This time of year international kids annually converge on the celebrated city of Williamsport, Pa., a hamlet 200 miles east of Pittsburgh that is colloquially called “Billtown” and home to the Little League World Series. But this year, as teams took the field there, young players from Perth and Canberra, Australia, as well as Dubai, took to Lederman Field, a dusty diamond in Frick Park, for a series of Aug. 20 to 21 exhibition games pitting the Perth Heat Colts against all-stars from the community youth organization, Squirrel Hill Baseball.
“They called me about a month ago and said they’d be on their way to Williamsport,” and were curious about playing here, said Randy Frankel, president and director of the Squirrel Hill Baseball Association.
The decision of whether to host the 11 and 12-year-old teams was a virtual no-brainer, he explained. “We would love to play,” he told them.
“It is important for our community to get the experience of playing against an international little league team,” echoed Jeff Margolis, assistant director of the Squirrel Hill Baseball Association. “It’s a great experience for Squirrel Hill Baseball; but more importantly, some of our kids and families will remember this for the rest of their lives.”
So, as 24 international preteens arrived at the East End playing field for a Sunday evening showcase — first, the 12-year-olds played, followed by the 11-year-olds — several of the city’s youth eagerly shared their initial encounter with multiculturalism.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time,” said Josh Valinsky, 11, of Squirrel Hill.
“It’s kind of weird because you never play anyone from a different continent or country unless you travel,” echoed Landon Blank, 10, of Highland Park.
But as the game unfolded, foreignness gave way to familiarity, and the players soon realized that despite the divergent dialects and accents, seeming differences soon dissipated.
“The spirit of baseball crosses boundaries and it’s sort of a common language,” said Brian Jacobson, who coached the 12-year-old Squirrel Hill team.
The first of the Sunday evening contests concluded in a tie, with both teams scoring 14 runs; the second game was a bit more lopsided, with the Squirrel Hill 11-year-olds defeating the Australian squad 15-1. Two more games were played Monday morning. The Perth Heat Colts took the 12-year-old matchup, 10-8, while the 11-year-old contest was again taken by Squirrel Hill with a score of 14-9.
For those involved, the collective experience trumped victories and scores.
“It’s definitely a very positive experience to mix with kids from different countries and cultures,” said Akiva Sutofsky, whose son Yehuda played on the 11-year-old team.
“I got to see a lot of different cultures and all of the things that happen here,” noted Reece Coles, a 12-year-old on the Colts.
During their brief stay in Pittsburgh, the visitors attended a Pirates game and other nearby areas. As much as the Steel City had to offer, it was a whirlwind experience for the kids, said their coach.
Over the course of 18 days, the Colts played 16 games in nine cities across the East Coast, explained Mike Bernards. It’s definitely an “experience trip. It’s about coming and playing high level teams here.”
Apart from the all-stars of Squirrel Hill, the Colts have scheduled games against teams from Danbury, Conn., Harlem, N.Y., and Philadelphia.
Given that the kids will play more baseball over the two-and-a-half weeks than they do in a single season down under, expectations are measured, said Bernards. “Some of it is humble pie. Some of it is getting the experience to see what high level baseball looks like.”
The trip has been more than beneficial, said the players.
“Meeting new people has been a good experience,” said James Harman, a member of the 12-year-old Perth team.
“It’s been amazing,” echoed Coles.
And while the trip has featured “van rides, parties, double headers and lots of baseball,” all were eclipsed by a single meteorological event, said Harman. On Saturday, as most people retreated indoors during the afternoon onslaught of thunderstorms, the Dubai native admired the downpour.
“I have never had that type of rain before,” he said.
Prior to reading a city-wide proclamation at Sunday’s showcase, City Councilman Corey O’Connor noted that baseball “brings people from different backgrounds together.”
Opportunities like these stand out, added Frankel, who over the years has welcomed teams from as far away as Russia and now Australia.
“I am always looking to give our children the experience of playing against teams from other states and other countries,” he said. “These are the events they will remember and tell their children about more so than winning championships or playing on all-star teams.”
Perhaps so, but for the present one little leaguer was more interested in the literal gift he had just received. After the conclusion of Sunday’s first game, Ethan Jacobson of Squirrel Hill, held up the boomerang that a newfound friend had brought him from across the pond.
When asked what he was going to do with the traditional wooden weapon, the 12-year-old replied, “Probably put it up on a shelf for display. Or try and throw it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.