The celebration went on and on.
It seemed like the entire city of Chicago turned up at the victory parade for the Jackie Robinson West Little League team, the kids from the South Side who had just completed an unlikely run to the United States championship. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who needed support in the black community, was there. Struggling Governor Pat Quinn, who was wearing a Jackie Robinson West shirt, was at the rally too. He was trying to ride these kids to re-election. It didn’t work. Aldermen, state officials, appellate court judges, dignitaries of varying degrees, they all put in appearances. Jesse Jackson was there.
The celebration didn’t end that August afternoon, either. It went on for weeks, then months. The kids headed to the White House to meet President Obama. Chicago sports teams had to get them to their stadiums for PR appearances. They went to Disney World. They made the rounds.
On Wednesday, they made the news.
The Jackie Robinson West team was stripped of its U.S. Little League title this morning, for using star players that lived in other teams’ districts. They cheated. It seems almost inconceivable when you think back to this summer, when the celebrations were going on in this town. Back then, you noticed all those politicians and celebs, but they almost didn’t matter. This was about Chicago, and they couldn’t steal this moment from a city that really, really needed it.
I bought in back then. This town was celebrating neighborhood kids playing baseball, not politicians and celebrities. Those folks loomed over the moment from on high. But this was a bottom-up thing, about kids and purity. Chicagoans remember that feeling, and that celebration stands.
But now, the top-down stuff has taken over. According to Little League, the team’s manager and officials re-drew district boundary lines and met with neighboring Little League districts to claim their players. Ignoring the rules, they created an all-star team, and then tried to cover it up.
In Chicago, people feel bad for the players today. But those kids still get to keep all the memories. Still got to play games on ESPN and meet the President. So what did they lose? Their innocence, that’s what.
It hurt the kids from the Indiana Little League who didn’t get to go to the World Series because they lost to JRW. It hurt the team from Mountain Ridge Little League in Las Vegas, who missed out on a victory parade of their own after losing the U.S. championship game to JRW 7-5. It’s difficult to know what to think the vice president of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association, who turned in JRW, but that point is probably moot. This was supposed to be about children playing baseball. It supposed to be an example of purity in an impure time and place.
Now, it’s about cheating. Cheating done under the name of Jackie Robinson.
Before I spend too much time looking down my nose at people who took too much from a bunch of kids playing baseball, I’ll admit that I fell for this team, too. They really meant something. When I was a kid in suburban Chicago, I was a baseball nut. Ten minutes for recess, and we’d run to the field to play. There was a huge park and all the kids would show up every morning in the summer for leagues. We’d find a big spot in the field, then mark off the right distance and start dropping bases where they belonged.
That same spirit was in me when I wrote about the team’s victory parade for The New York Times. It started with a celebration in the team’s home park nestled in the neighborhood on the South Side. It was so crowded that people were plopping down lawn chairs where they couldn’t see anything, just so they could be part of it anyway.
Then, every local politician jumped onto the microphone to give brief speeches. The kids were put in tour buses and driven to U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, for a quick rally before the parade continued. Along the way, for nearly the entire 70 blocks, you saw students out on the curb in front of St. Sabina Academy, half a dozen women in wheelchairs out in front of an old-folks home, daycare students on the sidewalk. It ended at Millennium Park in front of tens of thousands of people.
In the midst of all that, I spoke to Terrence Lavin, an Illinois appeals court justice who grew up in the neighborhood playing Little League. He was ecstatic, telling me “Remember when President Obama said that Trayvon Martin could be his son? There are thousands of Chicagoans, white and black, thinking that about these amazing kids.”
On Wednesday, I spoke to Lavin again, and this is what he said: “It is a dirty shame, but sometimes adults make mistakes that wind up embarrassing kids. To me, it may sully the adults guilty of the malfeasance, but it does nothing to mar my view of those wonderful, joyful and pure kids. I still think it’s one of the great Chicago stories in my lifetime.”
He’s probably right. Chicagoans were used to seeing their kids in the news, though sadly, it was almost always about tragedy. These kids symbolized something else. I talked to several of them that day to see if they grasped the monumental meaning of the moment. In hindsight, it was a stupid decision. To them, the meaning was simple: They just wanted to play baseball.