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Pirates excited for return trip to Williamsport

PITTSBURGH — In the corner of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle’s PNC Park office sits a wooden table, and atop that black painted oak lays a 2017 MLB Little League Classic commemorative baseball hat.

Nestled between a black leather cushioned seat and a two-seater matching couch is a constant reminder of one of the highlights for the longtime manager who’s won more than 1,200 games as a Major League manager.

It doesn’t quite fit in with his other Pittsburgh memorabilia, like the large hanging Roberto Clemente canvas or a Rocky Blier bobblehead next to a signed football from the four-time Super Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steeler halfback. But it still holds a special place in his heart and he and the Pirates are happy to be making a second trip to the birthplace of Little League in three years.

The Pirates and the Chicago Cubs square off in the third MLB Little League Classic tonight at Bowman Field. It’s another Sunday Night Baseball broadcast where the eyes of the nation will once again be fixed upon the second oldest operating ballpark in the minor leagues.

Hurdle is no stranger to the area. He coached the Williamsport Cubs in 1991 and his wife, Karla, is from Trout Run. He himself is elated to return to a place he called home for summer early in his coaching career, but he’s even more excited for his players that weren’t on the roster in 2017.

“It’s crazy good. Selfishly, I’m happy for them. I am. I’m really looking forward to it and we’re going to do it with the team that we’re playing tonight,” Hurdle said before facing the Cubs on July 1. “That’ll be great. They’re going to really like it.”

Only four players on the Pirates current roster played in the 2017 Classic: Josh Bell, Starling Marte, Adam Frazier and Felipe Vazquez, and all four had key moments. Bell hit a thundering home run which rivaled his shots in July’s Home Run Derby, Marte tallied two hits and scored twice, Frazier had an RBI single, and Vazquez earned the save in the 6-3 victory.

It was an unusual and new experience for the Pirates and the MLB, but the players are excited to make the return and interact with the Little Leaguers.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a full day,” Bell, a first-time all-star this season, said. “We wake up early, land at the airport and the kids are really excited to see you and take pictures with you. Signatures all day. It seems like an awesome opportunity for the kids to have.”

“It’s something I think we all enjoyed,” Frazier said. “We have no problem going back and getting to soak it all in.”

Frazier was anxious to show off a display in the corner of the Pirates clubhouse that features a wall of memories. Carefully hung were photos and keepsakes from the 2017 MLB Little League Classic. There’s photos from a welcome party at the airport, the bus ride down Route 220 with Little Leaguers, to shots of players in the stands of Lamade Stadium eating ballpark favorites, to Bowman Field where the Pirates defeated the Cardinals.

The smiles were wide and bright on the faces of the Little Leaguers and the Big Leaguers. It was an opportunity for the professionals to see where they used to be, and for the kids to see where they want to be.

“There’s a picture on the wall over here from fried Oreos and the nachos I had. I enjoyed that pretty good,” said Frazier, the soft-spoken infielder. “Just being able to watch those guys play, it’s something as kids we always dreamed of getting there.”

“It’s unlike any other experience. Playing at this level in front of so many kids is awesome. The venue is great. I love it. The ball is so much louder without the three decks,” Bell recalled hitting his home run that brought the loudest cheers of the night two years ago. “Watching the kids’ reaction is great. They’re just so happy whether you just make an out or make a good play. There’s no real home-field advantage. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Though the Pirates are the first MLB team to make the return trip to Williamsport for the MLB Little League Classic, they’re still as excited as they were when they first showed up in 2017. It’s a break in a long, grinding, and sometimes, mundane 162-game schedule. Despite some of the hassles of traveling and playing on the same day with little sleep, it’s still well worth it.

“It’s very new. I feel like … We play for the kids. We play for the fans,” Bell said. “I feel like that’s something that’s going to stick for a long, long time.”

Hurdle and his players don’t get to see much baseball as fans anymore. With a summer scheduled filled with their own games, there isn’t much leisure time. But when they step off that plane, they aren’t treated just as professional baseball players, but like rock stars. And though it can be a long and tiring day, they’re just as excited to return to Williamsport as they were to be here the first time.

“We just try to enjoy it and have fun. We kind of even forget about playing the game that night,” Frazier said. “It’s a long day but a fun one.”

“Once we got off the bus and hit Williamsport, Williamsport stole the hearts of the players and that took over,” Hurdle said. “From that point on, it was just a day of ambassadorship, a day of goodwill and a day of smiles for everybody.”

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