In Which We Salute Them

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In Which They’re Already Champions

These kids do not go quietly into the good night. They never get down, they never get upset. Put an obstacle in front of them and they’ll overcome it. Granted, a lot of that is a testament to their coaching, but they are the ones who have to execute it and they do. Each and every day.

Think of their path. Chicago Little League Champions. To Illinois Little League Champions. To Great Lakes Little League Champions. To the Little League World Series. To the U.S. Little League Champions. And, today, they become the first team from Illinois to ever play for the championship of the whole world.

While major league baseball has a World Series, it isn’t really. As the late Robin Williams noted, there are no French teams. Which is good. All the players would be in left and no one would be safe.

So, today, the U.S. Champions take on the champions of the rest of the world, South Korea. As noted yesterday on ESPN, due to travel restrictions and cost issues, the team took 30 hours to get from South Korea to here. They even stayed in Chicago briefly. Because many of their family members couldn’t make the trip one mom took it upon herself to make sure the kids had home cooked food every day. She did the same for every adult who traveled with them.

The South Korean team is a lot like the Jackie Robinson West team. They rely on donations since none of them are from well to do families. They learn baseball in a broader context of how its rules can apply to a better life.

Oh, and one other thing, they tend to win. A lot.

Mary Mitchell at the Sun Times took some time to talk to the parents of the JRW team.

The Jackie Robinson West Little League team from the South Side showed the world how revenge is meted out:

Not with fists or the barrel of a gun, but by being the best.

On Saturday, the team — representing the Great Lakes Region — took the title of Little League U.S. champions by defeating Mountain Ridge from Las Vegas 7-5 in its biggest nail-biter of the tournament.

“After I gave up that home run, I was very scared,” said Josh Houston, who owned the mound from the start of the game. “I thought we were going to lay down right there, but when I came in [and delivered a] clutch hit, I knew something big was going to happen.”

It did.

The all-black Jackie Robinson West squad made history by becoming the first team from Illinois to win the U.S. championship game.

When it was over, the fans went wild. Fathers threw up high-fives. Mothers broke down and cried.

“Look at my baby!” screamed Nedra Jones, player Pierce Jones’ mother.

JRW fans of all races and from states as far away as California rushed to the lower deck of Lamade Stadium and joined the celebration.

“They did it! They did it!’’ cried Donita Butler, collapsing into her mother-in-law’s arms.

The victory was redemptive for many of the families who put in long hours at no pay to coach the team.

“It’s just phenomenal,” said Carolyn Wilson, the mother of manager Darold Butler, and player DJ Butler’s grandmother.

“Darold has played baseball all his life,” she said. “This was something he had always looked forward to. He didn’t get here, but his son did.”

Linda Sneed, Houston’s mother, is the lone single parent in the close-knit group. She bawled as her son and his teammates sprinted triumphantly off Lamade Field under the backdrop of the Bald Eagle Mountains.

In an earlier interview, I asked her how she managed to keep Josh involved in an endeavor as demanding as Little League when it comes to time.

“I got a lot of help from the other parents on the teams,” she said. “They would be willing to pick him up and take him to practice if I couldn’t get him there. Everybody has to help. Like they say, it takes a village and this is the village.”

After the game, the champions were escorted to the Little League World Series dormitory complex, where fans lined up for autographs and parents waited patiently to wrap their arms around their sons.

Out of uniform and off the field, you can clearly see these are 11- and 12-year-old boys having fun.

Prentiss “P.J.” Luster, the left fielder, had three words to describe how he felt after the big victory: “Excited, excited, excited.”

For Chicagoans, the JRW players have been points of light in a sea of darkness.

They came into the LLWS as underdogs, and after a devastating loss to the Las Vegas team, had to fight their way back into contention.

But while these parents might have squirmed when the opponents popped off a good hit, they never lost faith that their kids could go all the way.

