SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.–You'd think the best part of being a player at the Little League World Series would be the girls. And yes, there are always girls, and lots of them. But being a superstar gets old quickly.
When not practicing or playing, the little leaguers are usually outside the stadiums. There, the scene is a cross between the adolescent see-and-be-seen that is a high school football game and, as the ESPN broadcasters are apt to say, a county fair – if your county fair's best activities are piling in and out of minivans, admiring the new line of Oakleys, and throwing beanbags at a Bomb Pop cornhole board from three feet away.
These 12 and 13-year-olds the centers of attention everywhere, their supplicants mostly their peers and younger kids; parents stand to the side and take pictures of their children talking with the uniformed players. A few wide- or wild-eyed adults march about constantly on the hunt for one more player to fill their autograph books, asking anyone wearing a team hat or lanyard where the stars are hanging out now.
The players, like former big shots returning from college for homecoming, are mostly obliging to their hangers-on. Some of them are more than happy to talk with the girls, some their age, some a few years older, who come up to them in bunches of three or more, all decked out in summer dress. When the players get their fill of attention, they can return to their dorms in the gated International Grove, and take another shot at getting the Japanese off the ping-pong table.
More girls wait by the gate there, and call out to the players. "Hey mister! You there, mister!"
And then, in a giggling aside: "I don't know why I'm calling you mister, you're like four years younger than me."
The girls are ignored. One, piqued, complains about a player's priorities: "He's probably going to see his family. These guys are all, like, obsessed with their families."
A huge part of the Little League World Series's appeal, if you're a grown-up, is that these kids are actually kids. They bounce back easily, as about every losing manager says when asked about his team's mindset in the postgame press conferences. They do not dwell.
"Last night we weren't too happy," Presley Smith of Pearland, Texas, said about his team's loss to Philadelphia last Sunday. "Then we saw our parents after 15 minutes, and the New England players started talking to us, and we kind of forgot about it."
The adults marvel at the kids' "effortless media savvy" after getting thrown under the bright lights. Given the same platform, adults have stories they want to spin and images they want to maintain. Twelve-year-olds have no such concerns, and that's what makes them such good material for everyone here. They laugh, they cry, they say what's on their mind. Perhaps next year their images, captured during a moment of unbridled, spontaneous joy, will provide an endorsement for a Little League sponsor, like the two boys from last year's Washington team who are jumping forever on the back of this year's World Series program over an ad: "Everyone wins with Lance as the official cracker sandwich..." Those two boys have aged out of the World Series; they have no idea.
The players are brands' dreams, unconcerned with how their images are used. The first words out of their mouths, when asked how the Williamsport experience is treating them, is how awesome it is to get lots of free stuff: the bats, bags, shoes, sunglasses, new uniforms and hats and shirts.
Their images will be recycled in broadcasts for years, set to whatever terribly catchy punky-pop song Disney chooses to be the year's anthem. Some of the players are chosen to film promotional material and learn the grinding reality that capturing spontaneous-looking moments for TV is rarely so simple. Last year two players from each team spent a couple hours lined up in a field: "1-2-3, heads up!" the director called out. "1-2-3, heads down!" The players ran across the field, time after time, the director instructing them in the exact places and times they should throw their caps into the air during the next take.
Each year, players are picked or volunteer to film fielding fundamentals drills that are shown during the games, once a Harold Reynolds bit that's now hosted by a pitchman from Baseball Factory. You can watch their excitement wane as the thrill of being captured on camera wears off and they have to turn a bang-bang 1-5-3 one more time, then another and another.
Their time is never their own. In the media room, the working press stripmines the kids for anything remotely newsworthy. If the players appear savvy beyond their years, that poise and vague disdain might in part be the oncoming teenager's revelation that Adults Are Stupid – a realization speeded by the inane questions they hear all week.
"How does this rank for you, as an experience, in your life?"
"Is it safe to say this is the most exciting thing you've done?"
"What were you thinking when you made that play?"
"Do you feel like a team of destiny?"
Some players, like Philadelphia's Kai Cummings, have figured out that print-ready platitudes are the best way to give the reporters what they want so they'll leave you alone. "I read somewhere luck is a combination of opportunity and preparation," Cummings said obligingly. "So I think we prepared hard enough and we had the opportunity to get where we want."
The biggest star of this World Series was, of course, Mo'ne Davis. After her starts, the press room was packed with TV crews from around the country. After Mo'ne threw a shutout win in Taney's opener against South Nashville, Tenn., one of the crews spotted her family standing outside the press conference room and brought them in the back door, one by one, to be interviewed before the players arrived.
"Are we allowed to do that?" the cameraman asked his sound guy. "I don't care," came the reply.
Mo'ne's mother left the room, and someone's recording was played back to check the spelling of her name: L-A-K-E-I-S-H-A. Then Mo'ne herself entered with three teammates and coach Alex Rice.
Mo'ne was asked to comment on kids watching the games from up on the hillside "who want to be you someday."
"It's very unreal. I never thought at the age of 13 I'd be a role model, but now it's real. I always wanted to be a basketball role model, but being a baseball role model is really cool."
Mo'ne was asked about Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett saying to the press during the game that Davis might be a professional pitcher someday.
"It's very crazy. I mean, I didn't even expect that. If I do stay in baseball, hopefully I can pitch as a professional pitcher."
(No one asked her whether she knew who the governor was, or what she thought of him showing up in a Taney shirt at a time he's down double-digits in the polls.)
She was asked about her booming Instagram account and hearing from Kevin Durant. Only, finally, at one question did she perk up: "What do you think about someone making a fake Mo'ne Davis Twitter account?"
"There's a fake Twitter?" she asked. "I have two Twitter accounts." Then again she asked, leaning forward with obvious interest: "There's a fake Twitter?"
On Sunday night, after Philadelphia got its second win of the Series, Mo'ne wasn't in the conference room; she didn't pitch, and while she had gone 1-for-2 with a walk and a RBI, others had bigger roles in the win, and it was those boys who were ushered before the cameras.
"How do you guys feel about getting some questions thrown your way?" they were asked.
Cummings took it—not inaccurately—as a question about the perception of this team as the Mo'ne Davis show.
"If she were in the room it's not like we'd say anything any differently."
It was after 10 p.m. when the press conference finally ended, and the interviewed boys loaded into a Honda for the ride back to their dorms. If you walked down toward the parking lot, past empty Volunteer Stadium, you couldn't have missed her: in the middle of the infield, brightly lit, Mo'ne Davis sitting across from Karl Ravech in director's chairs, a dozen or so people standing behind the cameras. Still talking, still in demand, after most every other player in town had gone to bed.
Josh Brokaw writes from Hughesville, Pa. Find his stuff @jdbrokaw, where he feels compelled to tweet sometimes.