SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Mo’ne Davis arrived for infield practice Tuesday with yet another accomplishment, having appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before entering eighth grade.
A young girl approached for an autograph, but a team official said politely, “Not right now.”
Davis apologized to the girl, saying, “Sorry.”
Later, after batting practice, Davis graciously signed T-shirts, balls, even drinking cups for a gaggle of children. Kayla Nothstein, 10, who had been rebuffed earlier, smiled and said, “I’m happy.”
Two months after her 13th birthday, Davis has become perhaps the most captivating athlete in the United States. Like a Brazilian soccer player, she needs only one name to be recognized. She is only the 18th girl to have played in 68 years of the Little League World Series and the first female pitcher to have thrown a shutout.
Davis will pitch again Wednesday for the Taney Dragons of Philadelphia against a power-hitting team from Las Vegas. Attention from the public and the news media has been enormous and ceaseless. Davis is driving the ratings for ABC and ESPN during the series and, as of Tuesday, had been featured atop the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer for five consecutive days. Her following on Twitter and Instagram has ballooned.
“She’s the most talked-about baseball player on earth right now,” said Mark Hyman, an author and an assistant professor of sports management at George Washington University who has written three books about youth sports. “More people are talking about her than Derek Jeter. That’s a lot for a 13-year-old kid.”
Davis’ coaches have begun to try to ease pressure and expectation, striking a balance between making her available to tell her engaging story and protecting her so that she can enjoy herself while trying to help her team win a championship.
The number of interviews Davis gives has been limited. And when she attends a game as a fan, she is kept somewhat isolated and generally does not sign autographs or pose for photographs, said Pete Lupacchino, a volunteer host of the Taney Dragons.
At times, Davis has been transported in a golf cart to get her through throngs of autograph seekers and well-wishers. And she is staying in a house instead of the dormitories that house the Little League teams, with Emma March of Canada, the other girl in the tournament, as a roommate.
“We want her to be able to relax and have fun,” Lupacchino said. “I give her all the credit in the world. For somebody who is 13 years old and has been as composed as she is, that’s really amazing.”
After a late-afternoon radio interview Monday, Davis seemed tired, said Steve Bandura, who has coached her since she was seven on a travel team in Philadelphia. The news media requests were “wearing her out,” Bandura said. “What else can she say? She’s 13, and everybody is asking the same questions.”
Yet Tuesday, Davis joined teammates for interviews with ESPN and BET. And she spoke with a small group of reporters after practice, seeming as unperturbed as she has been on the mound, in the field and at the plate.
Asked if she was enjoying herself, Davis said: “Yes I am. Sometimes it gets annoying, but I am enjoying it.”
Davis said that at times, when an adult approached her alone for an autograph, it “kind of creeps me out a little bit.” But it helped, she said, that her coaches have repeatedly told her, “Say no if you want” to requests from the news media and the public.
Asked about her reaction to appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Davis said in her usual low-key manner: “I don’t know. Kind of surprised, but I mean, it was fun.”
She seemed more surprised that basketball stars like Kevin Durant and Magic Johnson had mentioned her on Twitter and that Geno Auriemma, coach of the Connecticut women’s basketball team, had given her a phone call. In his garrulous manner, Davis said, Auriemma told her to keep up the good work and “get more hits.”
Davis, who is 5-foot-4 and weighs 111 pounds, has repeatedly said her dream is to play basketball at UConn. If she ever appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated again, she said, “Hopefully, it’ll be me in a UConn jersey.”
A generation ago, said Rick Wolff, a sports psychologist and radio host who studies the psychological pressures of competition, there would have been a debate about whether it was proper to give so much attention to young athletes like Davis.
But her emergence comes at a time when youth sports have grown increasingly professionalized. Girls now sometimes accept scholarship offers to play college soccer, for instance, before entering ninth grade.
For youths who have grown up with television and the explosion of social media, Wolff said, “it’s as natural as breathing.” At the same time, he added, “I’m sure no one expected this explosion of media attention. You don’t want it to get out of hand where it becomes a distraction. You’ve got to use common sense.”
Wolff went on: “This is a lot of pressure to put on a 13-year-old kid. We like to pretend Little League baseball is the same as the major leagues. It’s not. What if she disappoints or disappears from the face of the earth and is relegated to the whatever-happened-to columns? How do you deal with that?”
Alex Rice, who is manager of the Taney Dragons and whose son, Jack, is an infielder, said his players were “completely enjoying themselves” and were not overwhelmed by the attention, only mildly bothered at having to give interviews when they would rather be swimming or playing video games.
“This is what we signed up for,” Rice said.
Erik Lipson, 12, a first baseman and relief pitcher for the Philadelphia team, happily talked to anyone who would listen during batting practice.
“I’m an autograph-type person,” he said with a smile.