Taney Dragons keep winning and keep inspiring

The Taney Dragons, captured on camera by ESPN's Douglas Rose in a promotional spot for the sports network on an off day between tournament games.
The Taney Dragons, captured on camera by ESPN's Douglas Rose in a promotional spot for the sports network on an off day between tournament games.
Posted: August 12, 2014

BRISTOL, Conn. - After a full morning's batting practice, while her teammates were having lunch, Mo'ne Davis stood in a field at the Little League Eastern Region headquarters Saturday, calmly facing a cameraman for the Today show. It would be the second interview of the day, with several more to go, but Mo'ne neither complained nor seemed put out.

After answering a series of now-familiar questions, she obliged the news crew by dipping into a basketful of baseballs and pitching them, perfectly, one after another, toward home plate.

"Wow," the reporter said. "You are good!"

Mo'ne thanked her and allowed the slightest of smiles.

The girl is chill.

The eighth grader from South Philadelphia is one of the most talented players on the Taney Dragons, a team that may soon be on its way to the Little League World Series. All it must do to win the Mid-Atlantic Regional championship is beat Delaware on Sunday night.

When Mo'ne is on the field, her arms hang loosely, her hips shift with easy confidence, she assesses the positions of her teammates and opponents with a kestrel's keen eye, knowing that all in good time, she will land her prey.

National news outlets have been all over the story for weeks. It reads like a Hallmark Channel movie script: Inner-city team, an ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic mash-up, led by inspirational coaches, beats all odds.

 The focus has been primarily on Mo'ne, in part because she is a promising athlete, but mostly because she is not a boy.

Her teammates are so over that being a thing. Mo'ne is no different from anyone else, they say, except that her waist-length braids fly over her shoulder when she is hurling 70 m.p.h. fastballs.

Not just kid stuff

Their acceptance underscores the real story of the Taney Dragons. For as much attention as Mo'ne has attracted and deserved as one of only two girls in the Mid-Atlantic championship, she is, above all, a member of the team.

As with many inspiring baseball tales, it is really about so much more than sports.

At an ice cream picnic the night before one of their biggest games of the season, the players hung out on the playing field, poured jimmies and whipped cream over bowls full of chocolate fudge brownie, played tag and card games, and monkeyed around.

Their parents, however, could not relax. The win in Friday's game catapulted the scrappy Philadelphia team so close to the World Series that they could practically taste the hot dust puffing up from home plate.

For at least a year, they had been shuttling their children around the city to practices on borrowed fields, in gyms and an airplane hangar that their coach had rented. They had held meetings in the offices of the public radio station WXPN, where one of the mothers is associate general manager. There, they organized car pools and discussed how to balance their children's commitment to the team with the demands of schoolwork.

Well, maybe . . .

When the season began, most of the parents thought the coach's goal to win the state championship - something no team from Philadelphia has ever done - was admirable. Their children would learn hard work, good sportsmanship, and, at some point, how to lose with dignity.

But throughout the spring, as the team won game after game, it dawned on them that the Taney Dragons were fire-breathing champions.

Keep in mind that this sport is child's play. Everyone on the roster is 12 or 13 years old. And in the 67 years the Little League World Series has been around, the finalists have not usually captured headlines in the kind of newspapers that cover global politics.

Aside from the girls-break-the-barrier aspect, what makes the story so compelling is that the players and their families have broken barriers, as well.

Their allegiance to the team and one another transcends bank accounts, neighborhoods, race, and religion. They live in rowhouses in distressed neighborhoods, funky old twins near the University of Pennsylvania, pretty stone cottages in granola Mount Airy, and in an apartment in one of the most exclusive high-rises in Center City.

Some parents are single, many are married. They range in age from their early 30s to late 50s. They have careers in teaching and nursing, social work and psychology, pediatrics, systems analysis, and construction work. One father made his money in the Krazy Straw business.

Little League expenses can mount quickly. Bats, on average, cost $250 apiece, and they break with surprising regularity. Cleats cost $50, and, since these children are growing, the shoes often need to be replaced before they wear out. Gloves run about $60 and when your child plays more than one position, more than one kind is required.

"So we share," said Joe Richardson.

Earlier in the week, he was watching Jared Sprague-Lott pitching and noticed the name on the glove was that of "JRich 24," his son, Joe Jr. The swapping, he said, nurtures solidarity.

Money has been a problem nevertheless. Fund-raisers throughout the year helped but could not cover the expenses of the trip to Bristol. After a previous Inquirer article mentioned the team's empty pockets, a fund was set up.

