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Taney Dragons still dealing with fame of Little League success

Every night, when Carter Davis closes his eyes, he entertains as sweet a vision as any 13-year-old can imagine. Davis sees himself and his Taney Dragons teammates playing baseball on a perfect summer day.

Teammates from the Taney Dragons ride a float during a parade in their honor in Philadelphia.
Teammates from the Taney Dragons ride a float during a parade in their honor in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Every night, when Carter Davis closes his eyes, he entertains as sweet a vision as any 13-year-old can imagine. Davis sees himself and his Taney Dragons teammates playing baseball on a perfect summer day.

Not just any game, but the Little League World Series. With every leathery kiss of ball to mitt, every bull's-eye pitch, every thwack of the bat, he hears the roars from adoring crowds that fill the stadium and spill out across the surrounding hills.

"Before I go to bed, that's all I think about," Carter said.

It has been 80 days since the Dragons from Philadelphia - the city's first team to ever reach the Little League World Series - ended their brilliant season, one win away from the U.S. championship game. In that time - which, for a group of seventh graders can seem like an eternity - nothing has changed, and everything has changed.

While they have resumed their normal routines - doing household chores, reading about Lewis and Clark, solving linear inequalities - the players find themselves constantly conjuring up the dream that was so unbelievably real.

"It does make it harder to focus when you relive those moments in your head," Carter said. "I wish I could do it again, but I can't and that sucks. . . . When you play on that big a stage, it sets the bar pretty high. Nothing feels the same."

The team's fame has endured, with invitations to ceremonies and banquets streaming in constantly.

Parents screen all offers, declining most, yet nearly every week, team members attend some event in which they are celebrated for exhibiting good sportsmanship, working hard, and demonstrating how people of all races and backgrounds can work together for a common goal.

The team, now represented by a public relations firm, has piled into team owner Jeffrey Lurie's box to watch the Eagles, stood beside the Phillies in Citizens Bank Park, been honored by the state NAACP, taken part in the Hands Across Philadelphia Stop the Violence March, and participated in the Liberty Medal ceremony.

On Friday, team members attended opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics. Later this month, they will lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In January, they will receive the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association's award for team of the year.

"This is the perfect level of fame," said Alison Sprague, whose husband, Leland Lott, is a Taney coach, and son, Jared, was the team's shortstop.

"They're able to have the best of both worlds. They have all these opportunities but can be anonymous, without all the celebrity hanger-on stuff."

That is less true for Taney's star pitcher, Mo'ne Davis. Over the summer, she exploded from obscurity onto the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Since then, the 13-year-old from South Philadelphia has become a bona fide A-lister.

Mo'ne has an agent and legal representation, stars in a short documentary about her young, inspiring life, and plays the leading role in a Chevrolet commercial directed by Spike Lee.

She shared the stage at the National Constitution Center with Malala Yousafzai when the Pakistani teenager (and Nobel laureate) received the Liberty Medal. When Jimmy Fallon bet Mo'ne a Philly cheesesteak if she could strike him out with a Wiffle ball, she whupped him on national TV, accompanied by her teammate and friend Scott Bandura.

This month, she will attend the Soul Train Awards in Las Vegas and will be given the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character in St. Louis.

While she zigzags across the country on weekends for appearances, Mo'ne remains a top student at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. And she helped (a bit) to write her autobiography, Mo'ne: Remember My Name, due out from Harper Collins in April.

Although the long braids that flew over her shoulder during the World Series are now long gone, Mo'ne is featured on the cover of November's issue of Teen Vogue with a single long plait draped over one shoulder.

It is a portrait of a teenager on the brink of young womanhood, innocent yet formidable, unsmiling but not cold. She wears her Mid-Atlantic baseball cap, a low-cut camisole layered over something more modest, and a raw-edged piece of cloth tied around her bicep. She appears unconcerned with her striking beauty. Her almond-shaped eyes telegraph resolve, or perhaps defiance.

Asked what it was like to pose for the magazine cover, Mo'ne shrugged. "It was cool."

A level head

Despite all of the fuss, Mo'ne remains grounded. Her teammates say that she does not act any differently than before and rarely, if ever, talks about any of her star treatment.

Those who know her best credit her levelheaded parents and her inherent modesty.

Her mother, Keisha, said the family is exhausted, but no one is complaining. Earlier concerns that Mo'ne's celebrity might compromise her eligibility to play amateur sports were settled in October when the NCAA issued a waiver, allowing her to earn money for some appearances.

Mo'ne's aspirations have not changed. She has always wanted to play basketball for the University of Connecticut. And while she has enjoyed much of the wild ride recently, she looks forward to getting back to being a "normal" kid.

Steve Bandura, Mo'ne's longtime coach and Scott Bandura's dad, said that over the last few months, he has been struck, and at times protectively annoyed, by the barrage of questions adults have fired at the girl. "They think they're going to mine pearls of wisdom from a 13-year-old."

On a recent, rainy Saturday morning, Bandura, who also coaches Mo'ne's soccer team, drove the players to a field in Northeast Philadelphia, only to find out that the game had been canceled. So he took the team to breakfast at a nearby diner.

