Thanks to the 11 kids from the Keystone Little League in neighboring Clinton County, this year’s Little League World Series has become a local event.
In the four games in which the Mid-Atlantic region champion has appeared, attendance at Lamade Stadium has averaged 33,910. The team would advance to Saturday’s U.S. Championship Game with a win over Huntington Beach, Calif., tonight and is the first Williamsport-area team to make the tournament since 1969.
“Nobody’s left at home,” said Rick Vilello, mayor of Lock Haven, the rural county’s only city, as he joined the 32,212 others in line two hours before Tuesday night’s 7-5 win over Southeast champion Warner-Robins (Ga.). “Everybody’s here. We canceled council. Business is in South Williamsport right now. It’s amazing that a group of 12- and 13-year-old boys is leading the county.”
For all the criticism ESPN gets for turning pre-teens into celebrities with its coverage of the tournament, it’s fair to say that these kids were already stars in their community before they played their first game on television. There were banners all over Lock Haven celebrating the team’s state and regional championships. Although the county has a population of only 39,000, a tournament-record 41,848 showed up for the team’s opening game Friday, a 1-0 loss to the Great Lakes Region champions from La Grange, Ky.
While some prior Little League World Series winners have often hitched their success to one or two early developing kids with the rare ability to throw a 75-mph fastball at age 12, the Keystone athletes’ success has truly been a team effort.
Closer Tyler McCloskey has one of the most intimidating mound presences you’ll find in a 5-foot-2, 94-pounder with a fastball in the high 50s. First baseman Brandon Miller and shortstop Talon Falls are both hitting over .500 for the series, and the team has gotten great performances out of starters Cole Reeder, Landon Breon and Alex Garbrick.
Each of the players has his first name painted on the window of Texas Restaurant on Main Street in downtown Lock Haven, where the waitresses were wearing team T-shirts Wednesday as patrons discussed the previous night’s win.
The restaurant, which has existed since 1918, has photos of the team on each of their napkin dispensers and recently introduced four new burgers to their menu, one named after each of the team’s coaches and the “Keystone 11,” which contains onion bits, cheddar cheese and BBQ sauce.
The restaurant even closed early for Saturday’s game, which makes it like most of the other neighboring businesses, almost all of which have “Go Keystone” signs displayed in the front windows. Team shirts are being sold all around town, even at the hospital gift shop and a local electronics store.
“People are trying to find different ways to get out of work,” Chad Jeirles, a cousin of Miller’s, said after Tuesday’s win. “I told my boss, ‘See ya, I’m going to the game.’”
Supporters have set up a Facebook page, which has more than 25,000 fans.
“A post the other night before the game said, ‘The last one out of Clinton County turn off the lights,’ ” Jeirles laughed.
So does the team’s manager worry about all the attention affecting the psyche of his players, most of whom will be entering seventh grade next week?
“We love it,” manager Bill Garbrick said. “It helps a lot. I don’t feel any pressure, and I don’t think these guys feel any. Those fans will support us, win or lose.”
The kids certainly don’t seem to be too burdened. Asked after the Georgia win how the team planned to spend Wednesday’s off day, Miller’s eyes widened as he delivered a distinctly age-appropriate one-word answer.
Tonight, all of Clinton County will be watching to see whether their young team can stay afloat.