A Stunning Run: How Mo'ne Davis and Taney Little League Got To Williamsport
When several kids from the Taney baseball team went to a Cooperstown tournament last year as part of a Philadelphia contingent, the big news was that retired major league pitcher Pedro Martinez was bringing his Dominican Republic team to play.
But when the other teams saw the Philly kids, a virtual stampede ensued.
"They thought we were the Dominican team," said Steve Bandura, who was coaching that group. "Then the first thing they asked us when they found out we weren't the Dominican team was 'What country are you from?' Our players just thought it was funny."
The Taney Dragons, one of eight U.S. teams in the Little League World Series (they play their opener on Friday), are only half of Philadelphia's youth baseball story -- it starts with Bandura introducing the sport to African-American kids and then Taney Baseball taking the passionate urban kids to an even higher level.
And the end product has always been just a little different.
"We always joke that most teams have one African-American kid and he's their center fielder," Bandura said. "We see it all the time. We fielded an all-African-American team once except for our white center fielder."
To describe this group only by its racial diversity, however, would be selling it short. Just like describing pitcher Mo'ne Davis as the only girl on the team.
Davis, the first American girl to play in the Little League World Series since 2004 and the 18th girl in the 68-year history of the tournament (Emma March of South Vancouver will play earlier Friday and will be the 17th girl), is part of a Taney team nucleus that started in T-ball with Bandura, who coaches baseball, basketball and football at the city's Marian Anderson Recreation Center.
Davis is also one of the leaders of a Taney team playing under a Little League charter for only its second season, but making up for lost time and limited resources with an unselfish, intellectual and dedicated approach to the game that their parents and coaches say is unique.
"What we're trying to do is give them what suburban kids have," Bandura said. "We have a quote we use -- that ability without opportunity is nothing. We're just trying to provide opportunity. What the kids do with that opportunity is up to them. Think how many Beethovens there might be who never had a chance to sit down at a piano."
It isn't always easy.
"If you come into Philly and see the fields we play on, the running joke is that we compare them to golf courses because of the number of hazards," said Lou Cammisa, the Taney Baseball commissioner. "The suburban teams have indoor facilities. We have whatever's available when the weather gets cold -- someone's yard or basement."
Philadelphia Trolley Works, a city bus company, donated one field, which happens to be tucked into an oil refinery.
We're just trying to provide opportunity. What the kids do with that opportunity is up to them.Steve Bandura, on Taney Baseball
When extra space in a warehouse was brought to their attention, the league secured private sponsors to pay the rent and "[current coach] Alex [Rice], in all his crazy brilliance, went all-in, putting in carpet, batting cages, screens and a couple of pitcher's mounds," said Peter Kenney, Taney's original travel coach in 2012. "Everyone uses it -- the house league teams, other teams in the neighborhood. The lights are dim and the ceiling is only 11, 12 feet, but it works."
Another batting cage is in an old locker room in the Anderson Rec Center.
It is at that rec center where Mo'ne and many others on the Taney team discovered the game and, with Bandura's help, fell in love with it. In Mo'ne's case, it happened at age 7 after Bandura spotted her tossing around a football with cousins and throwing a perfect spiral 25 yards.
"She never played any [organized] sport until then," said her mother, Lakeisha McLean. "Then, [at the end of second grade] Steve introduced her to [Springside Chestnut Hill Academy].
"I didn't know anything about it, but he said he wanted Mo'ne to go, so we tried it [and Mo'ne successfully tested in for admission]. She loves it. Her bus comes between 6:15 and 6:30 in the morning and if she has no practice or game, she comes home around 6:45. It's a 12-hour day, but she never complains."
With Bandura, the education never stops. He also serves as coach of Philadelphia's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, an initiative of Major League Baseball, and in 1993, he began the Jackie Robinson League.
"Steve's focus is very much on the African-American kids and ensuring that these kids who may not have had opportunities, get them, and then showing essentially everyone whose ear he can get what these wonderful kids can do," Rice said. "He wants to shatter every stereotype that's in the book."
Bandura spent every Friday for 24 weeks during the winter of 2011-12 with a group of 10-year-olds showing them the Ken Burns baseball documentary as well as civil rights films.
That summer, Bandura took the group, including several players on this year's Taney club, on a 22-day, 18-city, 4,500-mile trip across the country on a vintage 1947 tour bus. The group visited major league parks, played games and visited historic baseball sites, but the purpose of the trip for the Monarchs (named for Robinson's Negro League team) was to give the kids a taste of the old barnstorming trips Robinson's team would have made.
"Steve wants them to understand the roots of African-Americans in baseball and really give them a good understanding of their history and their place, not just in baseball but in Philadelphia and the U.S.," Rice said. "He's really focused on getting them into college and he uses sports as a vehicle. ... And the whole time, he's changing lives and demonstrating to everyone what urban kids can do given the opportunity."
In Washington, D.C., Bandura arranged for Mo'ne to meet Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, the only female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues.
The idea that her daughter is now a part of history, Mo'ne's mom said, escaped both of them.
"We never thought about it like that," McLean said. "After how many girls have wanted to make it in baseball, to know she's a part of history is unbelievable."
But Mo'ne, who dreams of playing point guard for UConn and has no desire to transition to softball, is surrounded by players on her Taney team who have made their own impact. Zion Spearman, raised by his mom in North Philadelphia, spent so much time at the local batting cages that they put him to work at the place, called him an intern and now he hits for free. Spearman, who wears No. 44 in honor of Hank Aaron and lists Babe Ruth as his favorite player, hit three-run homers in both Taney's state title game and regional semifinal.
But as a team, they take just as much pride in their selflessness and analytical ability as their physical tools. "They're focused on pitches and between pitches. When other kids take a mental break, their wheels crank," said Bandura, who added that Springside contributed money to help send parents to Williamsport.
Rice and his assistants also try to teach empathy, and it appears to be working. After Taney clinched its spot in the World Series with a victory over Delaware, the winners were so affected by the tearful reaction of their opponents that they implored them to take a victory lap with them.
And the majority of the Taney players have shunned the attention they're receiving. If they gather any motivation from their underdog role, they're not saying.
"And we don't necessarily tell them that," Rice said. "We want them to represent themselves and their families and their community in a tremendous manner. But they're under different scrutiny than other children. They don't have to say it but they understand it.
"Having a chip on their shoulder is not the right way to describe it, but they feel they have something at stake in most every game they play."