SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.
If you were looking last week for a thread of hope amid all the hurt in America and savagery abroad, for something to thrill to and cheer about, this is where you found it, on a baseball diamond in central Pennsylvania that really did amount to a field of dreams.
It was here, at the Little League World Series, that Mo'ne Davis captured the country's hearts. A 13-year-old wunderkind from Philadelphia, she was believed to be the first black girl to play in the series. She was definitely the first girl ever to pitch a shutout.
She landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, exploded stereotypes about women and sports and did it with a poise and grace that most people twice or even four times her age struggle to muster. She was some story. So is a lanky white man who watched her from a seat behind home plate, gripped by nervousness, pride and a gnawing regret.
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"What haunts me is that for every success we have, there are probably 100 other kids who could be successes but just never had the opportunity," he told me. "I hope this opened people's eyes: Kids, given the chance, will excel, whatever their economic background, whatever their race."
His name is Steve Bandura. He brought Davis into baseball and for many years has coached her, as he has hundreds and hundreds of other inner-city Philadelphia kids going back to the 1990s, when he chucked a well-paying job in marketing to establish a baseball, basketball and soccer league for them.
"These kids had nothing," Bandura, now 53, told me. "And you're going to criticize them for getting into trouble when they have nothing to do?"
He was trying to give them focus, purpose, a point of entry to top high schools and colleges and a purchase on bigger, brighter futures. And he accomplished just that. Davis is an example: She's now an honors student on a scholarship at a private school in an affluent Philadelphia neighborhood.
"And it's not just her," Mark Williams, her stepfather, told me. "Steve's done this for so many inner-city kids. He wants to prove that they can go anywhere. I've never met a better person, and when I say that, I mean it."
Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, were a reminder of how heartbreakingly far apart black and white can be. Bandura and his players provide a glimpse of a different, better possibility.
"The guy is a Disney movie," said Maximillian Potter, a Denver-based writer who grew up with him in a white working-class area of Philadelphia where racism was prevalent.
Bandura vividly remembers a conversation he once overheard between his father, a machinist, and a landlord in the neighborhood who said that he'd had to throw out a stack of applications from prospective renters. All of the applicants were black. Bandura's father didn't talk or think like that.
"He would go to whatever lengths were necessary to help anyone," Bandura said. Noting that he and his two sisters were adopted, he told me, "I always felt like the luckiest kid alive. I felt like I won the lottery."
Sometimes gratitude begets generosity. When Bandura started the inner-city sports league, which was initially for kids ages 5 to 8, he wasn't even paid. The work remains a considerable financial sacrifice, although he now runs the program as an employee of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
Soon after the league was born, he extended its age range and began taking the best of the older kids and putting them on a traveling baseball team called the Anderson Monarchs, with which Davis and six of the other 11 players on the squad at the Little League World Series are affiliated.
And he turned the Monarchs into more than just a team. It was a finishing school. He'd bark at the kids about manners, posture, tucking in their shirts, chewing with their mouths closed.
It was a history lesson. He made them read up on Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues, civil rights. It was a home away from home. For many Monarchs, Bandura was a second father. For some, he was the only one.
"It's bigger than baseball," said Bandura's wife, Robin, who is black. "It's a culture. It's about discipline and self-respect and camaraderie: things that don't really get taught a lot of places."
He used to worry that he was too tough on them with his incessant talk of professionalism and sportsmanship. "I thought they'd hate me," he said.
But four of the Monarchs from the 1997 team showed up here Wednesday night, to root for Davis and to see Bandura. They'd all graduated from college.
Bandura told me that he still has the book reports that he made them do decades ago on "Jackie Robinson and the Story of All-Black Baseball." He required it of them and of many of their successors because, he said, "If you don't know where you came from, you have no idea where you're going." And because he wanted them to have as many role models as possible.
Few can match Robinson. And, Bandura said, there aren't many messages better than the one on Robinson's tombstone, a photograph of which appears on the team's Facebook page. "A life is not important," it reads, "except in the impact it has on other lives."