The top feel-good story across America last year arguably was the success of a Little League baseball team featuring a girl pitcher that came so very close to winning the world championship. Their coach didn't just manage the Taney Dragons' superb execution on the field. Under his leadership, the Taney kids became a unifying force in a town too easily divided by race, income, and attitudes. For that gift to Philadelphia, Alex Rice is being named The Inquirer's 2014 Citizen of the Year.
Rice, 45, has loved baseball ever since he was a little boy growing up in Boston, where his family bled Red Sox. "I was that kid whose life revolved around baseball," Rice said. "When I was about 6, I was visiting a friend who had to go to baseball practice, and I asked if I could go too. And that was it. It's been a love affair ever since."
The baseball gene must run in the family. It wasn't long after Rice and his wife, Pamela, had their first child, Jack, that they had the toddler playing with bats and balls. When he turned 6, they decided Jack was ready for a team. "We took him to try out for T-ball, but they put him on a hardball team," Rice said. "They needed a coach, so I became his coach, and have coached each team as he has advanced to a higher age group."
Jack, 13, a student at Masterman, became one of the Dragons' best players, along with his best friend, Jared Sprague-Lott. "By the time Jack and Jared were 9, it was evident they were playing better than boys two years older, and they got better," Rice said. With Jared and Jack as the nucleus, the Little League team competed for championships and attracted other good players, including pitching phenom Mo'ne Davis, who was playing at nearby Marian Anderson Recreation Center. "Marian Anderson is just three blocks from Taney, so I'd been watching her play for years," Rice said.
Rice, an architect for Archer & Buchanan, has a long-standing relationship with Marian Anderson rec center director Steve Bandura, who coaches the Anderson Monarchs. Jack and several Dragons play on the Monarchs as well. The coaches could tell the Taney team was special. "It was like the perfect storm created this team. The kids came from six different schools and very different backgrounds," Rice said.
He said he and Bandura, who also coaches Philadelphia's team in Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) youth league, believed the Dragons were capable of more than winning baseball games. "Our dream was to get to the nationals and dispel some of the stereotypes about city kids, about minority kids," Rice said. "It wasn't just about baseball; we wanted to show people that these kids could succeed at a high level when given the resources to do so."
To get to the Little League World Series, the Dragons first had to win the state tournament, held at Skippack. "There were no African American kids on any other team except ours," Rice said. But he said the Dragons had become accustomed to hearing whispers about "that city team" when they played at suburban ball fields. It didn't rattle them.
The Dragons came from behind to beat Collier Township for the state championship. Then it was on to Bristol, Conn., where they beat a Delaware team to win the Mid-Atlantic Region championship and advance to the World Series. There, they made it to the semifinals but lost a heartbreaker to Jackie Robinson West of Chicago, another largely black team that was later stripped of its victories for using ineligible players.
It almost didn't matter that the Dragons didn't win the World Series. "We came back to town and saw how many people showed up to celebrate and follow us. It was amazing," said Rice. "The best part about our success was seeing what it meant not just to our team and families, but what it meant to Philadelphia."
Rice is the 11th recipient of The Inquirer's Citizen of the Year award. Last year's was Dorothy Johnson-Speight, who was cited for her work as executive director of the antiviolence organization Mothers in Charge. The 2012 recipient was Steveanna Wynn, who runs the SHARE program supplying food for 500 neighborhood pantries.
Rice said he was honored to be named Citizen of the Year but wanted to share the award with the 12 families who sacrificed so much so their children could be on the team. He also wanted to thank his assistant coaches, Leland Lott and Reggie Cummings, and all the people who donated money so the Dragons could travel to the state, regional, and national tournaments.
But the Taney families say it's Rice who deserves thanks. They credit his kindness and calm demeanor on and off the field with keeping the Dragons focused and an entire city inspired.