PHILADELPHIA – Mo'ne Davis and her Taney Dragons have practiced under an Interstate 95 overpass. They've practiced in a flooded field they call "Shot River." They've practiced on an unkempt expanse of land that is now used for dog walking. And they've practiced on a field with a dilapidated fire engine serving as the right field wall.
"This," announces Joe Fallows as he looks out at the rusted red truck, "was a dump."
How that dump helped produce arguably the best story in sports is astounding enough. Davis, 13, just became the first girl to win a Little League World Series game, and she knocked in a run as a hitter in her team's next victory. But when you add in the trolleys, the painted horses, the hearse, and Lucky the one-eyed cat, well, you have one of the most uniquely Philadelphia stories imaginable. The Dragons are so named because all the 12-and-under Taney teams have mythical mascots. But the way the fireball-throwing Davis and these Dragons slayed all the obstacles of building an inner city Little League phenomenon is about as mythical as it gets.
Back in 2009, when Mo'ne Davis was only 9, Fallows had lunch at a South Philly restaurant called Prieto's with his boss, a man named Michael Slocum. He's an entrepreneur of sorts, the owner of the Philadelphia Trolley Works, which has given city tours since the bicentennial year of 1976. Slocum owns about 70 vehicles, from the famous trolleys to the double-decker buses, and he even helps renovate the Duck boats when they're out of service. After he finished his usual grilled chicken salad, Slocum turned to Fallows and mentioned the lot across from his office on Schuylkill Avenue, full of refuse and discarded tires. "I'm gonna fix that field," Slocum said. "I'm tired of looking at it." He got on his tractor and went to work.
It wasn't out of the ordinary for Slocum. He's a builder and a collector, with warehouses full of carousel horses, vintage sleighs, 19th century carriages (for women with "voluminous dresses"), and even the hearse used to carry fallen city firefighters and police officers to their graves. Slocum also has geese and a one-eyed cat. Adding a ball field wasn't a big deal. He figured he would allow local hotel employees to play softball there. Who cared if the outfield sloped upward and there was a broken down fire engine in right field? It's not like there would be any famous ballplayers coming to the shadows of the old steel bridges of Grays Ferry.
Not long after, elsewhere on the South side, Lou Cammisa was getting his 10-and-under Taney club ready to play a scrimmage against the Anderson Monarchs, and he noticed something odd: a girl was scheduled to pitch against his squad. Cammisa thought to himself, "Guess they don't think much of our team."
Cammisa gathered his assistant coaches and said, "If they don't respect us, we'll just play our game."
After one inning of watching the steely-eyed 10-year-old pitcher, Cammisa needed another conference with his guys. "Let's be smart out there," he said. The girl, Mo'ne Davis, was dealing.
"I have never seen a girl play like that," Cammisa says.
The insurance agent didn't watch Davis and immediately have visions of Williamsport. Not even close. A Philadelphia team had never won districts, let alone made it to the Little League World Series. Taney didn't even have a Little League charter at that time. Cammisa, who is both a coach and the Taney commissioner, has had to explain to ambitious parents (i.e. Little League Dads) that they should take their kids elsewhere if they want their sons to be fast-tracked to the majors.
"We're not built that way," he says. "We're an instructional league."
Taney's mission isn't to produce child prodigies, but rather to get 900 or so kids through the season with a healthy dose of fun and learning along the way. And the biggest challenge to that is invariably finding places to play. That's never easy when adult kickball and softball leagues have taken over the few city fields. Taney's permits run through only July, so even if Davis and the Dragons returned home from Williamsport as Little League World Series champions and scheduled a victory tour, they would have no diamond to call home. In fact, the team just lost a field, in Columbus Park, because it's being turned into a field for walkers. On Tuesday morning, a day before Davis takes the mound for the Dragons after becoming the first girl pitcher ever to win a Little League World Series game, Columbus Park was empty save for some rec soccer players. The dugout bench she once sat on is concave from years of use and weather, and it looks out onto a field with uncut grass. Cammisa says half of his players use that field every summer, and now it's unusable.
That's only one of his tales of Little League hardship. He's brought his teams to an I-95 underpass during storms, and had them play pepper with sponge balls. When one of the fields got flooded, he had parents form a human barrier out in left field to catch any balls that might be headed to the sudden pond of rainwater. Just this summer, he got a panicked call from a coach at a field at 17th and Washington. There had just been a shooting near where the kids were playing.
"Get the kids out of there!" yelled the 38 year-old insurance agent into his phone, as if he was Jack Bauer.
The Dragons haven't played on that field since.
"It's extremely difficult," Cammisa says. "We don't have our own complex. The miracle has been the support of the neighborhood."
That includes people like Steve Bandura, who founded the Jackie Robinson League in 1993 and found 7-year-old Davis when she was tossing around a football six years ago. And people like Alex Rice, the Dragons' coach, who's an architect when he isn't volunteering on the ball fields. (Cammisa and Rice have a running joke about whether they'll still have their real-world jobs when this is all over.) And Slocum, who was all too happy to offer his field to the Taney league so they had another option for a place to play. And Fallows, who has found ways to free up tour buses for $25 round-trips for fans to Williamsport. And Dennis Dinkins, who drove one of those buses last week, will drive another six-hour circuit on Wednesday for the Dragons' game against Las Vegas, and who doesn't even watch the game because he has to stay with the rig. (Dickson, on the only-somewhat-legal U-turn he made on the last trip: "Sometimes we drivers have to do what we have to do.")
None of this is to take the spotlight away from Davis. She's a star and a revelation – an inspiration for boys and girls and adults, too. "How does she stay so cool?" Cammisa marvels. "That's a question we're all trying to figure out." But the end game here was never the championship game; it was to give kids like Davis a shot to live up to the potential that is often untapped in major cities without major resources. Davis is a machine, but Taney is not. It's a bunch of Philly people who are completely committed to helping kids and completely stunned at what the kids are doing on this stage. Cammisa remembers the strange silence when the team won districts: "We were all standing around in shock. What now? Are we this good?"
It's funny to see Philly people this way. It is the seat of skepticism, the city that booed Santa Claus, the home of arguably the most jaded sports fans in America. And here they are, cooing like kids at Christmas while a 13-year-old and her teammates shoulder the load of sudden fame and glory. Fallows, a lifelong sports fan, took his kids to the Phillies championship parade in 2008 and immediately barked, "Don't expect us to do this every year." Now he's walking to the back lot of his office at the trolley depot with his daughter, Julia, pointing at a double-decker and declaring that Davis and her teammates will be sitting up there when the Dragons get their own parade.
So while in one sense, this story is more Disney than Philly, it's really Philadelphia in its essence. Cammisa remembers being befuddled when a suburban parent came up to him and said how admirable it was that he played four African-Americans in his infield. This wasn't some sort of quota at work; Cammisa had never even realized his infield was made up of African-Americans. He was too busy worrying about getting field permits and winning games to think politically. "Nobody looks at it that way," he says, still wide-eyed at the thought. Davis is one of 40 girls in the Taney baseball community; she just happens to be the best one.
Her celebrity, of course, will change everything. Cammisa is already getting emails from New Jersey and beyond, hastily written by interested parents. "They send me their kids' stats!" Cammisa says. "Who has stats at this age?" He has no idea where he'll put the current players, let alone all the new players. He's hoping to rely on the angels (and sponsors) who have saved him so far.
Mo'ne Davis is a dream come true for baseball: an African-American 13-year-old girl with a cool personality and a 70-mph heater. But this is not a dream come true for all the people who came together to create the Taney Dragons.
It's a team come true; the dream is simply what came after.
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