WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — During a wild first week of the 2014 Little League World Series, Bleacher Report caught up with Julian McWilliams, a member of the 2002 LLWS U.S. semifinalist team from Harlem, New York.
It was Julian's first time back in Williamsport since representing the Mid-Atlantic region at age 12 and losing a heartbreaker to Worcester, Massachusetts.
What made him come back? He, like the rest of us, was inspired by Philadelphia's Taney Little League Team—some of which he personally trained while at Temple his senior year (Mo’ne Davis, Zion Spearman, Scotty Bandura and Jahli Hendricks).
Julian shared his experience from a dozen years ago, taking Bleacher Report behind the scenes of the whirlwind of Williamsport—telling us just what it means to be a LLWS star and what it's like to live all the pressure that these kids face as stars for two weeks in August.
Clinching a Spot
It's a 4-4 game in the bottom of the seventh inning of the regional final in Bristol, Connecticut, with Harlem batting. Julian led off the first extra frame with a single and advanced to third on a two-out double.
My third base coach and I go through a conversation where it's like, "This kid's been throwing a lot of breaking balls in the dirt. If anything gets past him, it's probably not going to bounce off the wall that hard. So I want you to be alert, but just make sure you make it, because if you don't," his quote to me was, "your old man's going to kill me (Julian's dad, Morris, was the head coach)."
On a 1-1 count, he swings at it, it's in the dirt, it goes back to the backstop.
I see it immediately and was thinking home the whole time. I slide underneath the tag, look up at the umpire, he calls me safe.
We're going to Williamsport. 5-4.
You didn't really believe it'd be happening...'cause that's what every kid dreams of.
It was a moment where you just feel like you're in a blur...like you don't really know what's happening. You just know you're supposed to celebrate. It wasn't out of jubilation because you're still in game mode.
But the next day, the people [from the dorm complex] who clean our room say, "You're going to Williamsport." That just made me feel like, damn, we're really going.
From that day, it just hit me like, you're doing something special.
Heading to Pennsylvania with a Larger Role
Julian and the Harlem team rode the bus into Williamsport. He describes the experience.
We were tense. Happy, but tense.
Because we knew we still had work to be done. We wanted to make sure we got it done the right way and did it the right way.
It was fun, but we were a team that always expected to win.
It was a feeling...it was a mixture...a mixture of angst and joy at the same time, because you're fulfilling your dream.
Some of that angst boiled over, as two of our players started fighting on the bus. We're going to Williamsport, but two players started flat-out having a fist fight.
A guy is talking smack to another guy. The catcher was the one talking, and the right fielder just got up and punched him.
I'll never forget, a former Negro League player—I can't remember his name, he was in his 70s, though—was on the bus with us. The bus had stopped, and the coaches had gotten off to deal with another matter.
He broke the fight up and was like, "Do you guys realize what you're embarking on right now?
"You're the first minority team to ever participate in the Little League World Series. That's big. You guys are over here fighting on a bus...you're carrying your city. You're carrying us. You're carrying me."
From that day, it was just a learning process for us, and it taught us that this game is bigger than us.
We knew that race...that we played a pivotal role in bringing minorities to the game, in bringing the urban experience to Williamsport.
It was huge.
It was the fact that we knew the city and Harlem were looking at us as role models. As people they could look at and say, "Hey, I could do this too some day."
Not just Harlem. Philadelphia. Chicago.
It served as a beacon of hope to minority kids and showed that we could actually do something with this.
Arriving in Williamsport
The bus pulls into the Little League World Series complex for the first time.
It was a dream come true. The tension after the fight was now silent on that bus, as all our hard work was now officially becoming a reality.
I felt like a big leaguer. You look down the hill, and you see a breathtaking field [Lamade Stadium]. You're looking down on the field and in disbelief—you're about to play there in front of tens of thousands of people.
Not only did we feel like big leaguers, we were about to look like them too.
