August 20, 2014

I just can't wait -- and neither can most of Philadelphia. This afternoon, there's a heavy storm moving through the stadium area and hopefully the ground crew can keep it together.

There's been an avalanche of publicity this past week, and that's a lot of pressure for a bunch of young kids. I'm not kidding when I say I'm thrilled they got this far. But I'd be very happy to see the Taney Dragons go all the way:

What it has been is a Philadelphia sports happening of strange and wondrous proportions. A team of sunny little kids is doing what's been done only on the rarest of occasions around here – charm a city with perpetual 5 o'clock shadow.

Taney is so different from your typical suburban youth baseball cabal with green space as limitless as its expendable income. It has been carved out of corners of city blocks along the southern edge of Philadelphia from the Schuylkill Expressway to the Italian Market District.

It is multicultural in every way, crossing boundaries of ethnicity, income and yes, you may have heard, even gender. It's best pitcher and maybe player is a 13-year-old girl just placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the precocious and prodigious Mo'ne Davis.

The neighborhoods Taney calls its home range from the hipsters of Fitler Square to the tidy flower-boxed row homes handed down from one Italian family to the next. In one block, you'll see a burqa-clad woman with kids in tow, a backpack-burdened Penn student and some guy carting crates of processed meats out the back of a panel truck.

Taney's team reflects that diversity. To hear 38-year-old former Temple baseball player Cammisa tell it, the late Hyland set the template for it all beginning 20 years ago, way before Taney went after Little League glory. Back then, Cammisa says, it was just a way to show kids they were cared about and to teach them all a great game.

"Bob Hyland did not found this league. But, you ask anybody, he's the trademark of it. He was a spit-talking, cursing-every-other-word character who foremost loved the kids and loved watching them play."

Unlike some leagues where the not-so-talented kids only get in two innings every six-inning game, Taney made sure all its players batted throughout every game and fielded at least every other inning.

"So, there's no chance you come to watch your kid play and he sits the bench for four innings and bats once," said Cammisa. "That's why our numbers at Taney are over 900 where other leagues are 200.

The huge tract of land Little League awarded Taney in its first charter two year ago – basically the entirety of Center City – doesn't hurt, either. But the evidence bears out Cammisa when he says: "We want inclusion, we want kids to have fun, we want their summers to be active and we want them to learn something."

Clearly, manager Alex Rice's team has learned plenty. It's a fundamentally sound team that does not bow heads when it's down, that picks each other up and generally is embodied by its goofy, smiling, braces-wearing pitcher Erik Lipson.

That mix of charm and tenacity has sold a city not easily moved.

No one has a better gauge on the pulse of Philadelphia sports and the city's attention than the two afternoon sports talk hosts, Rob Ellis of WIP and Mike Missanelli of 97.5 The Fanatic. If there is heat on a topic, they hear it every day.

"This thing has galvanized the city like a championship run," said Ellis on Tuesday during a commercial break. "It's very rare that anything this time of year can break through the Eagles. This has absolutely busted through."

Ellis estimated 25-to-30 percent of his calls the last few days have been about Taney. In this town, that is truly mind-boggling.

Taney Dragons play Las Vegas tonight at 7:30 pm EST on ESPN.

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