A 13-year-old girl blessed with charisma, confidence, and, as the ace of her baseball team, a repertoire of pitches even a Red Sox pitcher might want to borrow every fifth day?
It’s Mo’ne Davis’s story, of course, and it’s now as familiar as it is irresistible. The lanky, bright-eyed righthander for Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons has used her 70-mile-per-hour fastball and quickness with a quip — she’s noted that her “curveball is like Clayton Kershaw’s and her fastball is like Mo’ne Davis’s” — to emerge as a genuine phenomenon at this year’s Little League World Series.
At this place and time, she’s a full-fledged media star, fan favorite — and even a ratings draw.
ESPN’s coverage of Taney’s 8-1 loss to Las Vegas Wednesday — a game started by Davis — was the highest-rated Little League World Series game in network history, earning a preliminary 3.4 rating.
The numbers were particularly huge in the cities with a rooting interest, drawing a 16.3 in Las Vegas and a 14.9 in Philadelphia.
ESPN recognized Davis’s appeal before ratings confirmed it. And the network has not been bashful about emphasizing it.
Davis, who pitched a shutout in Taney’s Little League World Series-opening win against Nashville, sat with ESPN’s Karl Ravech for SportsCenter’s longstanding “Sunday Conversation,’’ which is typically a spot for a news-making, established superstar, not a middle school student.
ESPN is hardly alone in seizing on her compelling success. This week, there she is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first Little Leaguer to draw the honor.
Davis has been featured on the usual morning shows and evening news programs. Her pitching mechanics were the subject of an ESPN “Sports Science” breakdown.
Perhaps most impressively — or bewilderingly — a signed Mo’ne Davis baseball went for $510 Wednesday on eBay.
It’s heady stuff, and there’s value in her instant fame: At 13, she’s already a role model to younger girls. She’s inspiring the next Mo’ne Davis, perhaps a generation of Mo’ne Davises.
Still, despite her uncommon poise and talent, there are moments where an observer can’t help but wonder if the coverage is a little too much.
The Ravech interview was fun and as expertly executed as one would expect, but it was accompanied by a nagging feeling: Does giving these kids big league coverage also burden them with big league pressures? What happens to a 13-year-old when the spotlight goes away?
It does not require a deep plunge into various forms of social media to find crudeness and cruelty directed Davis’s way. You hope she’s sheltered from that and her star turn in Williamsport serves as a confidence-building experience that inspires her to even greater achievements in life.
Davis has generated the most buzz at the Little League World Series since the infamous Danny Almonte controversy in 2001. That story — a tall, skinny lefthander from the Bronx pitches a perfect game in his first start and continues dominating until it’s revealed, to the surprise of few, that he’s actually 14 years old — remains familiar.
Almonte, who perhaps not coincidentally is the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” film this week, is a college graduate who seems well-adjusted at age 27. But he also is aware that he’s the prime illustration of parents and coaches living vicariously through the feats of kids — and worse, weighting them with the burden of fulfilling their own abbreviated dreams and expectations.
That remains perhaps the fundamental problem in youth sports. There is little doubt that ESPN’s enhancement of Williamsport’s importance contributes to a culture in which a fledgling athlete’s achievements and disappointments can define them rather than inspire them.
Which is why Davis’s success was not the lone encouraging and heartwarming story to emerge from the Little League World Series — and it may not offer the most important lesson, either.
Dave Belisle is well-known in New England hockey circles. For more than three decades, he’s helped his father, Bill, steer Mount St. Charles Academy’s exceptional program, which has sent the likes of Bryan Berard, Mathieu Schneider, and Garth Snow to the NHL and dozens more players to various collegiate hockey outposts.
Belisle’s people skills with young athletes heightened his profile beyond what he could have ever imagined. And for all the right reasons.
In the moments after his Cumberland American Little League team, New England’s representative, had been eliminated from Williamsport Monday, Belisle gathered his players, many in tears, around him.
Rather than dwelling on details of the one-run loss, Belisle lauded his players with the reassuring leadership and grace every youth coach should have and too few do.
He never mentioned the loss. He mentioned all they had gained.
The whole scene, this impromptu, authentic lesson in what being a youth coach really means, was captured by ESPN’s cameras. Thank goodness that it was.
“You had the whole place jumping,’’ lauded Belisle in a New England accent that would stump Hollywood’s finest actors. “You had the whole state jumping! You had New England jumping! You had ESPN jumping! . . . We’re one of the best teams in the world. Think about that for a second — the world!”
Belisle then called his players in for a group hug. There did not appear to be a conscientious objector in the bunch, presumably a rarity among a pack of 12- and 13-year-old boys.
“I love you guys,’’ he said. “I’m going to love you forever. You’ve given me the most precious moment of my athletic and coaching career, and I’ve been coaching a long time. I’m getting to be an old man, I need memories like this, I need kids like this. You’re all my boys. You’re the boys of summer.”
A Little League coach with extraordinary perspective and all the right words in the face of disappointment? That’s almost as amazing a discovery by ESPN as Mo’ne Davis, baseball’s girl of summer.