On Wednesday morning, Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy coaches Mason Isom and DeAndre Walker set off for Williamsport, Pa., along with four kids from the program, which opened in March. Their objective? See 13-year-old phenom and Sports Illustrated cover star Mo’ne Davis pitch in the Little League World Series.
“Our kids inadvertently came up with the idea,” said Isom, who proposed and planned the trip in about a day. “Our summer program ended three weeks ago, but we’ve been doing some skills training with those that are most interested in the game. Our kids have been talking about Mo’ne and the Little League World Series, and with it being only a four-hour drive, I saw an opportunity.”
The four kids out of 108 in the program who were chosen to make the academy’s first overnight trip — 9-year-olds Naaji Brown, Kevin Anderson and Duane Dargin, and 11-year-old Martazz Matthews — were selected based on a conversation with academy coaches.
“We thought about those kids who were most passionate about the game, who had been really involved in watching and discussing the Little League World Series, and who would have the most capacity to understand what was going on,” said Isom, who is the academy’s lead coach and hopes to be able to take more kids on similar trips in the future. “Most of the kids in the program are just discovering the game. It’s a basketball and football city. We’re hoping to change that little by little.”
The group arrived at the stadium around 2 p.m. and watched the end of the South Korea-Japan game from a spot on a hill beyond the outfield fence. Isom said he was hesitant to explore the stadium with the kids out of fear that they would lose their spot for Davis’s start later that night. A few text messages back-and-forth between Isom’s contact with the Nationals and MLB commissioner-elect Rob Manfred, who attended Wednesday’s games in Williamsport, resolved that issue. The kids were given seats near the right field foul pole, spent some time on the field and met Manfred.
“Obviously he’s a pretty busy guy and it’s great that he showed up to throw out the first pitch,” Isom said. “It’s kind of his first major appearance since the announcement and I think it’s a sign that he’s really invested in youth baseball. He was very cordial and really good with the kids, even though they didn’t quite know who he was.”
The kids had the opportunity to meet Davis before her start, but politely declined.
“We wanted to give her her space,” Isom said. “She’s an exceptional pitcher and it’s important for a pitcher to zone in.”
Davis, the first female pitcher to win a game at the Little League World Series, struggled Wednesday in front of a crowd of more than 30,000. She struck out six, but allowed three runs and six hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 8-1 loss to Mountain Ridge (Nevada). After talking to his kids about what Davis meant to her team and community on the drive up to Williamsport, Isom said her tough outing was a main topic of discussion on the ride home. (The group spent Wednesday night in Harrisburg before completing their return to D.C. on Thursday morning.)
“It was a tough loss because they were cheering really well for Mo’ne,” Isom said. “The umpire had missed a couple of calls and they felt the injustice that one feels when calls don’t go your way. That made it a better teaching moment for us because baseball gives you that failure so often. Our kids were angry, hurt and sad, and we were able to reflect on that. Sometimes we can’t control what happens. We’ve practiced how to strike out the right way. Sometimes you strike out because you didn’t hit the ball. Sometimes you strike out on a pitch at your chin. There’s a lot of things you can’t control. The experience was great there, but I think having the interaction on the drive was probably the most positive part of the experience for us.”