Austin Hays still associates baseball with fried chicken.
Hays’ maternal grandfather, Jerald, was a military man, so whenever he drove Hays to youth practices or games in Pierson, Florida, they would reach the field several hours early, trying to dodge traffic Hays knew wouldn’t exist. But there was a Church’s Chicken across the street, and the two would share an eight-piece meal — all dark meat — before Jerald flipped Hays the same five balls over and over until it was actually time to play.
“We spent a lot of time in his truck, there at the field, just talking about whatever, and that was our thing,” the Orioles’ outfielder said. “Fried chicken and baseball just went together for me.”
Jerald died during Hays’ junior year of high school, but he just might try to find a chicken joint Sunday in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. With the Orioles set to play the Boston Red Sox in the Little League Classic, thoughts such as Hays’ were evoked often this week in Baltimore’s clubhouse. The annual game is played in conjunction with the Little League World Series, and the children participating will get the chance to spend time with the major leaguers from both teams.
It’s likely to bring back memories of their own youth baseball days. Before the game, The Baltimore Sun asked several Orioles to reflect on that time in their careers and what it’ll mean to them to participate in the event.
Manager Brandon Hyde
“That was always a dream of mine to play in Williamsport. We lost in the Northern California playoffs to advance. We probably had, like, five more tournaments to win, but it was just a devastating feeling, knowing that your season was over in Little League because you just wanted to get there so bad. To see the experience watching on TV — back then, it wasn’t ESPN. It was more of just like that Saturday afternoon, ‘Wide World of Sports,’ afternoon game kind of thing, and thinking how lucky those kids were to be able to play in that. I remember those years very, very clearly and just wanting to be there. It’s going to be a really cool experience to go check that out.
“For me, that’s like baseball Americana a little bit, Williamsport in the summertime, and to be able to be around the kids, there’s gonna be a lot of energy obviously with all of the Little League teams that are there. It’s kind of like being a kid again a little bit.”
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias
“I’m really looking forward to going to the game. I’ve never been to Williamsport. I think that Little League is almost, like, a rite of passage for American kids, boys and girls. Not every part of the country has Little League, but I grew up in Northern Virginia, and we had it in Centerville, Virginia, where we were living at the time, and I still remember kind of the honor of being on the all-star team for the Little League. You get to play against your friends and play on a field that is the right size for your age, and it makes the game a lot more fun. And I definitely remember moving to a bigger field after that and the game being a lot harder. I just think it’s a treasure for the sport to have the tradition and the establishment of Little League Baseball.”
Catcher Adley Rutschman
“It’s just a simpler time in baseball. When you’re playing travel ball and stuff like that, being able to go to hotels and you’re playing tag in the hotels and then you go out the next day and you play three games a day in some tournament where it’s just boiling hot, but all the parents are there and they’re grinding with you.
“It just takes you back to when all you really thought about was just playing and there was no real external noise. It kind of gives you that childlike mentality again.”
Infielder Tyler Nevin
“The purity of the game when you’re a kid is something you don’t get back. You didn’t care if you reached first on an error or not. It was just you got on first, you know? You didn’t worry about averages. You didn’t worry about OPS or anything like that. You just went out and had a good time. Pitch, hit, doesn’t matter. I think that’s the most special part about looking back to childhood baseball, just the purity of it.”
Starting pitcher Tyler Wells
“It’s more of the introduction and significance of baseball in my life. With my mom passing away at a young age and moving a few times in my life, baseball was always one of those things where it was a gateway to make friends and a gateway to get introduced to a new community and a new group of people, so it was always kind of like a safe haven. I’m hoping that the kids in Little League and the kids that move around all over the country from, say, military or just parents’ jobs or whatever it may be, that they find peace in doing something like Little League.”
Catcher Robinson Chirinos
“When I was 12, that’s when God put in my heart to be a big league player. I think before that, I played baseball just to play because I loved the game. But when I was 12, that’s when I told myself, ‘You know what? I want to be a big league player,’ and I started training for it, so that’s the best memory I have. That dream came to my heart, and I’m living the dream right now.”
Relief pitcher Bryan Baker
“I’d say actually hitting and hitting home runs. I don’t get to do that much anymore, so probably that, yeah, just for nostalgia purposes.
“It’ll probably be pretty special. I think it’s probably gonna give us a better perspective, which we need every once in a while, to kind of just take it back to the way it used to be, just a game, just go out there and have fun.”
Outfielder Brett Phillips
“I loved playing Little League Baseball. Obviously, I was playing travel ball, too, at the time, but it literally boosted my confidence as a player. I felt like I hit a homer every game. I remember games where I would hit three homers in a game, and those were some of my favorite times. We were one game away from going to the regional, which is right before Williamsport. We lost in the state championship game. But some of my favorite moments were playing Little League Baseball, and I’m excited to go to Williamsport because I never had the opportunity to and to slide down the hill and also just see the kids.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
“That’s how baseball should be played.”
Starting pitcher Jordan Lyles
“I just remember showing up and trying to have fun, and winning and losing wasn’t the end all, be all, kind of like how we invest in it nowadays. It was just showing up and hanging out and getting to see your friends outside of school. It was no care in the world.”
Relief pitcher Dillon Tate
“I remember losing in the state championship. This is to get into the regionals. I feel like that was the biggest Little League moment, just coming up a little bit short. It’s something I’ll never forget, though. Some of the most fun times that I had in baseball, for sure.
“I think [major leaguers meeting the Little Leaguers] just gives them hope. It just gets them to understand, ‘OK, I can do this.’ And I think that’s one of the biggest forms of currency that you can give to somebody.”
Outfielder Ryan McKenna
“I played Cal Ripken [Baseball], so we had a small town in Berwick, Maine, and we had a regular season, which was only a couple games, and then we had all-stars, and those are kind of the best kids in the area, and we lost I think two games in four years. Just that group and all the memories that we had together, going out and having barbecues, eating pizza and soda and then winning games, too. We had two state titles in the state of Maine, and I think we ended up losing pretty early in the regional, but the first one that we won was the first time in that town’s history, so everybody was throwing their gloves up and cheering and coming together, and it was super, super memorable. I still keep in touch with some of those guys on the team.”
Second baseman Rougned Odor
“Oh my God, I have a lot of memories when I was a little kid playing Little League. I never had the chance to play in Williamsport. We didn’t make it, but for me, it was like a dream to play there. When I was a little kid, that was all I wanted to do. I wanted to go there, and I can do it now.”
Relief pitcher Joey Krehbiel
“Hitting a bunch of home runs and being the best. No, I’m just kidding. Not about the home runs. Honestly, it kind of sounds corny, but kind of like what we are now. We’re just having fun, and that’s what Little League is about.”