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MLB hits home run with Little League Classic

The Cardinals and Pirates did an excellent job.

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MLB Little League Classic - St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

My Little League career ended just four years ago, but I already knew then that I would be a baseball fan for life.

That’s not always how it works, though. A lot of my friends have told me that they enjoyed playing baseball, but they could never get into following it. While that is a shame, I do get it. For most kids today, baseball isn’t the sport to spend hours in front of the TV watching. It doesn’t have the same moment-to-moment excitement as football, basketball or hockey, and that can draw younger fans away.

After becoming the commissioner of baseball in 2015, Rob Manfred has made youth participation in both baseball and softball a priority. In his view, the first step to increasing the amount of younger baseball fans began with increasing the amount of younger baseball and softball players.

With the first ever Little League Classic on Sunday, Manfred hoped to do just that.

The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals played an actual, regular season Major League Baseball game at Bowman Field in Williamsport, PA, the home of the Little League World Series, on Sunday Night Baseball.

It was a Major League game with a Minor — you could even call it Little — League atmosphere. Just 2,596 fans were in attendance, most of whom were the Little Leaguers and their parents themselves. Each Little League team paraded around the field prior to the game, and one representative from each helped to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Players wore special cleats, like Josh Harrison, who had kids themselves sign them, or Tommy Pham, who had his designed by two kids who are battling cancer.

MLB Little League Classic - St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates
A representative from each Little League team helped to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Pittsburgh won the game 6-3. In reality, though, it ended up being much more than just a game.

Both the Pirates and Cardinals showed up earlier in the day to take in some of the Little League action themselves. Players mingled with the Little Leaguers, who had the opportunity to take selfies, get autographs and even ride on each team’s bus.

“It’s pretty cool,” Chase Reinhard, a 12 year old third baseman and left fielder from Gross Ponte Woods Shores Little League told USA Today. “We got to hang out with them this afternoon, and they turned out to be regular people. You think they’re not like us because they’re Major Leaguers, but we saw them play ping-pong and just hang out. And then they sat and watched us play.”

Carlos Martinez, the ace right-hander of St. Louis’ staff, spent quality time with kids from the Dominican Republic, his home country. How cool is that? Imagine you’re a kid from the D.R. Carlos Martinez is likely one of your baseball heroes. And, he just stopped by to chat with you and your teammates. You never forget an experience like that.

Or, imagine you’re sitting in the stands, watching another Little League game, and Andrew McCutchen sits right next to you? That also actually happened.

Both these examples show why the event was a success. The players themselves showed a genuine interest in the Little Leaguers. (Not to mention, the Pirates and Cardinals had a combined three Little League World Series alumni themselves.) They didn’t come to play their game. They came to give a once-in-a-lifetime experience to the hundreds of kids from around the globe, who also happen to play the same sport as them. That’s great to see.

"I have a lot of great days in my job. But today, even before we get to the Major League game, has been one of the absolute best," Manfred told "I would be remiss if I didn't start with thanking partner [Little League president and CEO] Steve Keener. The event they run year in and year out is absolutely phenomenal. I was honored to be a part of it over there today."

Cardinals infielder Jedd Gyorko offered similar sentiments.

“It is really cool to interact with the young fans,” Gyorko told USA Today. “The way they all look up to us is great, plus it’s a way for us to give back.”

Manfred mentioned that he wanted to make the Classic an annual occurrence. What do I say to that? Of course he should. This is something that should have been done a long time ago, but it’s better late than never. Even if he convinced thirty, fifteen or even just one of those kids to become a baseball fan for life, it was more than worth it.

This is just what Major League Baseball needed to do to keep the game growing.

"I think kids are important,” Cardinals pitcher Mike Leake told “They're the future of us.”

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow Devan on Twitter @DevanFink.