Manfred helps make day a success

Joe Torre poses for photographs with members of the Emilia, Italy team, representing the Europe-Africa region, on Sunday at the Little League World Series complex. (KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette)

The smile wouldn’t leave Rob Manfred’s face Sunday morning. Standing along media row at Volunteer Stadium, the commissioner of Major League Baseball didn’t even try to hide his excitement for the activities taking place on the field.

In a line, members of the Pittsburgh Pirates stood, sharing high-fives as the Japan Regional champions at the Little League World Series heard their names called to run on the lush green grass. Some of the Little Leaguers jumped in excitement. Some blushed and put their heads down.

They all smiled. So did the big leaguers.

The atmosphere Manfred had hoped to create by getting members of the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals to interact with Little League World Series players came to fruition in that moment. Nothing could spoil Manfred’s smile. In fact, in only grew wider as players from Japan and South Korea joined Little League mascot Dugout and the Pirate Parrot for a dance-off behind the pitcher’s mound.

“Think the Yankees and Red Sox would do that before a game?” Little League President and CEO Steve Keener asked Manfred.

If Sunday night’s Little League Classic at Bowman Field was never played, the day would still have been a success for Major League Baseball. Players from the Pirates and Cardinals marched through hordes of fans lining the blacktop — cameras ready for photos and baseballs ready for signatures — on their way to Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums to spend time with Little League World Series players.

The excitement was palpable, from both Little Leaguers and their big league counterparts. They shared selfies, stories and just plain enjoyed each other’s company.

“We thought this was going to be a great day, and this is even better than what I expected,” Manfred said as the Cardinals watched Japan play South Korea. “Everything from watching the kids get off the bus with the players to seeing the players in the stadium interacting with the kids, everything has been phenomenal.”

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina couldn’t walk more than a couple steps without someone yelling his name to get his attention. Outfielder Dexter Fowler was swarmed by fans as he made his way to Lamade Stadium, and the World Series winner with the Cubs last year took time to sign every autograph he could.

Once inside the stadium, players went out of their way to sit with Little Leaguers, just talking to them and taking photos. Lance Lynn, who played at Lamade Stadium in 1999 with the Brownsburg, Indiana, team, signed shirts and shook hands until he was dragged away.

“The guys jump in with both feet here,” said Joe Torre, MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer. “Anything involving kids, I think just about every player has a connection with kids. It means a lot to them, it really does. I think it’s a cool idea for us to be here.”

Manfred has made stops in South Williamsport the last three years, the first of which was prior to him being named the commissioner, but after he was elected to replace Bud Selig. He has made the relationship between Major League Baseball and Little League Baseball a priority. Last night’s Little League Classic and the interaction between all the players was the next step in that process.

“These kids are the future for us,” Manfred said. “They come from baseball families and they’re going to be avid fans. So anything we can do to make the Little League World Series experience more special for them is great.”

Manfred expressed Sunday how he and MLB likes the idea of playing Major League games in places they don’t often play them. Take for instance last season’s game at Fort Bragg between the Braves and Marlins. MLB basically constructed a field out of nothing for that game.

For last night’s game, MLB helped cover the costs of more than $4 million dollars in renovations. It paid the $1.5 million price tag for an entirely new field to be installed at Bowman Field. It also installed hospitality tents, batting cages and team lounges for the MLB players. MLB also constructed an area for a temporary video board in left-center field, a larger batter’s eye in center field, and upgraded the padding on the outfield walls.

Manfred said Major League Baseball is hoping to play another Little League Classic at Bowman Field, but plans have not yet been finalized.

“We came and looked at (Bowman Field) and we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to have young people present in an intimate setting, interacting with our players,” Manfred said. “The investment seemed worthwhile to us and I hope it turns out we get to see what we’re hoping for.”

“I was very proud of Major League Baseball and Tony Petitti (Chief Operating Office) and Commissioner Manfred to take on this task and make it happen,” Torre said. “I talked to several of the kids and the only message was to enjoy the experience. This is a special experience to take part in.”