Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger learned to love baseball at the Little League World Series
Grown Cody Bellinger rounds the bases the same way kid Cody Bellinger did. His strut is confident, his face stoic. For almost as long as he’s been playing baseball, he’s expected excellence. He has experienced a lot of it too.
These days, Bellinger is the heartbeat of the best team in baseball, streaking toward a potential MVP award in just his third MLB season. He makes his exploits look so easy, so effortless. At just 23 years old, the Dodgers slugger has reached a pinnacle of his profession.
And yet, part of him longs for the good old days. Even now, he gets nostalgic. He cherishes the moments that made him fall in love with the game.
“Back in the day,” he said, “you’re just playing for fun.”
By now, Bellinger’s appearance in the 2007 Little League World Series is well-documented. He was a key member of the Chandler (Ariz.) National Little League team, for which his three-time World Series champion father, Clay Bellinger, was an assistant coach. He hit a home run in his first game in Williamsport, Pa., and is one of nine current big leaguers who played in the event.
“The 11- and 12-year-old kids are stinking rock stars,” said Clay, who played for the New York Yankees from 1999 to 2001 and the Angels in 2002.
The Dodgers and Hyun-Jin Ryu are hammered in a 10-2 loss to the Yankees, who take the opener of a series billed as a potential World Series glimpse.
Though Cody fields questions about his childhood highlight this time of every season, with this year’s LLWS set to conclude Sunday, he can’t help but sound sentimental about that summer.
“It brings back some solid memories,” he said. “You remember it’s still a game. You can get away from that sometimes.”
Originally, Cody wasn’t supposed to be on the team at all. He was 11, and still far from sprouting into the 6-foot-4, 203-pound slugger he is now. The Little League World Series is predominantly 12-year-olds.
But Cody was a left-handed hitter with surprising pop, and his small stature made him deceptive to opposing pitchers. He made the roster and took advantage of pitchers who would underestimate his strength. When they’d challenge him over the plate, he often made them pay.
Cody Bellinger’s journey from the Little League World Series to the Big Leagues.
“He found a way to drive the ball over the fence,” said Jeff Parrish, who was the manager of that Chandler team and put Cody near the top of the batting order. “Even at that young age, he was always a competitor.”
Reaching the LLWS is a long road. Chandler had to win tournaments at the district, state and regional levels. Parrish remembers his group being an “underdog” at each stage. Yet, they lost just once en route to Williamsport. They missed the first full month of school in the process.
“They were ‘The Boys of Summer,’ the endless summer,” Parrish said. “When they were winning, they’d say things like, ‘We’re not going to school. Our summer continues.’”
Behind a four-RBI outburst from Bellinger, Chandler clinched its LLWS bid by winning the West Regional in San Bernardino against the Southern California champion, Solana Beach. That game was on a Saturday. Before the sun rose Sunday, they were on a plane to Pennsylvania, where every game of the global tournament was slated to be shown on TV for the first time.
Not until breaking into the big leagues 10 years later would Bellinger encounter a similar experience.
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“The travel, first time on TV, the combination of everything like that — it was fun,” he said. It would permanently change the way he felt about the game too.
In the first game, Cody singled twice before slicing a two-run homer the other way in a victory. Even then, when his still-growing frame was swallowed by a powder blue West region jersey and streaks of eye black covered his boyish face, he had the same extended, explosive swing. He played with the same swagger that’s on display now.
“He was always confident,” Clay said. “I wouldn’t say he was the best player, because we had some really good players. But being the youngest, what he was able to do, his swing the way it was, you knew there was a chance for him to be decent.”
Chandler bowed out in the semifinals, after losing to Lubbock, Texas, and a Warner Robins, Ga., squad that went on to win the tournament. Some of Bellinger’s best memories, however, came away from the diamond.
His team went fishing during one off day in the state tournament and had a picnic retreat at the beach during regionals. In Williamsport, they spent downtime lounging around a players’ barrack complete with pingpong tables and TVs, hanging out with other teams from around the world. When their third LLWS game was postponed by rain, they visited the home of Clay’s former teammate Mike Mussina — a sprawling estate that gave the kids a glimpse into an MLB lifestyle.
October suddenly didn’t feel as inviting for the Dodgers, whose 10-2 loss to the Yankees exposed some possible problems should the teams meet in the fall.
The atmosphere around Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, where crowds of more than 18,000 fans gathered, reminded Clay of the big leagues.
“People play [Little League] to hopefully get to Williamsport,” the elder Bellinger said. “We were fortunate enough to do it.”
Clay reminisced on the journey while reclining in a light blue seat in Dodger Stadium, having just finished watching his son take batting practice Friday before the start of the Dodgers’ anticipated — and potential World Series preview — series with the New York Yankees. Right in front of his eyes, his son is living out his dream in a sport that captured his heart exactly 12 years ago.
“Him walking out and playing in front of people [in the LLWS] and doing well,” Clay said, “it was a good experience.”
Current MLB players who participated in the Little League World Series
|TeamToms River, N.J.
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