Canadian Little Leaguers have a day to remember in Williamsport
Canucks upset Venezuela, meet pros, appear on ESPN's Baseball Tonight
Williamsport, Pa., is the land of baseball hyberbole, full of wonderment around every corner. All week, the Canadian players from White Rock, B.C., have described their experiences at the Little League World Series thus far as surreal, amazing and unbelievable.
Sunday was all of those things — truly the ultimate baseball day.
The day began with an unlikely 7-3 win over the favoured Venezuelan team, a country Canada has traditionally struggled against. The win had Williamsport buzzing about the boys from B.C., who are enjoying the most successful run by a Canadian team in years.
The game was played before a star-studded audience.
Midway through the game, buses carrying players from the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates arrived.
The big league teams came to tiny Williamsport to spend the day at the ballpark — mixing and mingling with players and fans — an effort by Major League Baseball to grow the game.
"It's pretty surreal. You wouldn't think they care and here they are coming out to watch us play," said Canadian player Reece Usselman.
The presence of professional players certainly didn't go unnoticed, even in the midst of competition.
"I was on the mound when they walked in and I was like, 'Oh my! The Pittsburgh Pirates are watching me pitch,'" said pitcher Reid Hefflick.
Like kids in a candy shop
The players, some of whom played in Williamsport as youngsters, couldn't contain their excitement. Immediately after the game, Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon, who pitched for Canada at the World Baseball Classic, rushed onto the field to join in the celebration.
"I'm really excited for these boys. It's a great win for team Canada, a great day for Canada," Taillon said. "It's so special to be here. Everyone's love for baseball starts at a young age and these are memories these kids will have for the rest of their lives."
He was joined on the field by Cardinals bullpen catcher and Guelph, Ont., native Jamie Pogue, who delivered an impromptu motivational talk.
"We have the games on during the day in the clubhouse and the guys are always watching and getting excited," Pogue said. "I think it brings us back to when we were kids when we played sheerly for the enjoyment and to see that on the faces of all these kids, our guys love it."
The two teams would be sticking around in Williamsport to play an actual game later in the day, the first annual MLB Little League Classic.
"Our guys are excited. There's a lot of buzz about the game tonight but I think this is the highlight of our day," Taillon said. "The game tonight is important — but the ability to come out here and meet the kids, take pictures, and hopefully make an impact on their lives and baseball careers."
Whirlwind day continues
Also joining the Canadian players on the field were members of the 1982 team from Rouyn-Noranda, who are in town celebrating the 35th anniversary of their trip to Williamsport.
"It's amazing representing Canada and being able to do something this wonderful, it's mind-blowing," Canadian outfielder Kyle Chyzowski said. "Looking around and having the team from 35 years ago down on the field congratulating you for the amazing win, it's awesome!"
The whirlwind day continued. After some pictures, the team was whisked away, instructed to walk quickly through the crowd, and warned that there was no time for autographs because the team was needed for an appearance on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, which is being broadcast live daily from the event.
"If you think about it, this will be the biggest thing that 99 per cent of them — not just our team but others here — this is as high as it will get," points out Canadian coach Keith Fluet. "Most won't play college ball or go on to represent their nations at the Olympics — this will be it for them. So [we do] as much as we can do, I'm loving it."
'The best day ever'
And the day wasn't done. To cap it all off, all of the Little League teams and their families attended a Major League game in Williamsport. The stadium, home to the local minor league team, seats only 2500 people, the smallest stadium to ever host a major league game.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Pirates and Cardinals are playing for us, that's quite the experience, " said Hefflick. "It's been an amazing day just all of those things combined, it's made for the best day ever as a baseball player."
But tomorrow, Hefflick and his teammates get back to work. On Wednesday, they'll face powerhouse Japan, with a berth in the international final on the line.
The sentiment from the Canadian players after their dream day: don't underestimate us.