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Al Tielemans considers himself lucky. The longtime SI photographer was sitting inside his home on the morning of Saturday August 9, 2014, when he came across a golden opportunity while reading The Philadelphia plaintiff it would capture a new moment in the history of SI magazine and one that would illustrate a greater pulse for girls and women in sport.
Tielemans was not heading for a trip to Citizens Bank Park to capture an iconic moment from a game for the Phillies, a franchise that was nearly six years away from its last World Series title and had already recorded more than 65 losses in of the 2014 season. The lifelong Philadelphia native was instead considering a visit to northwest South Williamsport, Pennsylvania to cover the 2014 Little League World Series.
The Taney Dragons Little League side of Philadelphia – a club that included underdogs from across the City of Brotherly Love – had earned a spot in the LLWS after beating Newark National Little League of Delaware on August 10. As Tielemans missed out on the Dragons’ regional victory, he was determined to capture electrifying 13-year-old pitcher and infielder Mo’ne Davis, who was buzzing around town for his eccentric skills that included a fastball at 70 mph and a threatening curveball that kicked opposing hitters.
However, Tielemans faces a difficult situation. As a photographer for SI, when Davis’ team played and how they fared during the LLWS determined the likelihood of producing what would become “something that could make a difference” a week later. “It was a small window of five days…but it worked perfectly,” Tielemans says.
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After Tielemans successfully pitched the idea to SI editor Chris Stone and wrote down all of his win-loss scenarios in an excel sheet column, he made the three-hour drive to South Williamsport. He captured photos of Davis in practice, shot more of it from a 4-0 win over Little League South Nashville, Tenn., and also covered the Dragons’ dramatic contest against Team Texas on August 17 before they fall in Nevada three. days later in the American semi-finals.
During batting practice before a game, Tielemans captured a photo of Davis sitting on an upturned bucket with her arm outstretched in anticipation of catching her teammate’s ball. It was one of the first moments Tielemans laid eyes on the pitcher, the “Philadelphia girl” who “dominated the little boys.”
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“It was a nice light with her throwing the ball,” Tielemans said. “It can be hard to freeze that absolute moment in time and anticipate it… but this weekend there was a lot of luck in the footage that really showed what would make the story great.
As Tielemans shot stunning moments from the games, the one that stood out beyond the optics and composition was a shot he took after the contest of a man sitting next to a young girl wearing a “Mid-Atlantic” hat while holding a sign that read “Show Me the Mo’ne.” , it was a moment that Tielemans never thought would happen. “I was running around like crazy trying to get so many different looks at his pitch,” Tielemans said. “Between the number of pitches and what can happen in a game, it could have been finished at any time.”
One of the quintessential Tielemans images of the tournament came from a moment when Davis was throwing. Davis’ left foot was perfectly positioned forward and the toe of his right foot was planted sufficiently in the mound. His long, flowing tresses swung to the right and his hazel-almond eyes were focused on the catcher while delivering a pitch during a shutout against Tennessee. Along with becoming the first girl to score a win and throw a shutout in LLWS history, Davis became the first Little League baseball player to appear on the cover of SI. This is Davis’ photo of Tielemans that has been seen nationwide.
“[The photo] was everywhere,” says Tielemans. “He was the big leagues…his physique, his hair, that was by far the most iconic. …It was cool when something you’re involved in gets national attention.
But, as Tielemans recalls, that game was just the start of what would become big news when Davis won the mound against Texas in the semifinals. Davis helped the Dragons to victory over Eastern Little League team Pearland, Texas, with a late-game pitching error. But before doing so, Tielemans captured a moment Davis laughed with Texas players during the Pennsylvania team introductions before the game. The moment personified the attitude of Davis, who was seemingly insensitive to the popularity and attention she was garnering.
“She always considered herself just another child and that’s what she’s doing here,” says Tielemans. “Kids would ask for a picture with her, and she would be silly with them in the pictures like a kid would. When parents and seniors asked for photos, she thought it was crazy. There was no doubt that she [Davis] was the center of attention, but she didn’t seek it.
In three decades of shooting and capturing iconic sports photos, Tielemans still says Davis and Pennsylvania’s run in the 2014 LLWS was one of the coolest sporting moments of his career. “It was only a week, but taking a potential timeline, selling it as a story, and making it work to get Davis on the cover was a big deal.”
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