They give you brand-new cleats, brand-new bats, brand-new helmets. The only thing we didn't get was brand-new gloves. It's as close to being a big leaguer as it gets.
As much as we loved them, it was also bittersweet because we didn't want to be connected to Danny Almonte. Those are the same exact uniforms they wore. Same color, red and blue.
You're from New York City too. The Almonte team was from the Bronx; we're right next door from Harlem. So it's like, OK, there's still this unfair link to them.
This desire to pave our own way and shed ourselves of that stigma was extra motivation for us, and we wanted to show we could do it within the rules.
The team spends its first night in the dorm complex above the fields.
We pick our beds; we're all just in our beds. It's one big room—14 beds and seven bunks. There's a TV.
So you have two kids per bunk, and I roomed with one of my best friends I went to elementary school with, Spencer White, the antagonist [from the fight on the bus].
They actually take a lot of the stuff away from you at night so you don't ruin it or get it messed up. They mandate it to you. They hand it out to you when you're supposed to wear it.
They bring them over to the dorms—connected to other teams' dorms—on game day, before ceremonies, all that stuff.
There is also a game room in the complex, where a lot of the players at the LLWS, from different teams and countries, meet each other.
It's sort of like you're just meeting this person for the first time, even though you already know them from watching them on TV in the regional games.
There were ping-pong tables, Pac Man and tons of other arcade games. It was meant to bring everyone together and create a social atmosphere among kids from different backgrounds.
But honestly, our team, we didn't really fraternize with a lot of teams like that. We were there for one reason and one reason only. And that was to win and to play baseball.
There's a curfew at the dorms, but we were far from sleeping soundly the first night, even with the first game several days away.
We're talking about everything. Talking about the teams we'll be playing, getting fired up. "We can beat them...they only have this; they only have that. We play this team the first night."
We were playing out scenarios in our head. If we win this game, we only have to win one more to get into the semis. If we lose this game, then we have to win the next two.
We were anxious. There were a lot of smiles, but it was an anxious time.
Harlem's opening game was against the Southeast Region's North Carolina team.
We had a 3 p.m. game the first day, and our coach didn't want us to go down and watch the other games because he didn't want us to get drained from the heat.
We were watching the first game on TV in the dorm between California and Kentucky. We were thinking it's crazy to see two teams from different states. We never went outside of our own district to play baseball.
It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. You're not supposed to beat those guys if you're from the Northeast, but we thought we could—and should.
After the game ended, we put on our practice uniforms and walked down to the batting-cage facility and were split up into groups of three. One group was hitting the whiffle ball because we had problems hitting curveballs. The next is front toss, and the last one is overhand BP.
There were three buses full of people that came up that day from Harlem, and you could see from the cages that the hill was starting to fill up; you see kids sliding down the hills. Everything just started to become real. At this point, my nerves were on high.
The surreal feeling continued after BP, as both kids and adults were holding out balls to be signed. Wait, someone wants us to sign something? We were just city kids from Harlem. You really felt like you're Derek Jeter. No matter how old someone was, they respected what you did.
Signing an autograph for a kid, you almost feel untouchable. Like, you really feel like it's going to last forever.
We finally got to the dugouts and sat down. Looking out onto the field gave us all chills, and you get this sense of passion and pride running through you at the same time.
Being on TV
Because Julian scored the game-winning run in the regional, ESPN interviewed him before the game on the field.
It made the first-game jitters skyrocket to a whole other level. At this point, I'm trying to focus on the game, but I hear the producer say, "We're interviewing you in 20 minutes. Do what you gotta do."
They asked me how I was feeling. I told them the truth. I was nervous, but once I had my first at-bat, the first-game jitters would be out.
I then heard the crowd noise build as the PA announced the welcome message for the game as I was being interviewed by national TV. You can't help but let it all get to you in that moment. You're a big leaguer. You're a star.
We were the away team and I was the leadoff hitter, so I didn't have any time to relax.
