WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — To conclude their 11-game, 10-day, five-city East Coast odyssey of a road trip, the Mets visited a youth baseball mecca on Sunday.
The Mets beat the Phillies, 8-2, but in a week or a year or 10, they probably won’t remember the whats or the hows of the final score. They will remember the hoopla surrounding the Little League Classic and their afternoon visit to the Little League World Series.
For most of the Mets, this trip was their first to the birthplace of Little League. For Todd Frazier and Michael Conforto, it was a joyful return.
“To me, this is the purest form of baseball,” said Conforto, who played in the 2004 LLWS with Redmond, Washington. “You go back to that time when it was just playing baseball with your buddies. That’s why I say it’s the purest form of the sport, because it’s all about winning games, it’s all about leaving it all out there. At the end of the day, you’re just playing a game with your buddies.”
The unusual locale was a part of Major League Baseball’s wider effort to grow the game among younger audiences, and the big leaguers spending time with Little Leaguers was the theme of the day.
After arriving at Williamsport Regional Airport (where they were greeted by youths) and meandering through the sprawling Little League complex (where they were greeted by more youths), the Mets found themselves in a bit of a role reversal: sitting in the stands, watching the kids play.
Frazier — a star pitcher/shortstop for LLWS-winning Toms River, New Jersey, in 1998 — was the most in-demand man of the day. Surrounded by Toms River coaches and teammates celebrating the 20th anniversary of their championship, he threw out the first pitch before one of the Little League games. On the receiving end? Alfred “Big Al” Delia, a 12-year-old from New Jersey who became a viral sensation when he declared on an ESPN broadcast this month: “I hit dingers.”
When Delia met Frazier, Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Wilmer Flores and Steven Matz — who were just as excited to meet him — he made them huddle up and advised: “Boys, hit some taters tonight.” Big laughs ensued.
The visit was quite the nostalgia trip for Frazier. “It’s what kick-started me to being the baseball player I am today,” he said. “I felt like we were about to go in the dugout again today and play for a championship.”
Said Conforto: “Everybody wants that title. Todd ended up winning it. I remember being crushed that we didn’t win it.”
The actual game went smoothly for the Mets (54-69), who find themselves riding something close to a hot streak: eight wins in their past 12 games.
They played at Bowman Field — home of the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Phillies’ short-season Class A affiliate — in front of a capacity crowd of about 2,500. Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Matz spent part of the game in the stands, which were filled almost exclusively with LLWS athletes, coaches and parents. During batting practice, Staten Island’s LLWS team — which is one win away from the U.S. final — hung out by the Mets’ dugout. Manager Mickey Callaway invited the players to take batting practice at Citi Field when their season is over.
Jason Vargas took a shutout into the sixth but stumbled to a final line of 5 1⁄3 innings and two earned runs when Carlos Santana hit a two-run home run. It helped that he was able to locate his pitches for a second start in a row. “When I have success, that’s usually the recipe for it,” he said. His 99 pitches were his most in one outing in more than a year.
Amed Rosario (3-for-5, three RBIs), Jeff McNeil (two RBIs), Kevin Plawecki (three runs) and Jose Bautista (two runs) each had multiple hits.
“The day put things in perspective. Go out, watch Little League guys have fun and play the game and do it with passion. They’re not worried about anything else other than going out and playing the game,” Callaway said. “We need to realize that this is still a game. Even though we have to deal with different circumstances, it’s always just going to be a game. We have to go out there and play it the right way.”