"We raised $20,000 in a day and a half," said Erik Lipson, whose son Erik Jr. is on the team. The parents shut down the donation site quickly, figuring they had more than enough. But if they win Sunday night, Lipson said, they will have to put out their hands again. Hotels, meals, gas - without help, many of the families would not be able to afford to follow their children to Williamsport for the World Series.

If the Dragons are a pared-down organization by necessity, their spartan style is philosophical, as well.

While their opponents' fans come equipped with banners and drum corps, stylish mascots, and in-your-face face paint, the Dragons' cheering section brings only its navy and white Taney team T-shirts and baseball caps.

"There's no glitter," said Don Soucy, director of Little League's Eastern Region.

Soucy says Taney's low-key approach in the stands works to the team's benefit on the field: "You're not nervous. You just play baseball."

While many of the children go home to substantially different environments, they share an allegiance to the city, the game, and one another.

"What binds the kids is how hard they work," said Bryant Simon, a history professor from West Philadelphia whose son, Eli, is an outfielder.

What binds the parents is the joy they have found in watching their children excel in the game, even when they do not win.

"A lot of Little League parents push their kids," said Gerry Davis, a marriage counselor and former Presbyterian pastor. "On this team, every kid is self-motivated."

A few months ago, Davis said, his son Carter took him to a batting cage, had him haul in several buckets of baseballs, and ordered him to stand six or seven feet away.

"Now throw the balls at me as hard as you can," Carter instructed. Davis, reluctantly, did as he was told and watched in awe as his son grew more adept at connecting bat to deadly missile.

The children have also ended up teaching their parents.

"I wear the same earrings to every game," said Quyen Shanahan, explaining that even though she has worn them to games the team lost, she still thinks they might carry a gram or two of luck.

Her son, Tai Shanahan, set her straight.

"It doesn't matter when you wear them," he told her. "Nothing matters."

Parents say the time commitment has taken over a large part of their lives. They help one another. Group text messages and e-mails circulate whenever someone needs a child picked up or dropped off, fed, or encouraged.

When the coach wanted them to practice through the winter, they chipped in to rent a hangar and paid extra for those who could not afford the donation. Then they found used artificial turf on the Internet and helped to lay it. It was, unfortunately, crumpled. So they did their best to smooth it down. And one of the coaches, an architect, applied the finishing touches by cutting neatly around corners with an X-Acto knife.

The rewards, said Chanel Richardson, may be different for each child, but all have benefited. The relatively slow pace of baseball has taught her son Joe Jr. patience, she said.

"There is no instant gratification," added her husband, Joe. "It has the peaks and valleys of life. It's a game of failure."

Well, not always.

Midway through Friday's game, the Dragons trailed the New Yorkers, 3-0.

Out on the aluminum bleachers, about 50 Dragon parents, fans, and friends broiled in the sun, squinting at the field.

In a far corner, Kimberli Smith aimed her camera's long lens at the players.

"I can't sit around with everyone's emotions," she explained. "I take pictures so I can keep calm."

Her son, Kai Cummings, has grown so enamored of the game, he sleeps with his baseball glove, she said. Naturally analytical, she said, after most games, he reconstructs every move, thinking about what could have been done better.

Then, a roar

As Zion Spearman stepped up to bat, Mo'ne's mother, Lakeisha McLean, retreated to a shady picnic table. She had a headache, she said.

And the tension was just too much to bear. She was not worried, though.

"They always like to let the other team score first."

She dropped her forehead to her folded arms. Then she heard a roar.

"They must have scored a run," she said calmly.

Three, actually; Zion Spearman had hit a three-run homer.

McLean took a couple of Advil, drank some water, and returned to the stands. She stayed until the last inning, when her daughter took to the mound.

After striking out her first batter, Mo'ne raised her hand and, almost imperceptibly, wagged one finger.

"She's saying that's one. Two to go!" McLean said, gleefully.

After the second out, amid the thundering shouts and foot stomping, Mo'ne raised two fingers.

On the third, however, she had no time. The team members rushed into each other's arms.

Parents hugged. Cried. Screamed.

"I love it when they play team ball!" said Zion's mother, Trazanna Spearman.

McLean looked down at her daughter, beaming.

"What did I tell you?"

The pressure has been getting worse by the hour for the parents, who, between doing loads of laundry and driving to and from practices over the weekend, tried to wrap their minds around the fact that the team has made it this far.

Mo'ne, however, who will pitch most of Sunday night's game before a crowd of breathless grown-ups and a national television audience, remains unfazed.

"If we win," she said, shrugging, "we win."


ONE WIN AWAY

Taney Dragons vs. Newark National (Del.), Mid-Atlantic Regional Little League final, Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPN2.

The winner advances to the 16-team World Series.


mdribben@phillynews.com

215-854-2590 @dribbenonphilly

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