Above all the pressure and the nerves, my problem was, I couldn't see. I used to wear glasses, and they broke during the celebration at the regional in Bristol.
My mom had gotten my original glasses fixed, but she drove back up to Williamsport that morning and was stuck in traffic as I stepped into the batter's box.
Out of desperation, I was wearing these old, crooked prescription glasses I found lying around the house.
I noticed my name and face on the scoreboard, but I tried not to look at it after the first time because the reality of it all made my heart race.
I stepped in, the kid was about 5'9", 5'10", a big guy. The first pitch, I remember, was a strike right down the middle. I watched the replay on TV later, and it was around 75 mph. The kid was throwing gas.
I was really struggling at the plate at that time, so I was more than happy to draw the walk that I did.
As I jogged to first, I looked to the ESPN camera by the first-base dugout. I just thought, this is real. We're on freaking TV. I saw it move, then I looked at the one on the third-base side.
It's almost like you're in a movie, but it's live. Thankfully, we were ultimately able to block it all out and perform.
Harlem won the game, 9-3.
Losing the Semifinal
Harlem lost their second game to Louisville, 2-0. In their elimination game, they beat California, 5-2. They were then set to play the national semifinal against Worcester, Massachusetts.
The celebrity feeling is just pumping at this point. People were getting as close to me as possible. The thing that made me feel like it was getting bigger and bigger was the fact that we were signing a lot more autographs. A lot more people up the hill following us as we walked.
We came in as a heavy favorite, and we just didn't think that much of Worcester. We knew we were better.
We had also played in so many elimination games on the way there that being in another one really didn't faze us. We played better with our backs against the wall.
Because of an earlier controversy surrounding our team, there were as many people cheering for us as there were booing us. Many people did not want to see us win even though we were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The crowd that night was absolutely electric. I've never felt anything like that—not playing in college, pro, nothing.
The score was 2-2 heading into the sixth. Harlem went down one-two-three in the top half. Worcester came up to bat. Their leadoff batter walked. Harlem got one out. The third batter, their best hitter, was intentionally walked, putting the winning run on second. Harlem got the second out.
A boy named Ryan Griffin was up next. He was batting .111 at the time, a number that has since been burned into my memory.
He just kept fouling everything off. Everything. Straight back every time. And I remember thinking, I don't feel good about this at all.
Then a 2-2 curveball got hung on the outer half—boom. I didn't even look at the ball. I turned toward their dugout and saw all their fans just get up in unison, like they're doing the wave.
I looked back just in time to see the ball land on the other side of the wall, and I knew it was all over.
To this day, high school, college, pro ball: It was still the worst loss in my life.
I thought it was a nightmare. I really thought I was stuck in a bad dream.
Worcester lost to Louisville in the U.S. final. Louisville won the championship game over Japan. Julian and the Harlem team watched the game live. They returned back to New York the day after.
Of course, we're getting all these offers to go everywhere to meet this person, talk to that person.
School started, and I remember I was going to a new one for seventh grade. I was going to middle school.
The first day of school, the principal comes in and says, "Ladies and gentleman, we have a star in the room." Everybody got up and started clapping.
I felt awkward, surrounded by a bunch of people I didn't know, and in a new place. At that moment, I certainly didn't feel like a star.
I still wasn't there mentally. I didn't feel proud. People were proud of us, but I feel like we really could've won it.
The constant second-guessing and unbreakable disappointment made it feel like I was slipping into depression. The only thing that kept me going was wanting to feel those special moments again. I wanted to feel like a big leaguer again.
It sounds silly now, but as a 12-year-old kid, this was the most important moment of my life—and we came up short.
It was a difficult reality coming down from the highs of Williamsport. You weren't a celebrity anymore. You weren't signing autographs. You weren't talking to TV cameras in your piles of free equipment. You were just a kid.
It's like Williamsport is the utopia. But then it's back to the real world.