Chicago comes together to celebrate JRW

Chicago fans packed Millenium Park on Wednesday to celebrate U.S. Little League World Series Champions Jackie Robinson West. The event started on the South Side and included a parade to the park. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Chicago looked like a championship town Wednesday.

From the far South Side to Millennium Park, the city united to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of the 13-member Jackie Robinson West all-star team. Trolleys carried the team from its home park in Washington Heights through a buoyant South Side to its very own downtown rally, complete with celebrities and thousands of joyous fans.

All of the local networks went to live coverage of this event, with reporters interviewing third cousins, aunts, cousins and joyful South Siders just proud of this group of 11- and 12-year-old All-Stars who captivated a city and country as they won the United States bracket of of the Little League World Series.

“There is something so sweet and grassroots about all of this, an ABC 7 anchor said.

So true.

An all-black team from Chicago’s South Side is the best Little League team in the United States. And it’s very cool how this city responded with pure love. From the famous to the anonymous, a major American city rallied behind a group of pre-teens. I was awed by the absolutely packed crowd at Millennium Park as I watched.

For the title game last Sunday, North Side bars held viewing parties and the city closed down State St. with a big TV. Ratings were through the roof in Chicago.

Dick’s Sporting Goods in the South Loop sold out of $20 championship T-shirts on Tuesday.

The kids on this team certainly will never forget this day -- Jackie Robinson West championship day, according to Gov. Pat Quinn -- which included a trip to U.S. Cellular Field to hold the World Series trophy and the Millennium Park rally with Hawk Harrelson emceeing (Yes, he had a Jackie Robinson story. About golf!). Chicago White Sox vice president Ken Williams and Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein made speeches and Chicago's own Chance the Rapper spoke as well.

Next, they’ll get honored by the Cubs and White Sox, and probably the other pro and college teams too. Disney World and the White House will follow.

I hope they get free meals from Harold’s to Gibson’s.

This team’s 15 minutes of fame will be over soon and life will return to normal, but its success will live on forever.

These kids will carry with them the memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience and hopefully the confidence that they can succeed on a national level. The South Side, and Chicago in general, can be a bubble. It’s good for them to know there is an entire world out there.

I shook my head at the contrarians who ripped ESPN for exploiting the kids (silly, considering the alternative) by covering the LLWS with a professional quality broadcast, and I question Little League for not ponying up some of that broadcast money to fly in and put up families for the tournament.

There is no question this could be a life-changing experience for this team and maybe for other kids in Chicago.

For the city, hopefully it helps expand youth baseball in the South and West sides. And it’s not just about the actual sport. I talked to a retired Chicago Public Schools gym teacher at the State Street viewing party Sunday and she wished it would spur a renaissance of physical education, not just in schools, but in the community. An iceberg event, she called it, because there’s a lot below the surface.

The White Sox have done a lot to improve youth baseball in the city with their ACE (Amateur City Elite) program. Six Jackie Robinson West players are part of that program. The Sox helped sponsor watch parties and buses for the parade. The Cubs have been active in this regard as well.

Everyone needs a role model. Who better than your peers?

What kind of effect did this event have?

“I can’t measure it,” Williams said on the CBS broadcast. “Because you’ve got the whole city watching.”

I have a sportswriter friend whose wife, not a sports fan, once asked him if the Cubs were all from Chicago. When he said no, she asked why everyone cares so much.

This team is from Chicago. That’s why Jackie Robinson West is so important.