“All the hard work and all the dedication that we put in our kids have paid off,” said a smiling Sanja Noble, mother of Lawrence Noble. “We are getting our rewards a little bit early.”

The Jackie Robinson West story is about more than baseball. It’s about black men who dream and pour their dreams into their sons. That 13 African-American boys from the South Side prevailed against the best Little League teams in America is evidence that dreams do come true.

People seem to be making a big deal out of how the adults have volunteered their time. There is an odd, underlying, theme that seems to imply that black families only help kids if they’re paid. I note that since all of the teams have unpaid adults with them but it only gets mentioned for the JRW squad. Oh, and the “uncles” who help each team navigate Williamsport.

Then again, noting that when adults help their kids those kids end up on the good side of things isn’t such a bad memo to get out. I just wish it was phrased differently.

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In Which It’s For all The Marbles

You know what I love about the internet? You can put the word sexy in front of anything and get incredible results. Today I Googled for sexy marbles and was rewarded with hundreds of pics of Jenna Marbles. That’s her on the right.

Anyway, did you see the Bears game last night? Yeah, I’m sorry too. The defense played with all the skill of a bad Pee Wee team. The offense committed stupid penalties, if they moved the ball at all, and special teams looked like they showed up in the special bus. Coach Trestman says all of this is fixable. I hope so. Otherwise there are going to be a lot of help wanted signs at Halas Hall.

Not that it matters but the Cubs won and the Sox lost and life still continues on.

Anywho, today you’ll read a lot about how a group of 12 year old kids are saving the city and so on. I wish it were true. But just as the bad actions of one or a few do not speak for the character of anyone like them, neither do the good ones. I understand the need for hope but I can’t let some good news allow those in charge to abdicate their duties and just say “Hey, it’s all better now.” And there are a few who are trying to do just that. Instead they should say, “See what can happen when kids get the support and love they need?” If the conversation goes in that direction, I will join in.

And speaking of those kids, today they’re taking the field to play for the U.S. Little League Championship.

Seth Gruen from the Sun Times has the whole story.

Darold Butler came up with a novel idea on Friday: The Little League World Series without ­baseball.

At first it seemed like a head-scratcher, until one is reminded that the Jackie Robinson West manager and his team have focused on nothing but baseball all summer. Albeit only for a day, the South Side squad didn’t touch a baseball on Friday. They will refocus on the game when they take on Mountain Ridge of Las Vegas on Saturday in the United States championship game.

What did they do? Oh, just kid stuff.

“It’s pretty relaxed,” Butler said. “The kids are sliding down the hill with the cardboard boxes. We just completed an [ice-bucket] challenge with one of our uncles (the name for team escorts) from Little League.

“The kids are relaxed. It’s no baseball now. It’s just about being 11-, 12- and 13-years-old.”

When the team returns to ­Chicago on Monday, they will be taken by bus to Jackie Robinson Park, where fans can await their arrival.

That’s still far off as far as JRW is concerned, with business still pressing in South Williamsport.

As for Friday?

The team won’t get much better with one more day of practice. It can get a heck of a lot more relaxed, though. The players will need to be calm for their rematch against ­powerhouse Mountain Ridge. When the teams last met, JRW was defeated 13-2 on the ­mercy rule, their only loss in the Little League World ­Series.

The kids perhaps were a little too nervous under the national spotlight. They had just come off a 12-run LLWS opener, a SportsCenter appearance and seemingly had become overnight sensations. That might have caused the team to take some overzealous at-bats.

Now, they are more experienced at playing on national television, having staved off elimination three times since being bumped into the losers bracket. Ed Howard might be the team’s best example of that.

After committing a couple of ­errors against Mountain Ridge, Howard has been flawless in the field. He easily has been one of the best-fielding shortstops in the LLWS.

Jackie Robinson West feels ­confident heading into their ­rematch simply because they are more ­relaxed.

“There was a lot of people there,” Howard said of the first game against Mountain Ridge. “I was feeling great. I know we were hitting the ball hard and stuff and just didn’t make the plays. I’ll do better next game.

