WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — On the eve of Philadelphia's Taney Dragons' opening game at the 2014 Little League World Series, 13-year-old Mo'ne Davis sat in a quiet wooden dugout on one of the back fields following her team's latest practice.
It's amazing Taney is even here to begin with, in its first World Series in only its second year of existence since chartering in 2012.
We talk about the constant onslaught from the media. "For people that want to take pictures and stuff," Davis, a South Philly native, explains, "I always say 'no' most of the time 'cause I get tired of it ... 'cause I'm probably just tired at the end of the day."
At the end of this day, she's just finished long-tossing and taking ground balls for nearly two hours. Cameras are getting packed up into vans. Elbows have stopped leaning on the yellow padding lining the fences.
Most kids her age might struggle with the exposure, but Davis sees the positives.
"I was on Sports Science earlier," she snaps back. "It was pretty cool."
I ask if they came to Williamsport to talk with her. "I didn't know I was going to be on. I was playing Ping-Pong and Zion [Spearman, her teammate, sitting in the dugout with us] spotted it. It said: 'Sports Science with Mo'Ne Davis' ... even though they spelled my name wrong" (the 'N' is not capitalized).
Visiting the international stage of Little League baseball and walking past every other team that has made it this far, you'd think it was required that all the players wear their new gear every step of the way. Each regional team is a like a mini marching band in a different bright color. Instead of hearing music and seeing instruments, you hear plastic cleats on concrete and see two aluminum bats in each bag.
But let's be real: Everybody looks the same.
Yet something about Mo'ne Davis stands out.
As much as the world wants to know her all of a sudden, wants to figure her out and tell her who she is, wants to remind her of all that she means—she knows herself better.
Even if Davis changes the Little League World Series forever, it doesn't stand a chance at changing her.
And it's so much more than her gender, her appearance and her clothing, which included a worn-in red Chase Utley Phillies shirt and Kevin Durant basketball shorts.
In talking to her, you find that she's both magnetic and intimidating. But the beginning of her young baseball career was a bit less smooth.
"I started playing when I was seven," Davis explains. "I knew a couple people on the team because of my cousin, but I didn't talk to most of the teammates 'cause I didn't know them."
In Little League, kids ages four to six play in the T-ball division, so Davis missed the chance to hit a static baseball. She was also seven, without close friends, on an all-boys team.
So forget inquiring about the first game she must've realized she was as good as, if not better than, most of the boys. How about hitting a moving fastball?
"I don't remember [a first game] actually," she admits, eyes widening, smirk forming. "But I remember my first baseball practice was with a pitching machine.
"I struck out, like, every time except for my last at-bat. I hit it off the end of the bat ... it was foul and it rolled fair. It was my very first hit. It didn't really sting. It was one of those off the very end. That's how it was."
How it is now: Davis grips a ball and blows her competition away. In the regional championship, she threw a complete-game shutout to help clinch her team the final spot in the field of 16. She struck out six, walked three and allowed just three hits.
She's the celebrity of the Little League complex. She's the center of the sports world this week.
But Davis isn't the first girl to come this far—she's actually the 18th—and she isn't the only one competing in Williamsport in 2014. She's rooming with Canada's Emma March.
They don't sit up late at night discussing their role in reconstructing gender lines in America. Do they share a little advice for each other?
That's different: "Kind of. Sometimes."
But for anyone who's ever played baseball, you know it's really about the game, the quirkiness and, of course, the competition.
"She tells me about how her teammates act, and I tell her how crazy we are," Davis says. "But I don't tell her too much, like, too much about baseball, how our team plays ... I don't really do that."
Though Davis appears to be one of the most dominant players in Little League—and perhaps will prove to be one of the most impressive females to ever play—it wasn't like that every step of the way.
"Well, my very first year I wasn't the best, but I kind of got better. The next year, that's when I was really starting to get better."
Once that learning curve took hold, there had to have been only a few select gut reactions from an opposing team: awe or anger. And don't forget assumption.
"Teams actually thought I was a boy. They didn't know I was girl till, like, almost a year later. It was just weird."
And of course, once her gender was known, there must be something else giving her a competitive advantage.
"Some teams thought I was cheating because my hair was long. They said I had more power when I was pitching, so I had to, like, hold it up in a ponytail."
"It was a lot of rumors going around. They tried to get me not to play," Davis says, now cracking a smile and a shrug. "But we just kept playing."
