Little League title loss upsets some Chicagoans

Jackie Robinson Park
Jackie Robinson Park, where Little Leaguers whose title was stripped practiced. Photo: Abigail Hodgson/MEDILL

By Tim Penman

Chicago residents are disturbed after the Jackie Robinson West Little League team was stripped of its U.S. title Wednesday.

“An adult did something wrong,  not the kids,” said Ray Smith, 27, an audio-visual technician and South Side resident. “To take it away from the kids is absolutely wrong. They won it fair and square no matter what happens,” he said in an interview in the Loop.

The team was found guilty of violating player residency rules by the Little League International tournament committee, which also suspended team manager Darold Butler and placed the team on probation with all victories vacated and its tournament privileges suspended. In addition, Illinois District IV administrator Michael Kelly was removed from his position.

“They won regardless of where they came from,” said Kristine Wuertz, 24, a digital marketing associate from the North Side. “And they did it in a team fashion.”

ABOVE: Reporter Abigail Hodgson reports from Morgan Park about the Jackie Robinson West Little League controversy.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement saying the city remains proud of the Jackie Robinson West players, who were ages 11 to 13.

“Those remarkable boys brought our entire city together and reminded all Chicagoans how important it is to support our children,” the statement read. “The city remains united in its support of these great children and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago.”

Other politicians weighed in, including Ald. Carrie M. Austin, 34th, who told the Chicago Tribune that the Little Leaguers “are still champions and I believe people across the city will feel just like I do.”

Jackie Robinson West’s victories captivated the city last year, and the ticket-tape parade through downtown Chicago and rally in Millennium Park brought throngs of celebrants. It was the first time since 1983 that an all-black team made it all the way to the Little League Baseball World Series. That team in ‘83 was also the Jackie Robinson West team.

Last year’s team won the Great Lakes Regional and defeated Las Vegas in the U.S. final, before losing to a team from Seoul, South Korea in the final of the World Series.

At a news conference called by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Michael Pleger, pitcher Brandon Green said he and his teammates were not involved in any wrongdoing.

“… We do know that we’re champions, our parents know that we’re champions, and the team’s parents know that we’re champions, and Chicago knows we’re champions,” he said.

His mother Venisa, along with Jackson and Pleger, raised implications of racism.

“[It’s] amazing to me that whenever African-Americans exceed the expectations, that there is always going to be fault that is found in what it is that we do. Little League says that they teach character and they teach courage. Well, this isn’t an act of courage and this sure isn’t an act of character.”

Chicagoans said they are disappointed and upset by the fact that kids who worked so hard are getting punished for mistakes made by egotistical adults.

“They were unwitting accomplices in the actions of some adults who should have known better,” Ida Crown Jewish Academy baseball coach and former youth baseball coach Raymond Asher, 54, of Skokie said. “The underlying premise for those types of actions are typically ego.”

Asher also expressed concern for the kids from the Las Vegas team, which has been given the championship following the controversy.

“I’m very sad for the kids in Las Vegas who deserved to win,” Asher said. “The Vegas team didn’t win the way they should have, they didn’t get to enjoy their victory.”

Residents also made comparisons between the Little League scandal and the general culture of cheating in sports, specifically the “Deflategate” drama following the AFC Championship game three weeks ago.

“I think it’s all right [they got stripped],” said carpenter Dominic Valenta, 22, an Indiana resident. “They cheated.”

The revoking of the championship comes just over two weeks after Robert Manfred was sworn in as the new commissioner of Major League Baseball. In his first letter to fans, Manfred said that one of his biggest areas of focus is making the game more appealing to young kids in underprivileged areas.

Asher said baseball should not be any less appealing now.

“I don’t think the scandal will have any impact on whether or not kids will want to play baseball,” he said.

Little League International CEO Stephen D. Keener said in a statement that Wednesday’s decision was “unfortunate.”

“What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome,” he said.

“As our Little League operations staff learned of the many issues and actions that occurred over the course of 2014 and prior, as painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.”

Jackie Robinson Park, where Little Leaguers whose title was stripped practiced. (Abigail Hodgson/MEDILL)