“I know that I have to run the ­infield, make any play that comes to me, but just play ball and make the play when it comes.”

For all the attention that has been made to its potent batting ­order, the team has been even ­better in the field.

Remember, most of the kids in the LLWS are 12. Errors are a part of the game. But JRW has been nearly flawless in the field — and not just when it comes to making routine plays. The little things have stood out. The team’s speedy outfield cuts off nearly every ball — turning balls that look to be extra-base hits into singles.

“We practice a lot on defense,” center fielder DJ Butler said. “We’ve got to be the better team and make no errors, because if we make no errors we’re going to win the game.”

Said catcher Brandon Green: “Just got to keep practicing at your craft and you got to make sure ­everything you do is fundamentally correct.”

Yes, these kids are a joy to watch. Leave their responsibilities at that.

Both teams playing today respect each other and the game. That has shown in every game they’ve played. And it is a large part of the reason that TV ratings for this series have been larger than they were for the Stanley Cup. Every one of these teams epitomizes hard work, team work and sportsmanship. All qualities many had thought long dead.

Thanks to Barry

..........

Bonds, that is.

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In Which There’s Room on the Bandwagon

I like kids. That may come as a surprise to those who read this blog but it’s true. My son, the result of a prom date that went very well, is in his 30’s now and has a kid of his own. The fact that he barely knows me is a testament to how well he was raised by the family that took him in. He doesn’t need me in his life, he already has a dad. And that’s just fine with me. There’s no way in hell I could have raised him better.

But maybe that’s why I find myself drawn to the Jackie Robinson West story. These are kids who have nothing. And yet, despite all odds, they have everything. They have friends, they have hope and they have futures. They have all of these things because some adults decided that those things were more important to give to kids than anything else. The fact that they are also a very good baseball team is just a bonus.

There’s a great article in today’s Sun Times by Dan McGrath, it’s not online for some reason, about the importance of mentoring. He nails it. He talks about how important his mentors were to him and why he mentors high school students now. It’s worth the price of the paper just to read that article.I know how grateful kids are when any adult shows them the courtesy of caring. There isn’t enough money in the world to replace that feeling when you get it.

That’s why I’m pleased to read articles about these kids that focus on what they’ve accomplished and what’s in store for them.

Mary Mitchell does a great job of showing how the kids live up to the legacy of their name.

You don’t realize how big the Little League World Series is until you actually see the small town nestled among towering mountains and trees.

It is here — away from Chicago’s segregated South Side — that you get how ironic it is to have an all-black Little League team play in Williamsport when Jackie Robinson left the Negro leagues to integrate Major League Baseball 67 years ago.

But the Robinson name fits.

These young baseball players have given the entire city of Chicago something that Robinson gave his fans: hope.

Hope that with the right mix of education, parental guidance and community nurturing, they could save their children from the cruel lives many of them had suffered.

I saw that hope in the faces of the hundreds of young adults, children and seniors who flocked to Jackie Robinson Park to witness the team’s triumphant debut Thursday at the Little League World Series.

That Jackie Robinson West won 12-2 in five innings via the mercy rule put the frosting on the cake.

“While it is only the first round, they have already inspired the entire city of Chicago with their athleticism and their determination to succeed. They continue to remind us what all of our children can achieve when we invest in them and when we believe in them,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel after Thursday’s game.

Given recent headlines, it’s hard to fathom, but black people had that kind of hope when Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball. My father, who would tie up our only TV on weekends watching baseball, never missed an opportunity to remind his children why it was important for the world to see a black man standing shoulder to shoulder with a white man playing a sport that America had claimed as its own.

He thought it was important that Robinson use his talent to make the world take notice of black humanity at a time when too many whites were still blinded by the scourge of racism.

Today, Jackie Robinson West and their families are ambassadors for a city that desperately needs one.

Additionally, the success of this team may renew interest in the sport.

