SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- It's all about the team, Mo'ne Davis has made it a point to remind us.
Throughout her incredible ascent to household name and Sports Illustrated cover queen, the 13-year-old girl with the fiery fastball has given us some clever quips ("Throwing 70 miles an hour… that's throwing like a girl" is an instant classic) and acknowledged that what she's done here at the Little League World Series is good for girl power.
She is, however, equally quick to note that it's the intelligent interplay of the Taney Youth Baseball Association -- the teamwork and the attention to detail taught on Philadelphia's back fields -- that gave her this high-profile platform in the first place.
And this, ultimately, might be the biggest lesson of the Mo'ne Davis experience -- the tale of an inner-city squad made up of kids from all manner of socio-economic circumstances coming together under the blanket of baseball. Because no matter where the amazing Mo'ne goes from here, that's the story -- one that has arrived in coincidental-yet-undeniable conjunction with that of the all-black, Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West, Taney's opponent in Thursday night's U.S. semifinal -- that matters most to baseball in the immediate future.
"Major League Baseball can take a look," Taney coach Alex Rice said on the eve of his team's matchup with Jackie Robinson West, "and see the product that's on the field and the potential of what they can find in the inner-city."
Media hand-wringing about the game's place in black America has become an annual event, generally centered around the April anniversary of the day Robinson broke the color barrier. But what's happened at Howard J. Lamade Stadium these last couple weeks is a welcomed reminder that the game still resonates with all races, provided proper opportunity is put in place.
This is something the Commissioner-elect clearly understands.
"Black, white, male, female, urban, rural, rich, poor," Rob Manfred said Wednesday. "We want all kinds of kids playing. And I think that, particularly, when you have a diverse group, like the Philadelphia group, it sends a message that baseball is a wide-open sport."
Remember, that wide-open ideal does reveal itself at the big-league level, where 26.1 percent of players on opening day rosters were born in areas outside the United States and 16 countries and territories were represented.
But the number that gets much greater traction in the reporting community is 8.2 -- the percentage of U.S.-born black players on those rosters, matching an all-time low from 2007, according to Dr. Richard Lapchick's oft-cited annual report.
Efforts have been made to increase that total, with some notable successes. Thirty players taken in this year's draft had ties to MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program, the Urban Youth Academies in Houston, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Compton or the Breakthrough Series, which seeks to showcase a diverse group of high school baseball players to scouts and college recruiters. And 14 African-American players are on MLB.com's current 100 Top Prospects list.
"We think it's crucial," said Manfred, "to commit energy, resources and time to the development of the game, particularly in inner cities."
The grassroots level, though, still needs seeding, and Taney teaches us that. Because for all its success at this Series, the league that brought us Mo'ne doesn't own any of its own fields or enjoy any of the accoutrements of the modern suburban Little League mecca.
"We do a lot of tournaments in Medford, N.J.," said James Waddington, who coaches Taney's 10-and-under team. "They've got all artificial turf, netting across the field to stop foul balls, all of that. And then on our fields in Philly, third base is up on a hill, first base is down below. So we really need the city to step up and get them facilities to play in. Otherwise, they're not going to produce quality."
Steve Bandura -- the man credited with "discovering" Mo'ne and prodding her to give baseball a go -- has faced these challenges for years and been vocal about finding solutions for them.
Bandura has been coaching inner-city youth athletics for about half of his 53 years, and his Anderson Monarchs travel team has featured seven of the 12 members of Taney's World Series roster. The Anderson program operates on a shoestring budget with no financial support from the city, but Bandura rounded up enough local donors and advertisers to produce a quality field in a once-lonesome block in Philly's Graduate Hospital neighborhood. And on his roster is living, breathing proof that African-American kids from the inner city can still fall in love with the sport.
The problem, of course, is finding ample opportunity for them in a game that has gravitated toward expensive year-round travel leagues at the youth level.
"The African-American kids in the suburbs play," Bandura said. "So what, if they go inside a certain boundary, all of a sudden they're not interested in the game? None of those stereotypes make any sense. A six-year-old kid is not saying, 'Well, I'm not going to play baseball because there are more scholarships in football for college.' It doesn't make any sense, and I'm tired of people running out those stereotypes."
Bandura's dream -- and it's one he's articulated to MLB's On-Field Diversity Task Force via a 15-page report -- is for every Major League club to open a team-run baseball academy in its own city, much like the academies they are currently running in the Dominican Republic.
One could see, though, where such a setup could pose a stateside conflict. Why would the Reds, for instance, want to spend their money to groom a player who could be drafted at in the first round by the Cubs?
This Little League exposure, though, has people talking about a topic worthy of the exposure. And perhaps the conversation will continue in the boardrooms of, say, major athletic apparel manufacturers who might see the benefits of stamping their name on such a startup.
"I hope it's eye-opening," Bandura said. "Maybe this is the stage, right here. Here's the proof, right here. The top three Little League teams in the country, and two of them are inner-city teams? That's incredible. But it's not surprising if you're on the ground level and see these kids develop from a young age."
Kids like Mo'ne, who took an opportunity and turned it into an outcome that has captivated the baseball world.