MOST MOTHERS would have given in long ago, but not Demetra Manley. If surviving the last decade in Saginaw, Mich.—a city ravaged by the crumbling of the automobile industry—taught her anything, it's that you have to fight for what you believe in. And Demetra has always believed that her girl had every right to play with the boys.
Destiny was four when she began playing T-ball. She was in fourth grade when she first told her coach that she wanted to pitch. By last season, when she was 11, she was the best pitcher on her team, but she was usually the only girl on the field.
The snickers, the subtle pushback—Demetra chose to ignore all of it. Things got bad this summer when the rec-league director strongly suggested that Destiny move on to softball. There was subtler pressure from other coaches. One day Demetra found Destiny in tears. "Why don't they just let me play?" she asked.
Demetra made sure Destiny got back onto the roster, but by late summer she was tired of fighting and looked into AAU softball programs for next spring. She gently told Destiny that maybe it was time to join the girls. Then, one August morning, Demetra was in the middle of the morning rush, getting ready for work with the television buzzing in the background. She stopped cold in front of a morning news program that was telling the story of a 13-year-old girl from Philadelphia.
A girl with piercing hazel eyes and dark braids that fell below her waist. A girl who played baseball.
You are super awesome. It's cool how you always believe in yourself. It is also cool how, if you set your mind to things, you do really cool stuff.
Sincerely, Your Number One Fan, Julia
IT WAS 7 p.m. on a cool November evening, and Mo'ne Davis, one of the last souls left on Springside Academy's sprawling campus, was thirsty. "My mouth is so dry, I need a drink of water—bad," she said. Davis had gone straight from a two-hour basketball practice (she's the starting point guard on the high school varsity team) into an office where she answered questions over the phone for 15 minutes for a live radio sports show in St. Louis. When you've stood on the rubber in a major league stadium in front of 43,000 screaming fans—as she did for the ceremonial first pitch before Game 4 of the World Series—and calmly thrown a strike, when you've been directed by Spike Lee in a commercial seen by millions, when you've been on the Tonight Show, a local radio show is a stroll on the beach, even if you are just a few months into the eighth grade. Asked if she's tired of doing interviews, Mo'ne says, "Kind of. Especially the ones where you know what questions they're going to ask beforehand."
There was one question, she admits, that flustered her tonight: "What major leaguer could you strike out?"
"I couldn't think of anyone, so I just said Yasiel Puig," she says.
It's been four months since Mo'ne became, for one week, the most talked-about teenager in America, and nothing and everything has changed. She attends Springside, an elite private school in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia that she has gone to since second grade. Mo'ne still keeps her locker unlocked, and she still walks the halls carrying her boulder-sized pink backpack. The biggest way she's different? "More Instagram followers," says Jahli Hendricks, a buddy. To her friends she's still Mo—just another goofy classmate who happens to have a memoir coming out next spring and who attended more awards ceremonies this fall than Meryl Streep during Oscar season. (Two days later Mo'ne would be on stage next to Joe Torre in St. Louis accepting the Musial Award for Extraordinary Character of 2014.) There have been ongoing discussions about a movie, though finding a teenage actress who can throw a 70-mph fastball is probably beyond most casting directors. The idea of Mo'ne playing herself has been floated, but "to be yourself in a movie about you?" she says. "That would be really, really awkward."
By now, the story of Mo'ne is worn nearly smooth. How Steve Bandura, a youth sports coach for Philadelphia's Department of Parks and Recreation, discovered her seven years ago when she was throwing perfect spirals with a football on his baseball field, and he recruited her to play on his Anderson Monarchs teams. How Mo'ne became the ace of that team. How Mo'ne, in Williamsport, became the first female to earn a win in the Little League World Series and helped the Taney Little League Dragons reach the U.S. semifinals. Though her baseball-playing days may be over—she doesn't plan on trying out for the high school baseball team—there is a sense that Mo'ne is moving on to a bigger, more interesting chapter in her life.
What do you do besides sports? Who's your biggest idol? I saw your video. I thought it was so cool because it gave me the feeling that I can do anything I put my mind to.
LAST SUMMER was full of sports stars behaving badly, of racial tensions in the U.S. and of missiles and bombs abroad. If you were grasping for a sliver of light, you could have found it on the fields of Williamsport, in the story of the girl who became a symbol for female empowerment and hope for inner city baseball. Every so often we're reminded of what sports can mean to American culture, how they can change the way people think about themselves and what is possible.
