'What a feeling': Little League champ Taylor North's victory lap starts at Comerica Park
Detroit — The world champions arrived at Comerica Park just in time for batting practice.
And the Tigers were there, too.
The boys from Taylor North Little League, 48 hours removed from winning the state's second World Series championship, were treated like VIPs by the Tigers on Tuesday night — the first of what's expected to be a flurry of attaboy celebrations that's also set to include a city parade and fireworks show Thursday night, and Lions and Michigan State football games in September.
"I think they're starting to," manager Rick Thorning said, asked if the boys, 11 of them ages 11 and 12, understand what they accomplished earlier this month in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
"Some kids think they don't have to go back to school."
The Taylor North championship team, years in the making as the city merged three of its Little League teams and Thorning and coach Guido Ulin developed a hybrid that allowed the boys to play both Little League and travel ball, beat Ohio, 5-2, in Sunday's championship game.
They returned home Monday — their first time home in nearly three weeks, as they went from regionals right to South Williamsport — several of the boys arriving to see their lawns decorated by neighbors.
And it's been a blur ever since.
Ulin, without even any of the players with him, got recognized at the local Dick's Sporting Goods, and was asked for a picture. Rick Thorning's boss, Washtenew County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, organized a surprise celebration lunch. Gavin Ulin, Guido's son, received a standing ovation from fellow customers as he was leaving the local Texas Roadhouse.
"We have so much support right now," said Cameron Thorning, Rick's son, and the star slugger in South Williamsport, with his three moon-shot homers. "We're going to get to so many places. It feels great."
Said Gavin Ulin: "Just a ton of support."
Count the Tigers among the fans. The Taylor North games were on in the clubhouse over the last week-and-a-half, and manager AJ Hinch taped social-media messages of support. Miguel Cabrera, star pitcher Ethan VanBelle's favorite player, came over during batting practice, signing autographs and taking selfies.
Jonathan Schoop, who once upon a time starred for the Curacao team that won the Little League World Series in 2004, was particularly interested in meeting the boys. "Who'd ya beat?" he asked, signing autographs. Coaches shared some cell-phone video footage with him. Ulin scored a bat from Jeimer Candelario, and Jaxon Shufeldt scored one from Robbie Grossman.
All the Taylor North players scored several autographs — and, actually, even signed a few of their own.
The Tigers then honored Taylor North in a pregame ceremony before the series opener against the Oakland A's, complete with a montage of highlights on the large videoboard, as well as individual player introductions. Several Tigers then presented each player and coach a custom jersey with the No. 21 and "LLWS CHAMPS" on the back, as Queen's "We Are The Champions" played. They're the first Little League World Series champion since Hamtramck in 1959.
"It's great to look out here and see these guys, and it's great to see these kids and their excitement," Rick Thorning said. "They love baseball. I think if I told them we had practice today, they would be ready to go.
"That's just the type of kids they are ... and these guys are their idols. It's phenomenal to see them out here."
And, oh, better yet, school doesn't start for another week.
Rick Thorning and Guido Ulin aren't as fortunate. Both went back to work this week, Thorning with the sheriff's department, and Ulin with the city of Taylor as director of parks and recreation.
"I thought I was gonna go into coaching," Guido Ulin, whose team won 15 of its last 16 games with the lone loss to a Hawaii team it eventually beat the second time in South Williamsport, said with a laugh, "but that didn't pan out, so I'm back to work. It was a tough day, the phone didn't stop.
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"But it's a great feeling for Taylor. What a feeling. To get the state behind you like this, it's phenomenal."
Also back to work, by the way, is Gavin Ulin, the young entrepreneur who runs a lawn-mowing business — a "side hustle," he's called it; rather that video games or a new iPhone, he asked for a walk-behind lower mower for Christmas, and it's paid off to the tune of several hundred dollars a week.
Asked about that Tuesday night, he said he's sticking with his 10 customers. ("I can't pick up any more.") While he's been on the road, Grandpa picked up the slack, so Gavin is good for a week.
Even better, Grandpa's letting him keep the cash. With one caveat.
"I just have to treat him to a steak dinner," Gavin Ulin said.
No sweat. Odds are, Gavin Ulin and his teammates might score a free dinner or two around town anyway.
So, if they don't yet truly get the significance of what they have accomplished — they were just the 11th team from Michigan to make the Little League World Series, the first from Taylor, and just the second champion — they will soon.
And, probably, forever.
"I don't think they really grasp how real that was, with 3 million people watching," said Guido Ulin, who, with Rick Thorning, already are looking ahead to two years from now, when this group will play in the Junior League World Series, held in Taylor. "To be 12 again. But we got to go along for the ride. "That was great."
"What we've built now is a foundation."
Good luck finding a kid from Taylor not interested in playing Little League for the foreseeable future.
"That's our plan," Rick Thorning said, standing on the field at Comerica Park, Tigers batting practice serving as the background soundtrack. "That's our hope."
The spoils, after all, are pretty sweet.