is four blocks from Taney's home field, which Rice said creates "tremendous overlap" between the Taney and Monarchs programs.
"To anyone that knows [the Monarchs], it means a lot," Rice said. "In particular, what Steve Bandura is doing. The more you find out about what Steve is doing, the more you respect and get inspired by the program."
The same kids stay together year-round as they play baseball, basketball, and soccer under the Monarchs name. The program does not hold tryouts, Bandura said, and new players are added only when others leave. NBA player Dion Waiters and U.S. soccer player Darius Madison played for the Monarchs.
Education, Bandura said, is most important for the Monarchs. He does not ask his players whether they want to go to college; instead, he asks which college they will attend. He said his program instills early on the importance of education. And it works. Mo'ne Davis, Scott Bandura, and Jahli Hendricks are honor students at Springside Chestnut Hill. Penn Charter and Archbishop Ryan are among the schools former players have attended.
"We've got a reputation now of producing really good character kids," Bandura said. "Not just athletes, but kids that are really top-notch character kids, hard workers, and good students. Schools are looking for diversity and looking for kids that can handle the academics and add to the school.
"My original goal was to prove to people that if inner-city kids are given the opportunity and the training, then they can compete on a citywide level," Bandura said. "I didn't have my eyes set on them competing on the national stage or the world stage."
Taney practiced hitting Wednesday afternoon, seeking cover from the rain inside the covered batting cages. They wore the caps and shirts that were provided by the tournament, but they were on their own to find shorts. And four found their navy blue shorts with "Monarchs" written on the thigh.
At last, the Anderson Monarchs had arrived in Williamsport.