By the time my own son was old enough to pick up a bat, young black athletes had drifted away from the baseball field to the basketball court.

But at Thursday’s watch party, groups of boys who had gathered in the park to watch the celebrated Little League team on the big screen organized impromptu games of their own.

Whether they know it or not, the youngsters on the Jackie Robinson West team are walking in the footsteps of their famous namesake.

Their very appearance of this all-black team at this competition of the nation’s top Little League players will likely showcase a side of Chicago that is often overshadowed by stories about gangs and drugs.

Even more important, the fathers and mothers of these players are the kind of role models other young parents need to see.

Let’s be honest, if the majority of us were investing time in our children the way we ought to invest in them, we wouldn’t be dealing with a crime wave in our neighborhoods.

These kids didn’t get this far by themselves.

They had mothers, fathers, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers who were willing to haul them to practices and games.

Take a good look because this is the village.

The team will play again on Sunday.

But it really doesn’t matter to me how far the Jackie Robinson West Players get. They already are winners in my book.

I came to see the spirit of Jackie Robinson influencing their lives.

As of this writing they are 2 wins away from playing for the championship. Just for the record, there is no Jackie Robinson East or anything else. The team took the regional name when there was a Jackie Robinson youth league in the 70’s. That is now defunct but they decided to leave their name alone.

As to Mary’s larger point, I couldn’t have said it better. We’re writing off generation after generation of young people for reasons that elude me. Until that changes nothing changes.

And yet, here are these kids. Erudite, funny and talented. They didn’t come from nowhere. They came from here. And they got to where they’re going because some adults said “This is important. More important than beer.”

That’s REALLY important.

And we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed. Seth Gruen writes about how the Dodger’s Carl Crawford has reached out to the team.

The Jackie Robinson West team got a call from its most famous fan Saturday.

Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford spoke on Skype with the 13 Little Leaguers from Morgan Park. The experience might have given the youngsters an indication of how popular they have become.

‘‘That’s the first time I actually went voice-to-voice with an actual person that plays in the major leagues,’’ said Josh Houston, who was the winning pitcher Thursday.

Said Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler: ‘‘If anything, that will motivate them. These are guys that they look up to. So to see these guys actually calling them by their names and acknowledging all the things that they’re doing, that will have them turn it up a little bit more.’’

Crawford is a charter member of the Jackie Robinson West fan club. Butler said Crawford has been ­following the team since it fell a game short of qualifying for the 2013 Little League World Series.

Millions more have followed Crawford’s lead in the week since the team qualified for the 2014 LLWS. That growing fan base landed Jackie Robinson West on
national TV for its game Sunday against Nevada
(1 p.m., Ch. 7).

Jackie Robinson West’s opening game Thursday earned a 2.4 rating in Chi-
cago, the highest for any round on ESPN networks in the market.

‘‘It feels just like playing with no cameras,’’ shortstop and pitcher Ed Howard said of the exposure. ‘‘I don’t worry about the cameras; I just play my game.

‘‘I heard a lot about Chicago, what they’re doing, cheering for us and stuff. That just gives us motivation to play better.’’

But Howard isn’t close to having the full picture. Dick’s Sporting Goods in the South Loop has been selling ‘‘Great Lakes Champion’’ T-shirts since the team qualified. The store already has gone through three shipments, and community marketing manager Brian Dibbert said the store sold out a shipment of 500 in 18 minutes Saturday. All proceeds go to the Jackie Robinson West Little League.

‘‘I’m a little nervous, but we’ve got to get through nerves sometimes,’’ Trey Hondras said. ‘‘So probably the first inning [Sunday] will be a little nervous, but after that it will be good.’’

The baseball world took notice of Jackie Robinson West heading into the tournament. The number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has decreased in recent years, and the hope was that Jackie Robinson West would help inspire other African-American youths to play the game. Combine that with its high-powered offense, and Jackie Robinson West is the most-talked-about team in the tournament.

