Little Leaguers watch big league ‘heroes’ play in city’s 1st Classic

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its annual review of the past year’s major news stories.)

On Sunday, Aug. 20, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals arrived in Williamsport for the first Little League Classic, a nationally televised event that took months of planning for the city, Major League Baseball, Little League International and the Crosscutters.

On the day of the classic, Little Leaguers crowded around buses parked at the Little League International Complex as their heroes — some of Major League Baseball’s biggest names —

gave them tips on the game, took selfies and marched up the hill with them to catch a few innings of the Little League Baseball World Series.

“I think it was a fun, exciting opportunity for everyone,” said Kevin Fountain, director of media relations for Little League Baseball and Softball. “Every year the World Series has its own feel but that day itself gave its own exciting vibe.”

That night, the Pirates and the Cardinals played a Major League Baseball game in the city’s own BB&T Ballpark. The stadium was renovated to MLB’s specifications and all teams participating in the Little League World Series were invited to the game.

“All of the 16 teams, the players and the coaches, all had a great time,” Fountain said, “both from the interactions they had here (at the Little League International Complex) and there (at the Little League Classic).”

According to Brian McClintock, senior director of media relations for Little League International, the first talks about how Major League Baseball could incorporate Little Leaguers into a game began as early as July 3, 2016.

“The history of this goes back to the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, game,” McClintock said. “They brought a Major League Baseball game to that military installation over Fourth of July weekend.”

Stephen Keener, president and CEO of Little League International, spoke with Major League Baseball officials after the Fort Bragg game and offered that next time MLB had a similar event, they could involve local Little Leaguers. When Major League Baseball again spoke to Keener, they had an even better idea.

“(MLB) came back to us later with the idea of ‘What if we did a game for the Little Leaguers?'” McClintock said.

The planning phase for the Classic was top secret. Between preparing BB&T Ballpark to MLB standards and planning the logistics for both the Classic itself and the MLB players’ day at the Little League International Complex, all parties had their hands full.

“(From) the idea to the announcement was a six- to seven-month process for us to get everything worked out,” McClintock said. “We really started to roll up our sleeves, MLB and Little League International, and sketch out the day.”

By November of 2016, Major League Baseball and the Crosscutters began working on updating the stadium, which would have to be completed by June 20, in time for the Crosscutters’ season.

MLB took care of renovating and paying for BB&T Ballpark’s field to be up-to-date with its standards, while the Crosscutters and the city — thanks to help from a state grant –paid for the seating, the netting and the dugouts.

For Little League International, the planning for all of the festivities on Aug. 20 included working in a way to play the games of the Series early in the day to make sure that all of the teams could be present at the Classic.

“We worked with ESPN to change our game schedule. Usually we don’t do our games that early in the day,” McClintock said.

Both Major League Baseball and Little League International made it a priority to bring both teams to the Series and saw it as a vital part of the day.

“It was really important for MLB to bring the teams here to watch the kids play,” McClintock said. “From there we really tried to plan logistics. We worked closely with the Cardinals and the Pirates to really get everything planned. We really pulled all the businesses and transportation partners we have to make sure everything went as smooth as it did.”

For all of those who participated in the planning and execution of the event, it was a home run.

“I know what their goals were with this game and I think it was a 10 out of 10 with what they were trying to accomplish, and that was to promote youth baseball and softball participation across our country,” said Gabe Sinicropi Jr., vice president of marketing and public relations for the Crosscutters.

In September, MLB announced that the second Little League Classic again will be hosted at BB&T Ballpark and will feature the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018.

“Our hope is that we see this become more of an annual event for the kids,” said Jason Fink, executive vice president of the Williamsport Chamber of Commerce. “It’s about being able to watch those kids enjoy meeting these present-day heroes they have.”