Eyeing a return to Williamsport

CHICAGO -- It's been 30 years since a Chicago team made the Little League World Series.

Jackie Robinson West, coached by the late Joseph Haley, lost in the first round of the 1983 World Series.

Now, Jackie Robinson West, again coached by a Haley, is on the precipice of another trip to Williamsport, Pa.

This South Side all-star team is made up of kids from the 28-team (T-ball to 18-year-olds) Jackie Robinson West league, drawing from the Englewood, Auburn-Gresham, Morgan Park and Washington Heights areas. It's an inclusive league, said William Haley, Joseph's son, one of the league directors and the assistant coach of this team of World Series hopefuls.

"This year is really the exception," Haley said by phone Friday.

JRW plays Grosse Pointe Woods Shores (Mich.) in the Great Lakes Championship game at noon Saturday in Indianapolis on ESPN.

The Grosse Pointe probable starter is Chad Lorkowski, who has been listed in news stories as 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Haley thought he was more like 6-3, 240.

"He throws real hard," Haley said. "Watch the game and you'll be shocked at the size of this kid. He's throwing 72-74 mph, which from our distance is like 99-100."

Jackie Robinson West is putting its closer, Jalen Lemons, a 12-year-old who has played catcher for most of the regional tournament, on the mound to start the game.

"He's the type of guy, when he goes to the mound, the runs and hits stop," Haley said. "He's primarily our closer, but this is a game we don't want to get behind."

How big is he?

"He's 5-2, 5-3, just a Little League guy," Haley said. "He's a tough kid."

If Jackie Robinson West wins, it goes straight to Pennsylvania. It's been a long road trip, especially for adults surrounded by 11- and 12-year-olds.

"The boys haven't [been] home in 17 days," Haley said. "We're doing OK once we get them to the field. I told our manager [Darold Butler] this is longer than the Bulls' circus trip."

Jackie Robinson West made it even longer by losing its first game of the state tournament in Beardstown to the Elgin area's Tri-Cities team 5-4.

The team was four outs from being eliminated from the tournament, Haley said, trailing Tuscola 11-6 in the fifth inning of the six-inning game.

"We were really up against it," Haley said. "Then we scored 11 runs in the fifth."

His team won 17-11 and never looked back, outscoring Bradley-Bourbonnais 25-6 in the two-game championship series.

Jackie Robinson West moved to 5-0 in the Great Lakes tournament when it beat Burlington (Wis.) 12-2 in the semifinals Thursday.

"The kids, what's really unique is they hit the ball and they play solid baseball, but the one intangible is their unique ability to play the same regardless of the score," Haley said. "They play a complete game."

While Little League officials have to stay neutral, it wouldn't be a surprise if they were rooting for Chicago. An Urban Initiative team hasn't made the World Series since Harlem won the Mid-Atlantic region in 2002.

With declining black participation in Major League Baseball, not to mention Little League, a much-discussed problem, Haley knows this team will be in the spotlight if it wins, but that's the least of his concerns.

"We're not trying to make a social statement with the team," Haley said. "I'm not naive. I'm aware of the statistics, and we get asked about it quite a bit. Our last goal is to put kids in the majors. That's not what we're trying to do. We're trying to be as inclusive as we can and bring more kids into baseball."

The Chicago area has been represented at Williamsport since the 1983 Jackie Robinson West team with Lemont in 2006 and South Holland in 1992.