The players seem numb to it all. For them, the game doesn’t change just because it’s on national TV. With a victory Sunday, the team would be one win away from getting to play in the U.S. championship game.

‘‘They don’t have a clue,’’ Butler said. ‘‘Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. They don’t understand ESPN, ABC. They just play.’’

I know that a few Chicago athletes donated to the team and their families so they could attend the series. And that’s good. Money was, and is, needed. But, as evidenced by the kids reaction to the Skype from Mr. Crawford, direct interaction is needed as well.

If you give the gift of time you’ll reap rewards you never dreamed of.

Try it if you don’t believe me.

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In Which They Capture the Nation

Photo by Associated Press



Fame is an odd thing. I’ll give you an example. I write. Not just here but in the real world too. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, people I don’t know read what I wrote and say nice things about it. Even better, sometimes said strangers will contact me and we’ll meet for a drink or exchange emails or what have you. Recently a young lady from Botswana contacted me and, after exchanging pleasantries, offered me free booze. As JTJ devotees know, I’d walk through a brick wall for a free drink so I happily said yes. She is an exchange student who is, literally, half my age. No, this isn’t one of those kind of stories. Sorry.

Anyway, we met, we talked and we had a very nice time. I enjoyed her company and she seemed amused by me. Then again she seemed amused by the napkin, the bartender, the Japanese cartoons I insisted on watching and so on. All in all she’s a pretty happy person generally.

The following week she contacted me and said she’d like to meet up again. Part of my mind, the part that thinks porn is nothing but a series of documentaries, got a tingle going. Then she followed up with “I’d really like you to meet my mom. She’s single.”

What the hell? If mom’s like her daughter this could be cool. So I agree.

The appointed time comes, she and I are sitting at the bar when mom walks in. Mom hugs daughter, turns to face me and says “You never said he was white.” The next awkward thirty seconds ended blissfully when mom stormed out. Before my new friend could apologize I burst out laughing. She looked confused for a moment and then got what was so funny. I knew she’d sent her mom my Facebook link. It’s not like I’m heavily tanned.

So my little bit of fame has brought me a new friend and my life has been enriched.

I bring all this up to remind you that not all unintended consequences are bad.

And it is with that thought in mind that I considered the Jackie Robinson West baseball team.

The only time the New York Times gives a rat’s ass about black kids in Chicago is when they’re shooting at each other. But today that changed. Hopefully for an extended period of time. Today they have, not one but, two stories on the JRW kids. One is a reprint of the AP story about Pierce Jones hitting three homers.  The second is a staff story about the kids themselves.

I’ll share the latter.

When Joseph Haley founded the Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West Little League in 1971, there were no grand plans of winning state championships or reaching the Little League World Series.

There was a vision of using youth baseball to help black families moving into a previously all-white neighborhood unite and establish a sense of community. Haley died in 2005, but the league he founded has blossomed and been carried forth by his son Bill and his widow, Annie.

“I’m sure he never envisioned anything like this,” Bill Haley said.

A team of Jackie Robinson West all-stars reached the Little League World Series in 1983. This year, after a drought of 31 years, a team from the league won the Great Lakes regional championship game. On Thursday, the team played its first game in South Williamsport, Pa., beating Lynnwood, Wash., 12-2.

Along with a team from Philadelphia led by a phenomenal young pitcher, Mo’Ne Davis, Jackie Robinson West became an early World Series story line. A similar sentiment surrounded a team from Harlem in 2002.

Supporters of the Chicago-based team at its series opener Thursday in South Williamsport, Pa. The team beat Lynnwood, Wash., 12-2. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times
Bill Haley said he remembered cheering for that team.

“When you see kids from similar backgrounds and similar situations, you pull for them to be successful and beat the odds,” he said.

This year’s Jackie Robinson West team has attracted the attention of Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson, who grew up in the suburbs south of Chicago. Granderson began playing baseball in the Lynwood Little League, but he said he knew about Jackie Robinson West.

