The scene in the stands

Taney's Zion Spearman, right, walks down the row of fans at the fence surrounding the batting cages, high-fiving the Taney fans before Sunday night's game.
Taney's Zion Spearman, right, walks down the row of fans at the fence surrounding the batting cages, high-fiving the Taney fans before Sunday night's game. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2014

Even before Taney took fans on a nail-gnawing comeback win Sunday, the players were already being treated like celebrities.

The 9- and 10-year-old members of the Aston-Middletown Little League team waited outside the batting cages 30 minutes before Taney was scheduled to arrive for practice. A group of about 50 people joined them.

"I'm going to ask for a selfie and an autograph!" fifth grader Roman Montoroso said as he and his teammates stared toward the hill from where the team would arrive.

The Delaware County team won the state championship in its division two weeks ago, and Taney came to support it. Now it was returning the favor on a bigger stage.

"It was our best win ever," said a smiling Sam Benvignati, a pitcher and catcher.

Around 5 p.m., the Dragons made their way through throngs of autograph seekers and smartphone-wielding fans, trailed by photographers and reporters. The Aston team took off toward them, a mob of baby blue racing toward their superstars.

"It's Taney!"

Near the fence, Quyen Shanahan watched her son Tai practice in the batting cage. A woman approached and asked where in Philadelphia the team is from. "Not near Taney Park by any chance?" Heather Kishbaugh asked. Turned out that Kishbaugh, who now lives in Bloomsburg, grew up around the corner. "I played there all the time. How cool," she said. "Good luck."

As the team wrapped up batting practice, players slapped eager hands reaching over the fence. A group of girls pressed their heads against the fence for a better view of Mo'ne Davis as she threw with a teammate.

Trazanna Spearman high-fived her son Zion and then called after him. "You going to come say hello to your mother?" she asked.

He was quick to run over and give her a kiss.

"Is this the only time you get to see him?" a woman asked Spearman. "Pretty much," she said. "A little after the game."

Spearman, a social worker who works with ex-offenders in Philadelphia, said that her son had no particular pregame superstitions, but that he does pray.

"They call him the preacher," she said, looking after the team as it took off toward the stadium, a trail of fans following.

The players, families, and fans were not thinking beyond the day, but Rick Cataldi, who coaches Taney's 15- and 16-year-old team, could not help but think about two years from now. The Taney players who stick with the team into high school would have him as a coach.

"They're a special group of kids," Cataldi said before the game. "It's the Taney name - we're going to win. They're going to end this tournament undefeated."

Trevor Schmanek, 15, and Abdur Mujahid, 16, are on the older team and came to show support. Tai Shanahan's older brother, Liam, plays on the 15- and 16-year-old team.

Schmanek, a shortstop who attends St. Joseph's Preparatory School, and Mujahid, a catcher at Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, said they were thrilled for the younger players but warned that they still face challenges.

"The first time you play after leaving the Little League field, it's like night and day," Schmanek said, noting that base runners will have to navigate more space between bases.

"What used to be a home run is now a routine fly ball. What used to be an easy steal, you're getting gunned down," Cataldi said.

Cataldi said he hopes the younger Taney players' success brings more support to his push to spruce up (or replace) regulation-size fields in the city.

"It's really hard to find them, and the ones we have are terrible," he said. "It's hard as kids get older to give them what they need. These guys play in high school, but all want to play for Taney, too."

Meanwhile, in a tent 100 yards from the stadium but galaxies away from Taney fever, about a dozen people gathered at picnic tables, engrossed in the pin trade.

Pin traders came from all over, many never walking up the hill to watch the game - Mexico, Kansas, Lancaster, and from the Williamsport Police Department (The trader was off duty.)

There were dragon pins, Orioles pins, superhero pins, pins of iPhones and animals and fairies and movie characters, and even the occasional baseball image.

Tyler Cunningham, 14, of Kansas City, hung out in the tent as his father, a photographer for ESPN, shot the games on the sunny afternoon.

Cunningham was eyeing a few USA-themed pins in Whitey Mausteller's book. Mausteller had four trading books, with 44 books he does not trade lodged safely at home - and meticulously cataloged.

"I probably have about 15,000" he said. "That's what 19 years gets you."

Mausteller planned to spend each of the remaining seven days of the tournament from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the pin tent. He won't watch a game. He can't name a Taney player. That's not why he was there.

"This is always huge for Williamsport, but this one just feels bigger," said Janet Stiger of Williamsport. "I mean, the town built new hotels to accommodate, and they're certainly using them."

Stiger, a retired nurse's aide, has attended with her daughter for 25 years: "First baseline, Row G."

Inside the stadium in the family section, pregame jitters started creeping in.

"I never knew there were 23 different types of nervous," said Erik Lipson, whose son Erik Lipson Jr. is a pitcher and first baseman for Taney. "Your body is tense, you're emotionally drained."

Joseph Richardson, whose son is first baseman Joseph Richardson Jr., was calmer. "I try to be. It doesn't always work," he said. "It's like any normal day. If you talk to them about it like it's a big thing, they can't keep as relaxed."

Quran Davis, 16, brother of Mo'ne Davis, was similarly collected. "I'm actually calm today," he said, sounding surprised. "But I am anxious for the game to start. Waiting's tough."

Moments after the victory, Keith Hendricks, father of Jahli Hendricks, reflected on what he had just seen: "Tough and gritty, those kids from the city," he said.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876

@juliaterruso

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