Perhaps the hallmark of Rob Manfred’s rein as commissioner of Major League Baseball has been his emphasis on cultivating the next generation as future fans and players. When he took over the role from Bud Selig in 2015, Manfred made a commitment to youth baseball one of his cornerstone initiatives.
Some of MLB’s kid-focused programs—such as RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), the affiliation with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Baseball Academies—were inherited from his predecessor. But the Little League Baseball Classic, played for the fifth time Sunday night at Historic Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., is completely Manfred’s baby.
The event brings two Major League teams to the site of the Little League World Series, where they can cavort with kids vying for their own title. It was first played in 2017 and was such a hit that Manfred made it a regular-season mainstay.
In Sunday’s game, the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Boston Red Sox, 5-3. Next year’s edition will feature the Washington Nationals against the Philadelphia Phillies, MLB announced Sunday night during the game.
“It’s really meaningful what we’re doing,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said Sunday during a press conference. “It’s just going to grow our game. I’m a big supporter.”
Manfred brought former U.S. President (and ex-Texas Rangers owner) George W. Bush to the ballpark for the occasion.
Bush handed the first ball to a Little Leaguer on the field prior to the game. And the first pitch was relayed from young player to young player beginning in center field until it reached the plate.
“It’s awesome,” Bush told a television audience via ESPN when he appeared with Manfred during the game. “I’m such a big baseball guy, and to see so many young people playing the game speaks well for the future of baseball.”
It was a rainy Sunday with mid-afternoon thunder showers, causing the postponement of two Little League games at another facility about four miles away. But by gametime of the MLB clash, there was little effect of the two inches of rain on the velvety green grass field.
“Nothing major,” Murray Cook, MLB’s field guru, said in an interview Sunday while surveying his handiwork. “We just tarped it and covered it.”
The field was refurbished, and a new drainage system installed by Cook and his crack grounds crew in the time for the first Little League Classic in 2017. The ballpark, built in 1924, has been home to lower-level minor league games ever since. Even with makeshift stands down the lines for Sunday’s game, the sellout crowd was announced as an intimate 2,467.
MLB enhanced the permanent stadium with padded walls, temporary field lights, a hitting eye and two video scoreboards. It’s not quite the $6 million effort that it cost to construct a temporary 8,000-seat stadium in Dyersville, Iowa, for the recent Field of Dreams game, but it created the same necessary professionalism and ambience.
“This is really great,” Bush said. “The commissioner has done a wonderful job encouraging MLB to be involved with Little League.”
Despite the inclement weather, Red Sox and Orioles players came to the field to spend time with Little Leaguers in the hours before the Major League game. They used carboard box platforms to slide down a hill high above center field in nearby Lamade Stadium, where the Little League World Series games are played.
Players and managers alike risked life and limb, said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who raced his son down the hill and won.
“I have a little more heft,” Hyde said. “It’s faster than you think. I’m sure I’ll feel it tomorrow.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora described a sense of pride meeting with a team of kids from his homeland of Puerto Rico.
“I was able to hang out with the kids from over there and let them know how important it is to represent us,” Cora said. “It’s actually the first team from back home that had Puerto Rico on their chests. It was usually Caribbean. I explained to them what it means.”
Cora went on to say the game was a great experience, even during a season in which his Red Sox have struggled at the bottom of the American League East with even a berth in the expanded playoffs in doubt.
“I wouldn’t say I needed it, but this is what Little League is supposed to be,” he said. “Just enjoy and show up the next day and have more fun.”