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Perspective | As Little Leaguers and big leaguers trade places, the dog days turn magical

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — For the rest of his life, Nate Hellberg will have the bottom of the fifth inning Sunday afternoon at Lamade Stadium. Tying run on second, two outs, two strikes, the fans above the first base dugout growing raucous.

“I was trying to block it out and just think, ‘Stay up the middle,’ ” Hellberg said. “I thought he would throw me a curveball, and he threw me a fastball. And I kind of was just thinking, ‘Two strikes.’ It worked out.”

Hellberg is 12. When he lined that fastball back up the middle, Christian Nunez scored from second base. Hellberg arrived at second and pumped his right fist with his whole body behind it. When he turned to his dugout, the stands above it pulsed with the fans of the Little League team from Media, Pa. — none more enthusiastically than Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber, real-life Philadelphia Phillies.

“I mean, it was so cool,” Harper said later. “To be in there with the fans, to see the kids, to feel their excitement, it’s what it’s all about. Loved it.”

In so many ways, this is the toughest part of the major league season — 120-something games in, 40 or so to go. If it feels endless, it’s often August.

So leave it to kids to inject life into it all. Major League Baseball doesn’t get everything right. Far from it. But it nails the Little League Classic. Flip-flop the kids to the field and the players to the stands, and there’s your instant energy, injected back into the summer.

“I know it’s a long day for both teams,” Washington Nationals first baseman Dominic Smith said. “But I think when we see the kids, it kind of makes it worth it. It’s a tremendous opportunity to see the kids competing, and it’s just neat to interact with them, their families. It’s great to see the direction the game is headed.”

Instant perspective. Let’s be honest: Big leaguers are living the dream, but in the midst of slumps and travel and struggles on and off the field, they can lose sight of that. Sunday is an annual reminder. Yes, the teams spent Saturday night in Washington before taking separate flights here Sunday. They were greeted by Little Leaguers on the tarmac and then rode with them to Lamade Stadium.

“They were asking everything,” Nationals right-hander Josiah Gray said.

“They were very — intimidated,” Manager Dave Martinez said.

We’ll get back to the game between Media and a team from Smithfield, R.I. The day that began in Washington for the Nationals and Phillies also included a major league game — one attended only by the Little Leaguers and their families, which makes it special, but one that counts in the standings, which means it matters. That’s particularly true for the Phillies, who lead the National League wild-card race. The trek wasn’t scheduled to conclude until the Nats had flown to New York for a day off before a series with the Yankees and the Phillies had jetted home for a Monday game with the San Francisco Giants.

“Should the teams that play in this game have an off day after it? Sure,” Harper said. “So maybe tweak the schedule. But today is not about us. It’s about the kids. And it should be.”

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There is real connectivity here. The Nationals arrived at the Little League game first, and they were mobbed as they entered the stadium — right as Smithfield and Media were engaged in a tense elimination game. (Here’s a chant rarely heard in 2023: “Mee-dee-uh! Mee-dee-uh!” I admit I turned my head more than once.)

Given that so much of ESPN’s August programming comes from the Little League World Series, Lamade Stadium feels familiar even to those who have never been. The realization upon arrival: It’s better.

“It blew me away,” Martinez said. “It really did. TV doesn’t do it any justice as to what it really is. I was amazed — almost forgot all this right here,” he said, looking around at the media assembled for his pregame Q&A session, indicating a big league game was afoot. “It was all about baseball and passion and watching the kids play with heart. That’s what it’s all about.”

By the time the Phillies arrived, the Nats had scattered throughout the park. Smith and Gray joined teammates CJ Abrams, Alex Call and Jeter Downs in climbing to the top of the grass hill that towers past the outfield wall. Kids spend hours there during games sliding down on collapsed cardboard boxes.

“One of the kids on the bus asked me if I was going to do it,” Gray said. “I was like, ‘Why not?’ ”

“Had to,” Smith said. “Had to.”

And so there they were, major league players playing kids’ games on a summer Sunday afternoon. Smith tumbled off his cardboard before he got to the bottom, but no big leaguers were harmed during the execution of this stunt.

“There go my knuckleheads,” Martinez said.

What’s not to like? So back to the game. No, not the big league game — which was held across town at Bowman Field, which has hosted minor league baseball for nearly a century — but the Media-Smithfield barnburner. The Phillies barreled through the crowd along the third base line as fans pulled at them, asking for selfies and autographs, autographs and selfies. There was hardly room to move, to breathe. It was awesome.

“Crazy,” Turner said. “Just crazy.”

By the time of Hellberg’s at-bat in the fifth, Harper, Turner and Schwarber had posted up in Row D above the dugout. Harper pumped his fist when the team from Media, a Philadelphia suburb that sits just 15 miles west of Citizens Bank Park, recorded a big out. And when Hellberg shot that tying hit up the middle, there were the Phillies, wearing their jerseys in the stands, with full-throated roars for Hellberg, signaling to him at second as if they were in the dugout and he was a Phillies teammate.

“I didn’t see them,” Hellberg said.

He has seen the video since. He’ll have it forever.

“It’s so cool,” he said. “So cool.”

Alas, Media allowed five runs in the sixth, and its Little League World Series run ended. Hours later, before the Nats and Phillies took to a regulation diamond, Hellberg was beaming nonetheless. A 12-hour visit to the middle of Pennsylvania in the middle of the season could easily be interpreted as an inconvenience or an annoyance. It was neither. It was a reminder that at some point — before the call-ups and the contracts, the stress and the strain — they just played this game with their buddies, pumping their fists in a big moment, regardless of whether they realized Bryce Harper was pumping his fist right back at them.



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