A day in the life of Mo'ne Davis, reluctant cover girl

Taney's Mo'ne Davis listens to a question on the ESPN set. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Taney's Mo'ne Davis listens to a question on the ESPN set. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 21, 2014

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - At first, she tried to disguise herself by wearing a hoodie, but her hazel eyes and iconic braids were a dead giveaway.

She has her own escort now, a driver who ferries her around the Little League complex in a golf cart. It's the only way she can move about without being mobbed.

Sometimes she just wants to watch some of the other players play, but even that is difficult when you're the cover girl, Mo'ne Davis, the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series, and the most recognizable face on a dream roster of smart, fearless kids from Philadelphia.

So she stops and signs the autographs, agrees with a quiet sigh to almost every interview, when you know she would really rather hang with her team.

"There's some downsides of it," she says of her recent celebrity, those eyes cast downward in the dugout. She's polite. But a week of nonstop requests from fans and reporters can be draining for a 13-year-old.

The question she is most tired of answering: "How does it feel to be a girl playing baseball?"

Davis pitches her toughest game of the series on Wednesday against a Las Vegas team. Win, and Taney goes for the U.S. championship, and the attention gets even more intense - if that's even possible.

Sitting in his hotel lobby, 20 miles from the stadium, Davis' stepfather takes a phone call.

"Are you serious?" asks Mark Williams, who has been part of the family since Mo'ne was 6.

On the phone is coach Steve Bandura, whose son Scott plays for Taney. The girl, he says, will be on the cover of the next Sports Illustrated.

The first Little Leaguer ever.

Williams shakes his head, drags a hand over his face, and smiles. This is the same girl who used to cry when her mother braided her long hair at age 6; whom he took to Dick's to buy her first bat at age 10; and who now, barely a teenager, has a deep love of basketball shoes.

Now there are Sports Illustrated, e-mails from eager screenwriters, and calls from University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who heard Davis express interest in playing on his team someday.

"She handles it so well," Williams says. "I'm speechless sometimes. I just want her to have fun and for this to be something for her to remember always."

It would be hard not to. Celebrities from LeSean McCoy to Michelle Obama have tweeted to her. Bookers from national television dial her cellphone. Her Instagram account - and a knock-off - have pulled in nearly 20,000 followers each.

To shield her from the circus, Williams hangs onto her blue iPhone 5 during the tournament. It buzzes and rings like a restaurant pager, friends from home sending text messages of encouragement, callers unknown trying to get a hold of the rising eighth grader.

Most experiences, he says, have been welcome. But the family senses it must be more careful now. Last week, Williams listened to a television cameraman outside the stadium interviewing a stranger who claimed to be a member of Davis' family.

"I was so mad, I stood there, like, 'OK, do I go over there now, or do I wait?' "

He waited, hoping the interview was not live. Then he walked over to the cameraman and introduced himself. The impostor - a Philadelphian - apologized.

"It's an experience," Williams says.

He works in construction, but has been able to stay in Williamsport because of a herniated disk, so he can't work right now.

Davis' mother, Lakeisha McLean, went back to Philadelphia for a few days of work with autistic children, but will return for Wednesday's game.

While Mo'ne is the cover girl, Taney is clearly a team. When the parents came to Williamsport, they decided there would be no individual names on T shirts. On the back of each shirt is printed the entire roster.

That has not stopped some knock-off "Go Mo!" shirts from traveling up from Philadelphia. And it has not quieted the thunderous applause when she is announced at games.

In Williamsport, seasoned reporters stumble over their words talking to her. When the team went out to dinner with parents Tuesday night, the chef asked for a picture just with Mo'ne. At practices, girls press their faces up to the fence to get a closer look.

Hope Blasko, 10, had a look of wonder as Davis crouched in catcher's equipment on Monday. "It's awesome," Blasko said, brushing her blond hair out of her eyes in excitement. "Just watching her, you know?"

She has attracted some fans who made headlines in their own times.

Maime "Peanut" Johnson was the first woman to play in the Negro baseball leagues. From 1953 to 1958 she pitched with the Indianapolis Clowns, winning 33 games and losing eight before retiring from baseball to become a nurse and raise a family.

"I think the world of her," Johnson said Tuesday from her home near Washington. "And I am so, so proud of her, because that's me all over again. That's my reincarnation."

Johnson drove up to watch Davis in Friday's game, wiping away tears as Mo'ne's pitches hit 70 m.p.h. on the radar gun.

She played with Hank Aaron, and said he and the rest of her teammates treated her with "all the respect in the world. I played with a bunch of gentlemen."

Johnson, 78, said she hopes to make the four-hour drive one more time if Taney makes it to the national championship game. "You have to prove yourself when you're doing something that's not ordinary," she said. "No matter what happens, she's done that."

Six decades before Davis picked up a glove, Kathryn Johnston Massar was the first girl to play in a Little League game in 1950.

"Honestly, I think the progress has been rather slow," Massar said after throwing out the first pitch at a Little League game Monday night. "She may help stimulate more interest."

Massar had to cut off her pigtail braids and wear her brother's clothes to make the Kings Dairy team in Corning, N.Y. She called herself "Tubby" after a comic she liked to read. When she later revealed she was a girl, the league created a rule banning girls from playing. The "Tubby rule," as it was known, would stand for 24 years.

Mo'ne Davis stays in a house separate from her teammates, with a second female player - Emma March of Canada - but really just goes there to sleep. In her off hours she likes playing table tennis with the guys in dorms, situated high above the chaos below.

Her plan Wednesday is to zero in on her catcher and the strike zone, and ignore those who will fix on her every pitch.

All the attention means that Davis does not get to experience what Josh Lupacchino - one of the volunteer "uncles" assigned to guide the players - calls "the true Little League Baseball World Series."

Lupacchino can sense that being the focus is not her style. He marvels how she handles it. "She's just not the type, from knowing her the last five days, that likes the big crowd," he says. "She feels everything's about her and she feels without these 11 boys, she wouldn't be here. She's a bright girl."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876

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