PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 9:34pm

Getting used to fleeting fame

At 13, Mo'ne Davis' baseball pitching talent hurtled her to international fame, but she could very well be a has-been at 14


Tim Noonan has been crafting uniquely provocative columns for the SCMP and SMP for more than a decade. A native of Canada, he has over 20 years’ experience in Asia and has been a regular contributor to a number of prominent publications, including Time magazine, Forbes, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The Independent.

This is how the hype machine works. Take one precocious and athletically gifted youngster whose dominant feats become magnified because they occur on their sport's biggest stage. Throw in the fact that the athlete is charismatic, photogenic, engaging, intelligent and, most importantly, very marketable. Shake, stir and voila; a media sensation is born.

It doesn't take long these days either. Social media being what it is, the feats go viral in seconds, global exposure is instantaneous and before you know it said athlete is not only getting a congratulatory tweet from US First Lady Michelle Obama but is on the cover of Sports Illustrated and playing in front of record crowds on nationally broadcast games that also smash previous viewing numbers. It's phenom time and while the fame is now there, fortune would surely soon follow with lucrative endorsement deals and a multimillion-dollar contract seemingly the order of the day.

Fortune would surely soon follow with lucrative endorsement deals and a multimillion-dollar contract seemingly the order of the day

There is, however, one problem. The dominant athlete causing the sensation is all of 13 years old and playing in the boys' Little League World Series (LLWS). And on top of all that, she's also a girl. Two weeks ago few people outside of Philadelphia knew who Mo'ne Davis was. But after throwing a shutout in a regional qualifier a few days earlier, Mo'ne tossed a two-hit shutout featuring eight strikeouts and a tailing fastball over 113km/h and became the first female pitcher to ever win a LLWS game.

For a brief moment she became the most famous and followed baseball player in the US. Every one from Good Morning America to The New York Times was badgering her for interviews. ESPN was prominently featuring her in promotions and autograph seekers were besieging her everywhere she went. The cover of Sports Illustrated screamed "MO'NE - Remember her name (As if we could ever forget)." Ever forget? She's 13 years old. She could easily be a has-been by the age of 14. Ah, but the rabid and insatiable vortex of modern-day celebrity asks for no birth certificates and knows no boundaries. By the time Mo'ne prepared to pitch her next game for her Philadelphia team against Las Vegas five days later, a record crowd of over 34,000 was in attendance - 9,000 more than attended the major league game between the Phillies and Mariners that night - as well as 350 media members and the largest viewing audience ever for a LLWS game watching on ESPN.

Even someone twice the girl's age would be overwhelmed by the scrutiny and pressure. But Mo'ne seemed to keep her trademark cool on the mound, at least momentarily. While she did strike out six batters, she was gone by the third inning and gave up three runs as the powerful Vegas team went on to win 8-1. One night later her team were eliminated in the semi-finals by a squad from Chicago and just like that Mo'ne mania was over.

However, her story will hopefully live on. A 13-year-old black girl with a radiant smile and waist-length dreadlocks tidily wrapped up in a neat bow managed to overpower the best little league players in the country. At a time when baseball has become anathema to black inner city youths in the US, a most unlikely saviour arrives. Ironically, the Chicago team that beat Philadelphia in the semis, Jackie Robinson West, became the first all-black team to make the finals on the US side of the LLWS in 31 years. Needless to say their success can't help but raise the game's profile.

Here in Asia, there is no such need. Baseball may not be booming in the US inner cities but it is thriving in the Orient. Japan has won three of the past four LLWS and nine overall while Taiwan has been victorious 17 times. Since 1967, when teams from Asia were allowed to compete in the LLWS for the first time, they have won 28 of 47 titles, not including the 1992 tournament when the champion team from the Philippines were forced to forfeit their title for using ineligible players.

A number of stars from past LLWS have gone on to play in the major leagues and only time will tell who from this year's tourney will make it. Even harder to predict is how the only little league baseball player to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated will do in seven or eight years. If natural physical development progresses and a 21-year-old Mo'ne Davis is throwing a baseball at speeds around 150km/h she could well be the first female to play in the majors and no one will ever forget her name. But for now at least, her tale is merely a heartwarming and inspiring one. Let the kid breathe.


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Getting used to fleeting fame

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