Hardest pressure to face comes from within

Posted: August 22, 2014

AS MANY AS 35,000 people trekked to see the latest episode in Taney Little League's destiny run last night, fueled by ESPN's blanket coverage and the appearance of star pitcher Mo'ne Davis on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, and fueling further adulation and, yes, unease.

The concern that this is too much too soon is well-meant. But if I've learned anything as a parent helping to raise three children to adulthood, it is that as much pressure is felt during an untelevised regional spelling bee or debate at that age as there is a televised game. Taney kids included, the kids in Williamsport overwhelmingly think the whole ESPN overkill is a hoot, and while watching a kid pitch his way through trouble with tears streaming down his face is an uneasy televised moment, it is how some kids that age, including my own, handle their emotions.

It's not a stretch to call it a coping mechanism. Hell, I can remember Hall of Famer Wade Boggs in the dugout bawling his eyes out after the Mets came back against the Red Sox in that epic 1986 World Series.

If anything, the Taney kids are living that charmed life awarded to those who compete without the weight of expectations, ours and their own. That pressure comes in all shapes and sizes and is more often an internal product rather than an external one. Ray Knight once said that the art of hitting was the ability to think of nothing. And while young Miss Davis has certainly delighted us all with her thoughts, my guess is she will look back on this stretch of her life in a few short years and channel her inner Steve Urkel with the question he made famous:

"Did I do that?"

Two hours to the southeast of Taney's fluffy ride in Williamsport, though, another pitcher operates inside of a much darker cloud. Jesse Biddle's latest setback is a strained right quadriceps, but after a summer in which he was concussed by a hailstorm and struggled so much afterward, it required a mental health sabbatical, a baseball-related injury must almost seem like a relief. Biddle had dominated in his one start in Clearwater before scuffling through 3 2/3 innings in Saturday's start for Reading, but the bigger story was just that he was out there again battling against hitters.

Biddle is 22, the Phillies' top pick in 2010, and the plan is still to have him, Aaron Nola and Cole Hamels form the core of the Phillies' rotation of the future. But like so much of the Phillies' blueprint lately, that plan is more hope than science, its future tied to how well both Biddle and Nola handle the expectations that always accompany a high draft pick.

"To be honest, I liked being the one whom everybody had eyes on," Ben Davis, the Comcast SportsNet commentator and former No. 2 overall pick, said yesterday. "The fear of failure really motivated me."

A catcher with a big bat and big arm, Davis was selected by the Padres out of Malvern Prep in the 1995 draft, 15 places ahead of Roy Halladay. He played for three teams in the majors and had his moments. But it's fair to say his career didn't pan out as well as he hoped it would, although, as he points out, "not from any lack of effort." In fact, in an attempt to return to the big leagues, Davis attempted to reinvent himself as a relief pitcher.

"I know Doc has talked to Jesse," Davis said, which is true. So has Jamie Moyer. "Look at all the things Doc went through. He was in the big leagues with a ballooning ERA, they sent him to A ball. He went back down there and figured it out and became a Hall of Fame pitcher, at least in my view."

Halladay was 24 when the Blue Jays demoted him from their big-league club all the way to Class A ball, and he emerged the next season as the steely-eyed starter he became for the rest of his career. The Phillies would love it if Biddle's rough road at 22 ultimately creates the same resolve, but that will be determined more by the pressures from within than any from the outside.

Until that fateful day in 2010 when he was drafted 27th overall by the Phillies out of Germantown Friends, Biddle played the game because he loved it and he was good at it.

As Mo'ne and her Taney teammates are likely to tell you a few years from now, the hardest part about getting older is remembering that.

Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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