While Mo'ne and her friends waited for a table, she hunkered under her hooded sweatshirt, playing games on a cellphone. When it came time to go into the restaurant, Bandura told them: "Put your phones away and take off your hoods." Immediately, everyone complied.

An essential piece of his coaching philosophy, shared by the rest of Taney's adults, is that sports and life are not separate. To be successful in both, children must learn to behave honorably.

When team members were thrust into the spotlight this summer, they felt an even greater responsibility to set an example.

"We had to represent," said Jared Lott. "People see African American kids, I guess, as - I don't know how to say it."

He paused, before saying, "They judge us."

Jared understands Bandura's approach. "Coach Steve wants to show that we're just the same as other people. We've always been good kids, but on television it was a good way to be recognized. To show that you just have to be the best you can and be nice."

Jared has had his share of celebrity. In October, a stranger stopped him at 12th and Locust Streets to ask, "Weren't you the shortstop?"

"It was awkward," Jared said. "But it's nice to be asked for an autograph. I'm still pretty young."

Like all his teammates, Jared is happy for Mo'ne. She has made it easy, he said, because she is so gracious, reminding everyone who showers her with praise that she would not be where she is now without her teammates.

Her fame, her friends say, is well-deserved - not only because of her otherworldly composure, 70-mile-an-hour fastball, and her status as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series - but her solid character.

"Mo'ne is like my best friend. Like my sister," Jared said. "She's a good person, a great teammate, and a historic figure."

Speaking for many of his friends, Carter Davis said he does not envy the attention Mo'ne has received, but would love to have had some of the same opportunities.

"Like throwing the first pitch at the World Series," Carter said. "Personally, I wish I had been there."

Of all the events the team attended this fall, the one that made the biggest impression was a banquet held by the Citizens' Crime Commission.

"I thought it would be a boring dinner where someone gives a three-hour lecture on the history of mold," said Kai Cummings. Instead, he and his friends listened, rapt, as Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel told them that their discipline, determination, collaboration, and sacrifice should serve as an inspiration for grown-ups.

The idea that merely playing well as a team would have such an effect surprised, touched, and confused many of the kids.

"How could that be?" asked Zion Spearman, the team's best hitter. "I'm still trying to figure it out."

Carey Davis, Carter's mother, understood the deputy commissioner's point, as well as the overall goodwill that Taney's success has engendered.

"It's like the opposite of trauma," she explained. "People connect to their story. It makes them remember the good things that have happened in their own lives."

What made the Crime Commission event even better, the players said, was that after the speeches, a DJ came out.

When everyone on the team got up to dance to the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha Cha slide, Mo'ne noticed Kai standing on the sidelines.

"I don't dance," he said.

She begged to differ, pulling him out onto the floor to join her and the others for the rest of the night.

Moving on

Several Taney players say that while they have enjoyed the limelight, they are ready for it to end.

"I want to settle down and be a regular kid, not grow up too fast," said Zion. Now in seventh grade at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, where he is playing three sports and earning excellent grades (with a minor exception in history), Zion said that, aside from the glorious memory of hitting a three-run homer during the series, what he will remember most is the pride in having worked so hard.

"I have to move on," he said. "I liked having 40,000 people cheering for me - but with 40, there's less pressure."

Erik Lipson Jr., the team's most ebullient member, has no qualms admitting that he loved being the center of attention.

"I love my fans!" Erik said, and as unabashed as he is good-natured, added that he would love to be in Mo'ne's place. "I'm jealous, jealous, jealous!"

While he is trying to top the nearly 100,000 followers Mo'ne has on Instagram, Erik has a sense of humor about the rivalry. For Halloween, he was one of two Taney players who went as Mo'ne.

Although he still hopes to play professional baseball, he has garnered fame outside sports, recording an original song, "I Love What I Do (and Do What I Love)," available on the CD Baby website.

'Like family'

Team parents are relieved to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but they miss one another and look forward to the weekly events that give them a chance to reunite.

"We are like family," said Trazanna Spearman, Zion's mother. "We support each other."

When she was ill recently and needed help, she said, the other parents took care of Zion and his twin sister. Over the fall, when Eli Simon's grandfather was hit by a car and killed crossing a street outside of Atlantic City, every family on the team called to offer condolences, and several attended the funeral.

Nearly every aspect of the experience has had instructive value for the children, Bandura said.

"You can't buy an education like this," he said at the breakfast after the rained-out soccer game.

Mo'ne was busy, stealing bites of Scott Bandura's hash browns during breaks in their running conversation about sports.

Asked how she would feel if all the publicity suddenly stopped, she said: "I'd get to do more of the stuff I want to."

And what would that be?

Looking at her friends gathered around the table, she smiled.


What's Next

The Taney Dragons will lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. In January, they will receive the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association's award for team of the year.


This article originally listed the wrong car company for the commercial that Mo'ne Davis appeared in. The commercial was for Chevrolet, not Chrysler.