Standing atop the hill, surrounded by a throng of kids half his height, Adley Rutschman looked out on the scene at Lamade Stadium. The Orioles’ rookie catcher was handed a large sheet of cardboard, then asked the kid next to him for the plan.
“You ready?” Rutschman asked. “What’re we doing? Are we running on this thing, or what?”
“Um,” the kid replied with the uncertainty that follows an American League Rookie of the Year candidate asking for instructions. “I don’t think that’s smart.”
So Rutschman adjusted. He tightened his belt, just to ensure no wardrobe malfunctions would occur. He crouched down, preparing to go head-first down the hill. Again, the urgings halted that plan before he could begin.
“I’ve got parents telling me not to go head-first,” Rutschman said, although one particularly ambitious onlooker informed Rutschman that if parents say not to do something, that usually means it’s more fun.
Rutschman turned over, placed his backside on the cardboard with his feet toward the base of the slope, and with three scooches, down he went. The contingent of kids around Rutschman charged after their newfound 24-year-old ringleader, sliding on cardboard of their own or galloping on two feet — with the occasional spill — down the hill.
He capped the display with a barrel roll — “gotta save yourself,” Rutschman said later — before springing to his feet to be swarmed once more by admirers hoping for autographs, photos or just a chance to stand near a real major leaguer.
When right-hander Spenser Watkins walked through a crowd after sliding down that same hill shortly before, one kid walked up to the starting pitcher with wide eyes. Watkins and the rest of his teammates wore their orange Orioles jerseys, a way for them to be easily recognizable, but the child wanted to make sure.
“Are you really the Orioles?” the boy inquired. Yes, Watkins nodded.
For much of Sunday, as the Orioles visited Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to take part in the Little League Classic, they were the center of attention. When their plane landed at the airport, the Indiana and Panama Little League teams were there to greet Baltimore and the Boston Red Sox, who landed shortly after. When the Orioles walked into the Little League World Series complex, barriers were the only thing separating them from the masses of followers.
There were no barriers on the hill overlooking Lamade Stadium, where Orioles and Little Leaguers mingled — and even shared cardboard for the swift trip down the slope.
Watkins and left-hander Keegan Akin were the first two Orioles down the hill. Partway down, as they were neck-and-neck, Watkins gave his teammate a shove to gain himself an advantage.
“I race dirty,” Watkins said after his victory.
“It’s not hard,” Akin chimed in. “I’m slow.”
Those moments riddled Sunday. Rookie outfielder Kyle Stowers said Watkins was the best racer, given his cut-throat ability to push Akin out of the way. Rutschman was a firm believer infielder Richie Martin deserved credit as the best, almost purely for the hilarity of Martin’s descent. Near the bottom, Martin lost control and took the legs out from under a kid when he plowed through the unsuspecting onlooker.
Martin thought taking collateral damage might disqualify him from the distinction.
“Shoot, I feel bad, honestly,” Martin said. “I didn’t even know I hit him, honestly. His legs were so light. But I hope he’s doing all right. When I was going down, there was another kid in front of me who was just stopped. So as soon as I tried to get around him, I just started spinning. It was over from there.”
Manager Brandon Hyde raced Colton, his 14-year-old son, down the slope — and won.
“A little heavier,” Hyde explained, which helped him pick up momentum.
The hill sliding was the most action-packed portion Sunday, but the Orioles connected with fans throughout. When right-hander Joey Krehbiel saw the crowd around the team’s plane, he said “I felt like we’ve gone to a new country and we’re being greeted” like a presidential host would be.
He traded hats with one Little Leaguer, but outfielder Anthony Santander soon bartered for the Caribbean region hat, giving Krehbiel one representing Africa instead. Outfielder Austin Hays liked the purple and teal hat he received. He said the scene reminded him of playing a USSSA tournament at Disney World.
“All the team would exchange pins,” Hays said. “I still have that towel at my house. There’s probably a hundred different pins on there from teams all over the whole world who came to play in that tournament.”
Now Hays has a few Little League hats to add to his collection, and he wasn’t the only Oriole to ask for autographs in return. On Rutschman’s jersey, the signatures of Little Leaguers shone everywhere on the orange — displaying how many autographs Rutschman gave out.
Right-hander Dillon Tate met with a Little League team from Hawaii. He asked which pitcher took the mound earlier this week, because Tate saw highlights of the pitcher’s outing and was impressed “by what he’s able to do with the baseball for his age.”
Tate whipped off his own hat and asked for the Little Leaguer’s autograph. “Man, I’ve gotta have you sign my hat,” Tate told him.
But there was no joy — or held breath — that could compare to the scene around Rutschman atop the hill.
One onlooker, a parent, told Rutschman to not get hurt. He’s still a rookie, though, a kid at heart. So he took off down the hill at speed, arm outstretched for high-fives as he went, and slid himself into the hearts of many.