In Philadelphia people lined up 10, 15 deep on Broad Street for the parade to honor the Taney Dragons after they returned from the Little League World Series. People in suits leaned out of towers holding homemade signs. The parade cut through the business district, into the heart of Center City, through residential South Philly, and ended in FDR Park, across from Citizens Bank Park, where Mayor Michael Nutter honored a team whose makeup, with its racial and socioeconomic diversity, mirrored its city's.
"In Philadelphia it was wonderful to have a positive story, rather than more awful news about the struggling middle class, or unemployment, or schools being shuttered and not opening on time," says Ellen Siegel, one of the founders of the Taney Little League. "There was a sense that this was the perfect story for the perfect time."
The Taney board is bracing for a flood of applicants for the 2015 season. Registration doesn't begin until January, but the town is already feeling the Mo'ne effect: This winter the Taney girls' basketball program saw an increase in participation of more than 50%.
The program is still receiving donations from strangers all over the country; people from more than 25 states have contributed money. Emails still arrive daily in the Taney in-box. A mother from South Philly wrote saying that she wanted to get her daughter onto the Dragons' team, though she might be a little early: Her daughter is three. There was a man who wrote about his 89-year-old grandfather, who'd lived his entire life in Philadelphia and watched every Dragons game that was on TV; his favorite player was Mo'ne. Another man wrote about the "racial and social" struggles he faced as a Little League coach in the 1970s in Boston.
Late last month a woman wrote of being reminded of the challenges she had encountered in her life decades ago when she was discouraged from pursuing biology in college, when her adviser told her that no one would hire a female biologist. Ten years later the woman returned to school and pursued a Ph.D.; now the chair of the biology department at a university, she simply felt compelled to write about the connection she felt to the young girl from South Philly.
I'm in third grade. I'm a boy. I've been playing basketball since I was two. Girls can play sports as good as boys—sometimes better. My basketball team is 5--1. We made it to the championship. We have two girls on our team. One of them made a buzzer beater. What position do you play? Who's your favorite basketball player?
I wasn't forced to write this letter. I wanted to.
YOU THROW like a girl."
The words were meant as an insult, of course, thrown around the playground during gym class and recess. When the third-grade teachers at the New Roads School in Santa Monica, Calif., heard their students using the phrase this fall, they presented the class with a short documentary on Mo'ne Davis. The video got the kids' attention, and the students who'd never heard of Mo'ne were drawn in by the story. The class responded so well that the teachers had each student write a letter to Mo'ne, and then they filmed the students reading the letters.
Mo'ne is wary of adoring adults—"One time a couple showed up at the school with a painting of me, which I appreciated, but it was definitely a little creepy"—but when she hears from other kids, she lights up; she got such a kick out of the New Roads video that she watched it three times the night she first saw it. A few days later she responded to each of the questions in her own video letter to the school.
Of course, she can't get to know everyone who has been touched by her story. She has never met Destiny Manley, the 11-year-old from Saginaw who in August started for her team in the first game of the Detroit Tigers Hometown Little League tournament and threw two scoreless innings before she was pulled by her coach to keep her pitch count in check. With his team clinging to a lead going into the final inning, the coach turned to his best pitcher again. Destiny reentered the game and recorded the final three outs.
It was soon after she first came across Mo'ne's story that Demetra Manley sat down and wrote to the Taney Little League to say that they had inspired her to fight back at the rec-league administration. That her daughter no longer felt alone. That there was not a lot of hope in their hometown these days, but Mo'Ne had given them some. Demetra explained that though the two girls had never met, Mo'ne "inspired my daughter to keep playing. It helped to motivate and inspire her to continue doing what she loves. And that is to play baseball."
"In Philadelphia there was the sense that this was the perfect story for the perfect time," says Siegel.
Photograph by Al Tielemans Sports Illustrated
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STAR TURNS Mo'ne's performance made her an icon to kids and drew the attention of pro athletes like Michael Carter-Williams and Ryan Howard.
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
[See caption above]
DOUGLAS GORENSTEIN/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK/GETTY IMAGES (JIMMY FALLON)
MEDIA BLITZ Mo'ne was everywhere last summer: She shimmied with Jimmy and became SI's youngest cover girl.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (COVER)
[See caption above]