Bautista makes return to Bowman Field

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette The Philadelphia Phillies’ Scott Kingery tags out the New York Mets’ Amed Rosario on an attempted steal in the second inning at Bowman Field during the MLB Little League Classic.

The drive into the stadium was familiar for Jose Bautista. He remembered the playground area at Memorial Park. He remembered the parking lot and the exterior of Bowman Field.

He was just a kid, only 20 years old, finishing up his first season of professional baseball when he last stepped on the field in Williamsport. When he arrived Sunday afternoon, he was a man with a professional baseball story which would be hard to believe if it weren’t true. There are hints of gray in his beard now. He’s one of the elder statesmen of the New York Mets clubhouse at 37 years old.

But like in that first season of pro ball in 2001 when he and the rest of the Williamsport Crosscutters shared a New York-Penn League championship, Bautista can still hit.

The Mets’ right fielder was 2 for 4 last night at the second Major League Baseball Little League Classic, driving in a run in a decisive four-run second inning as fourth-place New York beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 8-2, to take three out of five games in the series. On a day where three players — New York’s Todd Frazier and Michael Conforto and Philadelphia’s Scott Kingery — were celebrated for having once played in the Little League World Series, Bautista quietly had a homecoming 17 years in the making.

He was one of 13 former Crosscutters to take part in last night’s game, which was broadcast to a national audience on ESPN. He was also maybe the least heralded of those making a homecoming. Frazier, Conforto and Kingery were all celebrated for being big leaguers who once played in the Little League World Series. But it’s been so long since Bautista played in Williamsport that his minor league game-by-game stats aren’t even available on Baseball Reference.

The 15-year big league veteran and six-time All-Star hugged Cutters Vice President of Marketing Gabe Sinicropi in the Mets’ clubhouse following the game and promised to send a bat back to the Cutters’ offices. It may have been worlds ago when Bautista last played at Bowman Field, but he hasn’t forgotten his baseball roots.

“That was my first year and my first attempt at playing professional ball,” Bautista said. “I was just at the beginning of what I hoped, at that point, was me achieving my dream of making it to the big leagues. I learned how to handle myself on and off the field when I was here.”

He was the only member of the Mets with ties to the Crosscutters. And he helped ruin the homecoming for the 12 members of the Phillies who were returning for the first time. Bautista’s RBI single in the top of the second inning was one of four consecutive singles off of Phillies’ starting pitcher Nick Pivetta to open the inning. His RBI hit was followed by Kevin Plawecki’s RBI single. And after a Jason Vargas sacrifice bunt, Amed Rosario ripped a two-run single to center field to give the Mets a 4-0 lead.

It took the air out of a Philadelphia squad which had a chance to return to first place in the National League East after the Atlanta Braves lost to the Colorado Rockies, 4-2, earlier in the afternoon. Instead, the Phillies remain a half game behind the Braves in the division.

“We understand that we’ve had some missed opportunities to take steps forward here,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “At this very moment I’m not thinking about how fortunate we are. I do feel that we’re in a good spot in the standings, but I’m thinking that we need to take a day off, regroup, and get ready to play the Nationals.”

The game polished off a brilliant day of celebrating the grassroots of the game as players from the Mets and Phillies both explored the Little League Complex in South Williamsport watching winners’ bracket games on both the international and United States side of the bracket. In fact, the Phillies’ players were so enthralled with their interaction with the kids, some even went back to the complex after they were shuttled to Bowman Field to prepare for the game.

They continued to interact with the kids during the course of last night’s game. For a team in the midst of its first pennant race in seven years, it didn’t feel like a tense atmosphere. Wilson Ramos prepared for his at-bat in the on-deck circle early in the game but found a few seconds to pass out some fist bumps to Little League players sitting in the front row. Carlos Santana warmed up for the game by playing catch with a player from Japan. The bat Rhys Hoskins used in the game to hit a double was signed earlier in the day by various players from the Little League World Series.

“We’re trying to interact with the players as much as possible, and the players did the same in return and I thought it was really neat,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “They understand that this is a thing to bring everybody together and the Little League World Series is something that brings the whole world together.”

On a night where Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the Little League Classic will return to Williamsport for the third consecutive year in 2019, the Classic was another win for players of both the Little League and Major League variety. It was a day to celebrate homecomings of various kinds, including Bautista’s.

Next year the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates will have an opportunity to continue this tradition which has set a world record in smiles over the last two seasons.

Good luck.