<
>

Harsh end to dream for Chicago kids

play
Little League CEO On Jackie Robinson West Punishment (2:40)

Little League International president and CEO Stephen D. Keener discusses Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West's violations, which led to it being stripped of the U.S. championship. (2:40)

CHICAGO -- Well, Jackie Robinson West might not be the United States Little League champions anymore, but we can say it is truly Chicago's team, even more so than before.

Don't just take Mayor Rahm Emanuel's word for it either.

After all, what represents Chicago, the true Chicago which, yes, includes the south suburbs as well, better than cheating a little to win a lot?

And by little, I mean it. This wasn't Danny Almonte. This wasn't the East German swimming program. It wasn't a crime of the century.

It was a bleak Wednesday morning when the feel-good team of 2014, the Jackie Robinson West Little League All-Star team, had its U.S. title stripped by Little League International officials after nearly three months of investigation into the eligibility complaints of several players on the team. This is only the third time Little League has wiped away a team's World Series appearance.

All this for redistricting?

I get it, I get it, but it's a little harsh.

Now, I'm not a big law-and-order columnist, but my ideal punishment would be: Penalize the adults however it seems fit, suspend JRW from three future postseason tournaments, tighten up the oversight when it comes to eligibility, and let the kids keep their championships. I just hate that Orwellian, "unperson," erase-the-past punishment that amateur sports bodies use to cover their own mistakes.

We're talking about kids, after all. I don't care how many people watch on ESPN, it's just Little League baseball.

Jackie Robinson West's run to the Little League World Series championship game was billed, perhaps a bit too flowery, as the alternative to all the bad news typically reported in Chicago, particularly on the South Side. It became a national story when they beat a Las Vegas team that previously crushed them for the right to face South Korea for the world title.

And it was a great time. Kids having fun, and beating the teams they weren't supposed to be beat.

Now it's a story about district maps, lying coaches and sleuthing Little League coaches who set out to prove a wrong.

As someone who covered a high school that won a city title and then lost all of their wins in a week's span last winter, I'm not surprised something like this happened. If you cover competitive amateur sports, from Little League to college, you shouldn't be surprised by anything.

Me, I'm pragmatic about a certain amount of chicanery in amateur sports. It doesn't make it right, but we all know it happens. My baseline for outrage might differ from yours.

Because we were so invested in JRW's success, this has hit hard and the backlash will be vocal. Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition is involved.

Emanuel, up for re-election and unpopular in certain swatches of Chicago, put out a statement saying, in part: "The city remains united in its support of these great children, and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago."

I watched those kids compete against South Korea for the title on a blocked-off section of State Street, surrounded by a melange of Chicagoans watching on a big-screen TV provided by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. We rooted for the kids, but in the end, no one really cared about the outcome of the game, because the boys were already winners.

The team then went on a victory lap that put the 1980 Olympic hockey team to shame. Some thought it was overkill. I thought it was fun. How often do you get to tour the White House, go to the World Series, be celebrated at Millennium Park? These kids were working-class role models from the parts of the city you probably don't visit.

We all rejoiced for their personal success, and maybe, how they made us feel as adults.

But their downfall started when Chris Janes, a league president from nearby Evergreen Park complained to Little League International about his suspicions that certain JRW players were from the south suburbs, outside JRW boundaries. His league's team, it should be noted, lost 43-2 to JRW in the Little League sectionals.

Janes told the "Waddle & Silvy Show" on Wednesday that the board of his athletic association got together with the information they gathered, and decided to move forward with it.

"Honestly it doesn't feel good," Janes said about the result. "Not that I feel guilty about it. My intent wasn't to tear down a great story or a great team. My intent was to bring forward what the truth was."

As JRW advanced to the World Series, Janes reported his findings to Little League and talked to DNAInfo.com writer Mark Konkol about what he saw as irregularities in residence. He did his research, showing proof from social media postings from well-meaning suburban officials bragging about the kids.

