WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — Mike Matheny took a moment to look around the Lamade Stadium bleachers and was transported back in time.
The sights reminded him of his childhood when the Cardinals manager idolized big leaguers just like the hundreds of Little Leaguers stretched out before him Sunday in seats beside their major league counterparts do. Hours later, St. Louis and Pittsburgh played in the Little League Classic just a few miles away.
“Our guys loved interacting with the kids,” Matheny said. “It was kind of a throwback to when our guys were Little League players.”
Matheny enjoyed watching the faces of the kids who’ve come from all regions of the world and the United States to chase a Little League World Series championship. He remembered being in awe of one of his heroes, Cardinals legend Stan Musial, and figured his experience was similar to those of the youngsters on hand Sunday.
But Matheny was a professional by the time he met Musial and not nearly as impressionable as the 9- to 12-year-olds who exchanged hats, autographs, laughs, pictures and watched second-round Little League World Series games together for most of the afternoon.
“Watching how (Musial) interacted, not just with me but with other people, it made a lasting impact on me,” Matheny said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be done. And I would hope that some of the interactions with the kids today with a couple of the players is something that will stick with them.”
The Pirates beat the Cardinals 6-3 later Sunday night as Josh Bell homered and drove in four runs.
The pregame experience will stay with Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for sure.
Hurdle, who joked that he hadn’t ever signed as many autographs in the bathroom, grinned widely when he walked off the field during batting practice as players from the Latin America and Mid-Atlantic teams lined the backstop fence, watching intently.
“All the smiles,” Hurdle said. “The faces of the kids. It’s just a youthful enthusiasm everywhere you turn.”
It got started early, carried through the afternoon and up to first pitch when the 2,366-seat Bowman Field was packed with Little Leaguers — decked out in their colorful World Series jerseys — and their parents.
They arrived at a local airport to greet both the Cardinals and Pirates and exchanged gear and took some pictures. From there, they made their way to Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums to watch the Little League World Series games which will conclude with the championship game on Aug. 27.
After those games wrapped, players and fans began the six-mile trip to Bowman Field, where a dike meant to protect the 91-year-old stadium from the nearby Susquehanna River, was lined with fans and folding chairs to hold spots hours before the game.
Just before the game, competing Little League teams in Williamsport were introduced and a player from each team participated in a relay to home for the first pitch.
“I have a lot of great days in my job, a lot of great days,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Today, even before we get to the major league game, has been one of the absolute best.”
Major League Baseball invested $1.5 million to help renovate the ballpark ready for the game. Work began in early March and was completed before the local short season Class A Williamsport Crosscutters began play in June.
Manfred expressed hope that the first Little League Classic would not be the last and said he’d like to use other teams.
The Crosscutters are an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and Manfred said using them would “make some sense.”
“I hope it’s not a one-off,” Manfred said. “We have some details that we need to work out to get us in a position to do it again next year, but I’m really hopeful that that’s going to be the case and I’m also hopeful that it’s not just next year. I think there’s a relationship here with Little League that is really important to growing the game.”