Little Leaguers are sudden celebrities

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- Packed stadiums, autograph requests and cameos on ESPN have become the norm for Westport's Little Leaguers of late.

For the last week, the New England champions have become mini celebrities on the world's biggest stage for youth sports. The 12- and 13-year-old players have seen their names and images on TV monitors -- especially Chad Knight, whose popularity skyrocketed after pitching a one-hit shutout in the New England title game Aug. 10.

The Westport players knew their games would be televised, but they're a bit awestruck by the attention focused on them.

"That's pretty cool, especially for our age," said the 12-year-old Knight. "For our age, it's like once-in-a-lifetime. You never know what's going to happen again."

Stadiums are regularly crowded as more than 20,000 people jammed into Lamade Stadium on Sunday to watch Westport defeat Sammamish, Wash., 9-7 in the winner's bracket.

Before that game, Westport pitcher Harry Azadian had a sit-down interview with ESPN, then had a chance to playfully carry a camera on his shoulder and interview field reporter Jaymee Sire.

"It's been great. I never imagined doing this," Azadian said. "Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to come here. I've wanted to be on SportsCenter."

On Monday after practice, the team -- now 2-0 at the LLWS and 20-0 on the summer -- was invited onto the SportsCenter set for a live interview with hosts Chris McKendry and Jay Crawford. Azadian was seated at the desk and joined shoulder to shoulder by his teammates, all of whom are soaking in their sudden stardom.

"It feels great," Westport first baseman Chris Drbal said. "We've been on CPTV (local table), and we're like, `Oh, this is so fun.' But now we're in the Little League World Series and we're on ESPN every time, and ABC. It's been a really cool experience."

When their games have finished, they haven't missed the chance to watch themselves on the nightly highlight reel.

"We love watching the highlights, watching the games, looking at the fun parts," Knight said. "It's pretty cool."

Prior to their live appearance on SportsCenter, the players were greeted by former MLB pitcher Orel Hershiser, who is now a game analyst for ESPN. Hershiser showed the players his 1988 World Series ring and signed autographs.

The players have also gotten autographs from Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Mussina and Joe Torre. In many instances, however, the Westport players have been the ones pursued for signatures.

Chula Vista, Calif., manager Rick Tibbett, whose team will face Westport in the U.S. semifinals on Wednesday, joked that his team's walk from its dorm to the practice field is often complicated because of star-struck fans.

"They like that part," Tibbett said of his players. "The last couple days, you walk around, it takes a half-hour just to get where we're going. All the little girls are chasing them all over, they all want phone numbers and they want pictures. (The players) are getting a kick out of that."; 203-255-4561 ext 114;