Little League Classic a chance to grow the game

Among the excitement the Little League World Series brings to the Williamsport area every August, new excitment will fill the air tonight. Instead of counting down the final days of summer when the World Series begins, like past years, the sports world will count down the hours until the first pitch of the innagural Little League Classic at BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field tonight.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals will finish a four-game series in front of Little League players, their families and a select few general ticket holders in the first regular season Major League game played at Bowman Field in its 90-plus year history.

Major League Baseball and Little League has been searching for ways to continue to grow the sport of baseball and softball at the youth levels through the Play Ball initiative, and the Little League Classic might be the boost they’re looking for.

Rumors of the Classic began swirling early in the spring when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark brainstormed ways to expand baseball.

The brainstormed idea will become reality tonight.

“This is an opportunity to help engange kids who have an interest in the game we love,” Clark said during a press conference at Lamade Stadium on Saturday. “Talking with the (major league players), they are invested in the game. They care about this game. They care about the history. They care about the game moving forward.”

The Little League Classic kicks off today when players from the Pirates and Cardinals visit the Little League complex to watch a game and get to interact with Little League players. From there, they’ll head to Bowman Field and prepare for their regular season game at 7 p.m.

“Our event allows our players to touch kids with the same aspirations as they had when they were the same age,” Clark said.

Not only did the players have the same aspirations of one day playing in the major leagues, but some even came through Williamsport to get where they are today. Cardinals Randall Grichuk and Lance Lynn played in Lamade Stadium as Little League World Series players in 2003-2004 and 1999, respectively. Pittsburgh’s ties to Williasmport are from the hands of manager Clint Hurdle and Andrew McCutchen. Hurdle managed the Williasmport Bills in the 1991 season and McCutchen appeared in a Crosscutter uniform for 13 games in 2005.

“Hearing from the guys who have played here before, at Lamade or Bowman, the idea of coming back is personal to them, and it is a pretty special opportunity for them to come back and play again,” Clark said.

Although it is a regular-season game, it is anything but regular for the major league players who have gotten into a routine within a 162-game season with just three days off every month. Of course concerns arose that players were uncomfortable breaking routine, or the fact it features two NL Central divison teams fighting for a spot in the postseason. Clark was able to relay the underlying message of growing the game to major league players.

“One game can swing an entire season,” Clark said. “But the guys appreciate the opportunity of being a part of something bigger.”

Clark, Manfred and Little League President/CEO Steve Keener look for the Little League Classic to be a great experience for Major League and Little League players alike to further grow the sport and develop players to be their best.

“I bet you are going to see grins on their faces of the Pirates and Cardinals, it will bring baseball to its purest (today), bringing big leaguers and Little Leagures together will be something special,” Clark said.