“A lot of my friends, guys my age, played in that league,” he said.

Granderson said he liked what the Jackie Robinson West team represented, as well as the idea that the team’s appearance in the World Series would prompt discussion about blacks in baseball.

“The cool thing is the way people talk about it,” Granderson said. “Like, ‘Wow, there is an all-black team out there; I didn’t know there was an all-black team playing.’

“The fact that people don’t realize that there is a black team means that people are under the assumption that black kids aren’t playing baseball. Hopefully this could be something that sheds light both in the African-American community and the non-African-American community.”

Granderson recently contributed $5 million to the development of Curtis Granderson Stadium at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he played for three seasons and where his No. 28 was retired. The stadium will be the home of the university’s baseball and softball teams and will serve more than 38 youth organizations in Chicago.

Asked about the small number of blacks in baseball, Granderson said there was simply not much buzz about the game in predominantly black communities, where basketball dominates and football is another substantial presence.

Getting his peers to see baseball as a viable sports option was difficult, Granderson said, so much so that when he accepted a baseball scholarship to U.I.C., his friends seemed surprised that he was still involved in the sport.

“They said, ‘You’re still doing that baseball thing?’ ” he said. “For them, baseball was a thing, a hobby.”

Ed Howard scoring for the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago’s South Side. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times
Even as baseball preaches diversity, the game continues to spiral economically out of the reach of an increasingly larger pool of potential players after Little League. The cost of participation, especially with travel teams becoming the norm before players reach high school, can reach thousands of dollars a year.

To reverse the decline in black participation, Granderson said, Major League Baseball could copy the Amateur Athletic Union model in basketball, in which major shoe companies provide financial support that allows talented teams to travel to tournaments. Baseball also needs to do a better job of putting black players in front of young people, he said.

“You have to make some major changes if you’re serious about really getting more African-Americans into the game and staying in the game,” Granderson said.

While Haley acknowledged that basketball was king in Chicago, he said the athletes on this year’s Jackie Robinson team were a different breed. Perhaps a new breed.

“These kids who are playing in Pennsylvania are baseball players,” Haley said. “They won’t switch over to anything else. They’ll play baseball a long time.”

The Jackie Robinson team is the best marketing for a sport that continues to lose ground to basketball and football. But when asked if the success of his all-stars might lead to a surge of young black players in the majors, Haley said that was not his concern.

“Our mission is absolutely not turning out major league baseball players,” he said.

He added, “Our goal is to focus on getting as many kids involved as possible and get them to love the game as early as possible.”

For now, Haley is focused on the journey to Williamsport and having his team meet players from around the world and experiencing first-class treatment.

But what he primarily wants is to see the players compete to the best of their ability on a grand stage — to be excited by the environment, not intimidated by it.

“When it comes game time, the kids are going to be fine,” he said. “Kids are going to make errors; kids are going to strike out — things are going to happen in a baseball game. But it won’t happen because the kids are scared or intimidated or nervous. They’re going to play their style of baseball, and they are going to compete.”

They will have some major league stars in their corner. After they advanced to the series, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford called Darrold Butler, the Jackie Robinson West manager, and volunteered to give the team a pep talk via speaker phone. Granderson will be watching from the Mets’ clubhouse. And thousands who played Little League baseball and never got close to South Williamsport will be pulling for a team from Chicago’s South Side, and for Davis, a hard-throwing black girl from Philadelphia, to beat the odds.

They represent a refreshing breeze in a sport in desperate need of fresh air.

And, yes, this year MLB is starting to look at girls in baseball seriously. Despite Greg Maddux’ wildly misogynist rant about the game allowing men to be men, there isn’t one good reason girls can’t become women and play this game at the professional level.

The same concept applies to a group of black kids from the south side of Chicago.

I feel safe in saying that all of us here at Jay the Joke wish Jackie Robinson West nothing but the best! They’re already winners in our book.

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