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THE ACE OF THE PLACE

Aug. 25, 2014
Aug. 25, 2014

Table of Contents
Aug. 25, 2014

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TENNIS
  • AS THE WORLD'S TOP PLAYER PREPARES TO DEFEND HER U.S. OPEN TITLE, THE TENNIS WORLD WONDERS IF HER WIMBLEDON MELTDOWN WAS A SIGN OF HER FINAL FADE. OR IS A LITTLE CONTROVERSY EXACTLY WHAT THIS FEROCIOUS COMPETITOR NEEDS TO KEEP GOING?

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THE ACE OF THE PLACE

Mo'ne Davis has been many things at the Little League World Series. More than anything? A cool 13-year-old kid

Along this metal fence at the bottom of a hill, the onlookers stand three, four, five deep on the grass an hour before game time, sweating through their shirts under the hot August sun. Their heads are craned forward, like a meadow of reeds in a stiff wind, all in the direction of the metallic pings emanating from the batting cage before them. There are autograph seekers, TV cameras and photographers, grown men channeling their inner baseball scout ("Not much of a load—but look at how quick her hands are"). There are two young African-American girls, wearing the yellow-and-black colors of an inner-city team from Chicago, standing side by side, watching raptly and saying nothing. Then the voice of a fan, a passerby loping toward the stadium up the hill, booms, "Is that the girl?"

This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2014 issue

Yes, that is the girl who has put the thrall in this summer's Little League World Series. The girl from South Philly who, after throwing a complete-game, two-hit shutout against an all-boys team from Nashville last Friday, received tweets from everyone from Michelle Obama to Billie Jean King to Kevin Durant to Andrew McCutchen to Lil Wayne, and TV invites from Jimmy Fallon, Ellen and Queen Latifah. The girl who has become so many things to so many people: a feminist meme, a totem for inner-city baseball, your 10-year-old niece's new role model, your 10-year-old nephew's new role model.

Of course, Mo'ne Davis, the star pitcher and infielder of the Taney Little League team from Philadelphia, is, above all, a 13-year-old who in a few weeks will be starting the eighth grade, who carries a hot pink backpack everywhere she goes. She also happens to throw a 70-mph fastball and the most-talked-about curve east of Clayton Kershaw.

SIX YEARS ago Steve Bandura was grooming the infield after a fall league game at Marian Anderson Recreation Center in Center City when he saw a group of kids playing football out in leftfield. They were all 10-year-olds that Bandura coached, except for one kid he didn't recognize: the girl launching perfect spirals as the boys raced 20, 25 yards downfield. Bandura, who runs a Philly youth sports program called the Anderson Monarchs and has a son, Scott, on the Taney team, got off his tractor and introduced himself. The girl told him that she was seven, a cousin of one of the players. Bandura invited her to a basketball practice later that week with his team of seven-year-old boys.

Though Bandura didn't expect to see the girl again, Mo'ne Davis showed up with her mother, Lakeisha McLean, a nurse's aide. Later that winter Bandura asked Mo'ne, who'd never put on a baseball glove, to have a catch. "The body control, the awareness—it was amazing," he says. The coach encouraged McLean to have her daughter apply to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, one of the top private schools in Philadelphia. Mo'ne tested in, and five years later, she's an honor student who makes the hour-and- 20-minute commute from southwest Philly to the school in the northwest part of the city. She sometimes doesn't return home until nearly seven.

Mo'ne's reputation began to grow as she dominated boys in every sport she played. She's also the center midfielder on the Monarchs' boys' soccer team, though her first love is basketball: her dream is to play point guard for UConn. Says one of the Monarch coaches, Elliot Taylor-Hughes, "Everyone's seen her pitch. Well, I promise you, she's five times better at basketball."

"TO BE HONEST, I never thought I'd be famous for baseball," Mo'ne says. It is a day after her Williamsport gem against Nashville—she struck out eight and walked none—and, after a morning workout, she's leaning back in her chair and trying to put into words the surreal past few days: "I just thought I was going to play baseball in the summer, have fun with my friends, then go back to school this fall. But now, because everything got so big and because we're doing well, I do feel like a role model."

She has hazel, almond eyes and flowing long hair and an insouciance in front of the cameras that adults tend to underrate in kids. She seems unfazed by the sudden attention, but it's clear that she's learning the perils of instant stardom. "All of the interviews and the autographs and people who wanted me to take pictures, it's kind of taking away the fun," she says. "People were like, 'Oh, there's going to be people running up to you taking pictures,' and I thought it was going to be a bunch of little kids. But it's grown-ups! And that's, like, creepy."

Mo'ne is not a physical freak—listed at 5'4" and 111 pounds, she's about average in size among her teammates. She's a dominant pitcher mostly because of her flawless mechanics. She pitches exclusively from the stretch, with a repeatable delivery—her arm is as loose as a rag doll's when she slingshots it forward, but it's always from the same arm angle and slot. Her braids dangle behind her and fall below her belt. She glares, rarely cracks a smile, stands tall on the mound and tugs at her belt. She has a gunslinger's confidence.

Taney, of course, is more than Mo'ne: The team also represents a triumph of urban baseball. Taney doesn't own fields or make money off concession stands. Its fields, most of them poorly maintained, are scattered across the city; the league draws kids from 40 zip codes, from the heart of Center City, with its $2 million town houses, to west and south Philly, among the city's poorest neighborhoods. Registration fees are kept affordable, with financial aid and an equipment sharing program available. While Little League participation is dropping in many parts of the country, Taney's membership has doubled in the last 10 years.

Everyone is already talking about what's next for Taney's most famous citizen. Yankees manager Joe Girardi asked, "She could pitch Tuesday, right?" Keith Olbermann had a serious debate on ESPN2 about whether she could play in the majors. But Mo'ne doesn't even know if she wants to play college baseball. "I want to play basketball," she says. But could she play in the majors? "Yeah, I could. I think I have the ability. And I could also do both basketball and baseball—but I really want to play basketball."

Of course, it'll be a while before she can run Geno Auriemma's offense or try out for the Phillies. For now, Mo'ne still has some growing up to do, and after the last week she doesn't seem in a rush to give up her childhood. One night the Taney players were forced to leave their dorm at the Little League complex after a water-main break and move in with their parents at the hotel. Mo'ne was hanging out in her mom's room with teammate Zion Spearman, her best friend. "We were joking, and we were laughing," she says, and before they knew it, it was 1:30 in the morning.

"I kind of forgot we were here," Mo'ne says. "It was just fun to hang out like normal, you know?"

FOURTEEN PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS SPORTS ILLUSTRATED