Breaking Chuckie Howard’s record, Old Man Brown and other stories of Cubs’ Little League days

PITTSBURGH — The memories come flooding back. Ask a major leaguer what he did last week at the plate, and he might need to look at a box score to remind himself. But ask about his Little League experiences, and boy, does he have memories.

“My 12-year-old season, I broke the home run record for our Little League,” Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant said recently. “Before the season started, I told my parents I wanted this drum set. Really bad. They said if you break — his name was Chuckie Howard — if you break his record of 18 home runs, we’ll get you the drum set. I hit 19, but I changed my mind at the last minute and asked for golf clubs. That was my first set of golf clubs.”

Bryant and his teammates will get to experience Little League all over again — and finally make it to Williamsport, Pennsylvania — when they and the Pittsburgh Pirates take in a game on Sunday before playing each other later that night in the hometown of the Little League World Series. It’s a dream come true — even if it comes decades later for some.

“To win a district playoff game back then and advance was a pretty big deal,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It was hard to imagine being good enough to get that far.”

“That far” wasn’t very far at all for Maddon. He grew up in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, just 73 miles from Williamsport, but he has never been there. Not until Sunday, at least.

“As a community, we were more football- and basketball-oriented,” Maddon said. “But as baseball players, we really wanted to go.”

Across the country, in Las Vegas, Bryant had the same dream. But it was his brother who actually got closer.

“He made it to regionals, in San Bernardino, [California],” Bryant said. “I don’t even remember the game. I was busy trading pins. I still have that collection.”

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo also dreamed of making it to Williamsport. In Parkland, Florida, he watched every year.

“We never got close,” Rizzo said with a bit of a disappointment that still lingers. “But it was always a goal.”

What’s left are those memories of attempting to get there.

“In my first Little League game [T-ball], I ran the bases backward,” Bryant said, laughing. “I didn’t know what direction to go. And there were no bathrooms because it was Saturday, and the school was closed. So my grandma had a bucket in her car, and that’s where I went to pee.

“You remember the stupid things, but they’re great.”

“I remember going from my first Communion straight to my Little League game and playing in my suit, just with a jersey over it,” Rizzo said.

Like Bryant, Rizzo was coached by his dad. Both profess theirs were the good kind — the kind who didn’t care about anything but making sure the kids had fun.

“My dad’s signs were pretty easy,” Rizzo said with a laugh. “He would just scream from the third-base coach’s box, ‘Steal!’ or ‘Bunt!’

“We had a play, if I was pitching or catching. We had, like, a padded backstop, so if there was a guy on third, we would purposely pitch it back there, and it would bounce back to the catcher, and we would nail the guy trying to steal home. My friend Christian and I would do that.”

Ask the players and even Maddon how good they were as Little Leaguers, and they aren’t shy — or forgetful.

“When I was 12, you could only pitch in every other game,” Maddon said, smiling. “I was 8-0, and the other guy was 0-7, so we went 8-7 for the year. … I hit .500 when I was 9. They used to post the stat sheet in the clubhouse.”

Said Bryant: “My last year in Little League, I hit .720 with 19 home runs. … I wanted to go to Williamsport so we could miss some school in August. It was a fairy tale to get there. It didn’t happen for us.”

But it’s happening now — for them and the fortunate Little League teams still in the tournament. Maddon and his players promised to soak in the game they attend before taking on the Pirates. It’s bound to bring back even more memories.

“There was a water tank out in left-center field, and there was a dude by the name of Brown that used to hang out there,” Maddon said. “Just an old man by the name of Brown. He would sit there and yell, ‘Hit the water tank!’ Finally, I hit the water tank, and I knew that if you could hit the water tank, it was a pretty significant development in your Little League career.”

Bryant loves all that he has now as a pro ballplayer, but his Little League days can never be replicated.

“I really enjoy watching now, still,” he said. “It’s very innocent. A batter gets hit, and you go over and shake hands. You miss those days. That’s when it really felt like a game. … Some of my favorite memories are from Little League and my dad coaching me. It didn’t matter if you won or lost, you were just happy to be out there playing.”

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