The summer of the Dragons

JOSEPH KACZMAREK / ASSOCIATED PRESS Taney Dragons manager Alex Rice (left) and his team talk to fans and ralliers at LOVE Park.
JOSEPH KACZMAREK / ASSOCIATED PRESS Taney Dragons manager Alex Rice (left) and his team talk to fans and ralliers at LOVE Park.
Posted: August 26, 2014

THE NEXT year of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac won't come around until 2024, but a group of kids from Taney Youth Baseball who gave a weary city hope have made this the summer of the Dragons in Philadelphia.

Hundreds of people who learned to believe in dragons this year packed LOVE Park yesterday to welcome the players and their coaches back to home plate after their run in the Little League World Series.

"We haven't been home in a long time," coach Alex Rice told the crowd. "But we felt every bit of love that you would send, wherever we were."

Taney Dragon Jared Sprague-Lott said he felt the love at LOVE Park yesterday.

"My favorite part was playing for all the fans and [being] right here today," he said.

But wait - there's more love to come. The Taney Dragons are slated to appear on the "Today" show this morning, and Mayor Nutter announced yesterday that the city will sponsor a Taney Dragons parade on Wednesday, the details of which are still to come.

On Wednesday night, the Phillies will host the Taney Dragons at Citizens Bank Park. The players will be honored before the game and all attendees will receive a Dragons shirt.

Kim Smith, mother of Taney Dragons player Kai Cummings, couldn't believe it.

"I can't even get my head wrapped all around this - and now a parade!" she said. "This is helping to soften whatever little sliver of disappointment they have left."

Ann Marie Reardon, whose son, Eli Simon, is a Taney Dragon, fought back tears of joy as she surveyed the crowd.

"This is awesome - I mean, check it out," she said, motioning to the throngs of Taney fans. "I'm really happy - happy they're coming home to this and ending on a high note, even though it's all a high note."

While on stage, the Dragons were asked to pinpoint their favorite part of the Little League World Series experience. A few said it was playing on the fields in Williamsport, because they were "so beautiful," but many said that meeting kids from other countries was the real highlight.

"My favorite experience was to be able to meet people from all over the world," said Dragons player Joe Richardson Jr. "It is probably the best experience I will have in life."

Pitching phenom Mo'ne Davis, who received chants of "Hip, hip, Mo'ne!" from the crowd, had a different answer.

"My favorite part was talking to Geno Auriemma, from UConn, the basketball coach," said Davis, who dreams of playing for the WNBA. "I'm off to a good start."

Given that these tiny sports celebrities are just local kids, many at the rally had connections to the Dragons. One said he was a player's trainer, another was a player's neighbor, but perhaps the most unexpected Taney fan at the rally was a nun.

The nun, who, in her complete modesty, declined to give her age or her name and asked simply to be referred to as "Sister of IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary)," said that player Tai Shanahan is an altar boy at her church, St. Francis De Sales, in West Philadelphia.

"I've been watching on television," she said. "They're fine young people, and we are proud of them."

Even those without a Taney connection beamed with pride.

Jared Hall, 60, of Chestnut Hill, swung his hips to the sounds of Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom," as he waved a large Taney Dragons collage he'd made by hand from newspaper clippings.

"The Taney Dragons, they are the pride of this city now," Hall said. "These young kids helped this city get in a positive light when we needed it."

Rice, the coach, said it's been "a surreal summer."

"I came up with this crazy dream to try to get to Williamsport a year, year-and-a-half ago," he said. "Most of the parents thought I was crazy and just indulged me because I think they thought I was a nice guy."

Leland Lott, the Dragons' assistant coach and father to player Jared Sprague-Lott, said that while the Dragons have "truly been ambassadors," there are many talented kids in the city who need upstanding adults to get involved and stay involved.

"Words of encouragement and praise when they are doing the right thing are more important and powerful than words of ridicule and derision when they are faltering," Lott said. "We must wake up and embrace the diversities among us and become that truly united village."

Monty Gee, an area sports fanatic who wore his Dragons T-shirt and his hat with a mechanical flying eagle on the front, said that he was proud of the Dragons for representing the entire city.

"They are a team that proves that everybody can be together - different races, personalities and genders," he said. "For them to come together and roll like they do is a great thing."

Gee, 45, of South Philly, even made up an anthem for his new favorite Philly sports team:

"The Taney Dragons they are the best.

They're the No. 1 team, better than the rest.

And we are saying it good and saying it loud.

That the Taney Dragons are making Philly proud."


 


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