With the Little League World Series set to start Thursday in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, we asked some current big leaguers — Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Brad Hand, James Shields, Trey Mancini and Albert Almora Jr. — about their memories from youth baseball. Not all of them played in Little League, but they all have memories that have stayed with them over the years.
Do you remember the best player you played with in Little League (or whatever league you played in at that age)?
The Little League World Series opens play with the team from Puerto Rico against the team from South Korea at 1 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN/WatchESPN. Check below for the complete schedule along with TV information.
Mookie Betts: A dude named Brandon Harden stands out. Growing up in Nashville, he was always the fastest and hit the farthest home runs. When he hit it, it was going a long way. He never took me deep because we always played on the same team. He was a big kid then. He’s still bigger than me because I’m 5-foot-9, but I kind of caught up to him.
Brad Hand: There were always some good teams. Our Little League team was always pretty good and competed for championships. But if I had to name one player, I guess it would be Joe Loftus. He was good and ended up getting drafted by the Twins. But there were no big names that I really played with that made it to the big leagues.
Bryce Harper: Either Joey Gallo or Kris Bryant. Vegas has lots of talent.
James Shields: I didn’t play Little League. I played Pony baseball, which is pretty much the same thing, just a different league. The best guy I ever played against was Sean Burroughs. Remember Sean Burroughs? Hands-down, he was the most phenomenal player I ever played against. And he’s a Little League World Series hero, right? He played Little League, and he played Pony baseball.
Albert Almora Jr.: Manny Machado.
Trey Mancini: You know who was really good that I played against since I was 8 years old? A.J. Cole. He’s on the Yankees. He’s from Orlando, and I’m from Winter Haven, which is about an hour away. Travel ball in Florida is super-competitive, and his team was one of our rivals because us and them always made it far in the state tournament. A.J. was always a really good pitcher growing up. Good hitter. Good all-around. Best guy I faced, and I faced him a lot.
What’s your favorite memory?
Betts: My first home run. I don’t remember the count or anything, but I know I hit it over the fence to dead center. I was probably 10 or so, and I was the smallest one out there. My mom and dad were there, and my mom was calling people and telling everybody that I hit a home run over the fence. We went to get some ice cream after that, for sure. Baskin Robbins was my go-to spot. Pralines and cream. I didn’t flip the bat. I was kind of in a full sprint because I had never hit it over the fence. I think I beat all my teammates to home plate because I was running too fast.
Less than a year after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the team from Radames Lopez Little League in Guayama overcame the storm’s devastating effects to earn an improbable trip to Williamsport.
They may be household names now, but some athletes were first in the spotlight as kids on the baseball fields of the Little League World Series.
Hand: We went to that Cooperstown tournament when we were 12 years old. That was a fun experience for me, playing there and seeing all the other talent from all over the world and staying in those barracks that they have there. That was a memorable experience for me.
Shields: Just playing the game of baseball. To be honest with you, my family lived at the baseball fields. I had two older brothers, so somebody always had a game every single day. I remember chasing foul balls and getting the free drink tickets. That was probably one of my favorite things growing up.
Almora: Playing in a tournament in Cooperstown at a place called Dreams Park.
Mancini: In 2003, when I was 11 years old, we won the state championship. It was travel ball, but it was Little League age. That was easily my best memory from growing up. We had to win five games on the last day to win the championship. My friend caught every single game, too. I’m actually in his wedding in November. It was a huge deal. Every single team in the state was in this tournament. We had underachieved during the season going into, and so we weren’t expected to do that great. It was in Clearwater [Florida], really close to where the Phillies play [in spring training], but it was on Little League fields. I actually passed by there during spring training. On the way to Dunedin [Florida], I cut through Clearwater and saw those fields. I hadn’t seen them since then.
Were you a pitcher at the youth level? If so, how good?
Betts: Shortstop was my main position, but I pitched whenever we faced a good team. I threw harder than all the other kids, all the way through high school. So I would pitch if we got into a sticky situation. I had some pretty good coaches growing up, so hats off to them. I had a knuckle curve, but they wouldn’t let me throw it a whole lot. I was able to hit spots, in and out, but if there was a good hitter, and I needed to slip in a couple breaking balls, they would let me do it. Other than that, I was just throwing a whole bunch of fastballs.
Mancini: Yeah, I was one of our main pitchers, and then that fizzled out after my freshman year of high school. I’m not gonna lie: I always liked hitting better than pitching. I was much better as a hitter than pitcher. But I had a fastball and a changeup, which for me back then was just throwing the fastball a little slower. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But in rec ball, I threw a couple perfect games, one against the green team and one against the purple team. That year, we were the white team. We were sponsored by CenterState Bank.
What did you learn in Little League (or other youth sports) that has the most impact on you today?
Harper: I played all travel ball, but I learned a lot from playing football. To run through a wall for your coach and practice hard no matter what. Grind it out and have some fun. And don’t take it too serious. Playing other sports helped shape me.
Hand: Just to have fun. It was always fun when you were 12 years old, to run out there with your buddies, just having a good time.
Shields: I don’t think I’ve ever grown up on the field. I still feel like I’m a little kid out there, playing the game of baseball and having as much fun as I possibly can.
Almora: Play the game hard. That’s what was instilled in me. Play it hard.
What advice would you give to kids playing at the youth level?
Betts: Play all the sports. Don’t just play baseball. You’re kind of limiting yourself. You don’t really know what you’re going to end up doing, so I would advise to get into all sports and see how that treats you. I played multiple sports until I graduated: baseball, basketball, football. I played one year of soccer. I bowled. All that stuff. I stopped playing football at 14, and the only reason I stopped was because my mom said I was too small to keep playing. I really worked on basketball, though. I played way more basketball than I did baseball growing up. I loved basketball. I kind of wanted that to be my sport. But baseball is the sport I was the best at. It turned out all right.
Hand: Just keep grinding and having fun. Enjoy it. Work hard, and you never know what is going to happen.
Harper: Play as many sports as you can, and enjoy them all.
Shields: Just enjoy it. Have fun with it. A lot of kids, they take striking out hard and not winning hard. Just have fun and enjoy playing the game of baseball. I’ve probably learned more from playing the game of baseball about life in general than maybe sometimes outside of baseball. It creates discipline. But just have fun with it.
Almora: Play it hard and have fun. Make sure you have fun.
Mancini: Play multiple sports. Obviously, give your all and practice a lot, even in the offseason when you’re not playing. But I think playing other sports is really important for kids too. You develop a lot of skills playing basketball, tennis. I think tennis helped me a lot, especially with my footwork, because growing up, I wasn’t the most athletic kid. So tennis helped me with agility. Playing other sports helps, and it helps keep you from burning out. Because it can be tough on kids to play one sport 12 months out of the year.