She's also quick to give credit where it's due. She remembers a longtime South Philly umpire—and ally—and how he routinely came to her and her team's side, having called many of their games.
"We knew the umpire—Mike ... I don't know his last name—he knew us very well. He'd say, 'No, they're not cheating. She's a girl ... she's just as good as every one of the guys on your team.'"
Davis wasn't just playing against guys; she was playing against older ones. "We actually played a year up so it was more different. It made us better. We came this far, so..."
And in talking to her, it's that "we" that's so central to this 13-year-old.
So how's all this attention on the collective "we"? She explains: "We kind of take turns with people being interviewed. Some [teammates] don't want to do it, but they still kind of do it."
By "do it," she doesn't mean solely talking to reporters. "Not just the interviews, but most stuff ... being together for so long. It's been really annoying. 'Cause teams just break up [sometimes]. But we're still together on the field.
"It seems like we don't fight at all."
Except—I remind her—for that one fly ball. The one toward the end of their practice, misplayed out in center field, giving way to a chorus of strained voices that it should have been caught—especially with Game 1 the next day.
"Yeah...that fly ball," she says with a sharp look.
I ask Davis if she'd ever consider opting to play with girls in spite of the, at times, suffocating attention.
"No. I already play basketball and soccer with girls for school. I don't think I'm ever going to go to softball. I hate softball. I even tried it in sixth grade, so I can say, I hate softball."
Basketball, however, is what she really loves.
So we started talking about another female making history among the men: the San Antonio Spurs' Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA.
Says Davis of Hammon's story and success: "That's cool," in a matter-of-fact manner. A subtle reminder that "matter of fact" is perhaps how we should look at these stories. "They might win another championship ... I'm rooting for the Warriors."
I ask her if we'll see a female head coach in the NBA in the next 10 years. "Maybe. Hopefully. Yeah, I could see that ... maybe even the next five years."
We discuss how Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he'd draft former Baylor star Brittney Griner if she were the best available. Media members like ESPNW's Kate Fagan had shot it down with narrow headlines like, "No woman, not even Griner, could play in NBA."
Says Davis of that idea: "I think in a couple years, that will change. Hopefully because of this. Hopefully it changes.
"If it doesn't, I will change it for myself."
So when all's said and done—in spite of the endless focus on her and Taney, and on the female-among-the-boys storylines—does she still embrace the power of what she's capable of doing on this stage?
"I guess it's my pride to pave the way. Hopefully we [Davis and March] will pave the way for more girls to come."
Before she begins paving the way in Game 1 on Friday, one last thing Mo'ne just wouldn't want you to screw up—after you make that "N" lowercase, include the apostrophe, and appreciate her athleticism rather than the fact she's in a boys league. Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)," as has become a myth of sorts, is not her go-to.
"No," she says. "That's actually not my walkout music."
"My walkout song is 'Girl on Fire' by Alicia Keys. His [Zion's] mom says I look like Beyonce. But I really don't, so I don't know where that came from.
"It's just that song."
Want proof that Davis is on fire? She can't go more than 10 yards without being stopped—more apt: stopping for—anyone and everyone. Their jaws slack, their eyes are big, their hands are out, they're tearing furiously through scorebook pages to find that one space for that one signature from that one girl.
People don't just want to see her; they want to be around her. You get that sense from the types of people who approach her: young kids, big kids, adults, boys, girls, black, white, American, Japanese, Caribbean.
She is going to make a statement and have an impact in whatever she pursues. If it's not through Little League, she'll be a trailblazer in an older, larger baseball league. If not baseball, it'll be basketball. And if not sports, it'll be with her personality, her brain and her voice.
But first thing's first: those sports. Where does Mo'ne Davis see herself in five to six years? In 10 years?
She thinks for a moment: "Probably be the point guard for UConn wearing No. 11, starting point guard.
"Then hopefully I'll be in the WNBA."
UPDATE: Mo'ne Davis' amazing story kept growing on Friday afternoon, as she pitched a complete game shutout to help defeat a team from Tennessee 4-0. Her team next plays Sunday, Aug. 17, against the winner of Friday night's Texas vs. Rhode Island matchup.
Julian McWilliams of the It's All Relative Sports blog, a member of the 2002 U.S. semifinalist Harlem, New York, team, contributed to this interview and story.
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