Now, folks who aren't from Chicago should know we're not talking about suburbs on the opposite end of the city. This is more of a case of redistricting, adding overlaps to existing league territories, the kind of sneaky work usually found in politics.

Diming on a competitor? That's Chicago too.

Konkol, who won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize as part of a Chicago Sun-Times investigation unit, did pretty much all of the reporting on this story, and first alerted Chicago to this developing story on Dec. 16. The original story is here. It was a coup for the hyper-local website and Konkol followed it up as the story became more clear. Still, most of Chicago all but ignored it, wanted it to go away.

I'm one of those people.

Frankly, I wasn't interested in investigating eligibility complaints about a Little League team. It's a helluva story though, when you read Konkol's work.

Still, this wasn't an Almonte situation, where a 14-year-old crushed 11-year-olds. This wasn't a travel team in Little League clothing, where kids were flown in from around the country. It was good ol'-fashioned Chicago trickery, only this time the people who did it got penalized. The cover-up always gets you, right?

Was the crime of several Little League officials -- falsifying a eligibility map and then lying about it -- worth stripping a kids' title away for?

No, I don't think so.

But after Little League officials found out about the extent of the misdeed and the cover-up, JRW officials and a District 4 administrator asking other league officials to agree to their story after essentially forging an eligibility map, I can see why they did it. I don't agree with it, but I get it.

So do other people who know the situation well.

"I think it's sad that we've come to the reality of what was done," former District 4 Little League administrator Victor Alexander Sr. told me in a phone call. "It's sad the kids have to live with this going forward. I support Little League in their decision, it was the correct decision based on the facts obtained."

Alexander resigned his volunteer job in 2013 and was replaced by his former assistant Michael Kelly, who helped fudge the new eligibility map. Alexander knows how league officials and coaches try to skirt the rules. He was just surprised it worked.

"When I first saw the allegations I was reluctant to believe they were true, because of the years I've known Mike Kelly as my assistant, I've known him to be of high integrity," Alexander said. "I didn't believe it, but at the same time I stated if the allegations were true, there's a wrong done, regardless of who did it."

Alexander, who coached in the South Side Little League, said he's willing to return to his old District 4 job, if the local league wants him. I'm sure they could use him.

He feels for the kids, like all of us, but he respects the rules.

"It's not only an embarrassment for Little League, but for the community and for me personally and anyone affiliated with District 4," he said.

Alexander, who works as an IT manager at Chicago State University, said there was a place for teams made up of a great talents from a larger footprint, and it's on travel baseball teams. He's right. Those teams can be expensive, a fact that causes lower-income kids to be left out. The White Sox ACE program has made headway in providing opportunities on the South Side, and several JRW kids play for the ACE program, which regularly puts kids in college programs.

To call JRW a "super team" seems like a bit of a stretch, especially when you consider the built-in disadvantages of any baseball team formed in south Chicago. Just because a couple of kids came from surrounding leagues, it didn't create a traditional Little League power, where little Johnny has two-full time coaches and the best equipment money can buy.

The kids are preteens, so you can't quite count on them on a day-to-day basis. You don't think a Las Vegas team should beat a team from Chicago? Forget economics, think about the practice advantages a team in Vegas has over one in Chicago?

I think most people figured JRW would be knocked out after the initial double-elimination format. If that happened, there's no story.

But they won. I'm willing to surmise the folks who fudged the boundaries never imagined how far this team would go.

But no, JRW's championship happened. It beat Las Vegas, whose administrators pushed for their U.S. title to be vacated, fair and square. On the field.

Alexander says he hopes everyone learned a lesson from this affair, how cheating is wrong, that kind of stuff. But those kind of platitudes get thrown around every time an amateur team is penalized for adults breaking the rules.

The only lesson is the obvious one. People cheat, sometimes they get caught. If you can't figure out how to explain that to your kids, think a little harder. This story won't stop the next person who tries a similar scam, they'll just try a little harder to cover it up.

But I know what I saw last summer. A fine youth baseball team, regardless of which district they were from, making an entire city proud.

I don't like the ending, but I hope those kids cherish their memories of the journey.