Jackie Robinson West kids prove 'role models' for city of Chicago

Jackie Robinson West On LLWS (1:50)

The players on the Jackie Robinson West Little League team discuss their experiences at the LLWS, including winning the U.S. championship. (1:50)

CHICAGO -- It was the bottom of the third and the bases were loaded for Jackie Robinson West. Joe Melone clasped his hands in prayer as he stared at the giant video screen high above the street.

Melone, a 43-year-old police detective in Cicero, has no ties to the young players from the Jackie Robinson West All-Star team, but there he was sitting in the middle of State St. wearing a Chicago White Sox jersey with a camouflage White Sox hat praying for a Little League miracle.

“I’m just into the game,” said Melone, who played against a teenage Wes Chamberlain when the ex-big leaguer played for a JRW All-Star team. “I’ve been following these guys since the regionals.”

There would be no miracles in the Little League World Series championship game for the group of South Side boys who took this city -- and country -- by storm the past two weeks. They rallied in the sixth, but ultimately lost to a better team in South Korea 8-4.

After the final out, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” wafted through the air downtown. Not only did the Jackie Robinson West kids win the United States bracket, they won a city’s attention and devotion.

There is no question this team has proved to be Chicago’s most compelling baseball team this summer.

Frankly, this is Chicago’s best baseball team since 2008, back when the JRW kids were, what, 6? These kids were barely walking when the Chicago Cubs blew it in 2003.

It became a running joke how JRW clobbered the Cubs and White Sox in TV ratings the past two weeks. There is a novelty factor, but JRW also played a fundamentally sound, aesthetically pleasing style.

“I wish the Sox had a relief pitcher like [Josh] Houston,” Melone said.

Houston, D.J. Butler, Pierce Jones, Trey Hondras. We came to know these kids, if only through the television.

We’ll get into the “big meaning” of this team’s championship game run, but let’s be honest: These kids were just fun to watch. Baseball is entertainment, and they were entertaining.

There’s a reason Little League baseball, or for that matter, the spelling bee, does great ratings. We can all tap into the memory of playing as children. Instead of watching with anger or envy, fretting about Super-2 status and bloated contracts, you can just watch.

In an age when watching home runs and showing youthful exuberance gets you a fastball to the ribs in the majors, here comes a team with an average age of 12 that plays how you wished you could play at 12.

As for me, a 35-year-old man, I like watching kids clap after a big play, or point a bat at a pitcher. I like celebrations and five-part handshakes and little Butler telling ESPN he wanted dinner at Red Lobster after a big win.

If D.J. Butler, the 4-foot-8 spitfire, has to pay for a Bar Harbor Lobster Bake, something’s wrong. Biscuits for everyone!

Maybe I should’ve passed the hat at the downtown watch party, which turned into a much better event than I anticipated.

I’m bad at crowd estimates, but there were easily 1,000 people watching outside the Chicago Theatre and ESPN Chicago headquarters. The sidewalks were packed on each side of the streets, while hundreds sat in lawn chairs in the middle. They cheered when it was time to cheer and were quiet when things went South Korea’s way. Then they cheered again and again and again.

When we root for our favorite teams, we’re really just rooting for ourselves, for how these teams make us feel about our worthiness. But watching this crowd, it felt like they were rooting for these kids the same way you root for your own kids. Not because of how it makes you feel, but because you love them.

Because this is an all-black team from parts of the city where violence wreaks havoc on peaceful families, it’s easy to over-dramatize the meaning of this team.

It’s been another bad news summer in Chicago. And while it’s easy to commiserate over shootings over Twitter or on the nightly news, it’s another thing to live in the neighborhoods where the real problems go down. You have a much better chance of avoiding trouble if you live in certain areas.

Chicago is a very segregated city. Intentionally and devastatingly segregated.

But look at the crowd on State St., Melone beckoned to me, turning to face the masses. Every demographic was seemingly represented and united for one purpose.

“There’s no color here,” he said. “No one is one side or another. An entire city is rooting together for these 12-year-olds.”

No, the success of these kids won’t affect the violence that plagues the parts of Chicago the tourists who go to State St. will never see.

Poverty is the root cause of what ails Chicago’s worst neighborhoods, and unless Little League is giving all the TV proceeds to the South Side, poverty will be there Wednesday after the Jackie Robinson West parade is over.

But what this team can contribute is an example. An all-black team is the best Little League team in the country.

You can bet Little League registration will be up in the South and West Sides. Everyone needs a model. That’s why the declining percentage of black players in baseball is such an important story. The American Dream is that you can be anything if you work hard enough.

For Denise Mills, a retired physical education teacher in Chicago Public Schools, this team can espouse the positive results of exercise.

“This is a tip-of-the-iceberg moment,” she said.

We’ll only be able to see these boys bask in the glory as returning sports heroes, but the real story will be underneath the water, she assured me. She wants to see a renewed push for physical education in the city’s schools, and more investment in community centers and boys' and girls' clubs.

So while Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fashioned himself into the Drake of the city, hitching his star to whichever sports bandwagon (Simeon, Whitney Young, Jackie Robinson West) comes along, let’s see him put his money where his mouth is, and build some community centers and better sports facilities where they’re needed in the city. Use this moment to truly make a difference by adding instead of subtracting.

But that’s for later. Right now, it’s time to bask in these kids’ reflected glory a little longer.

The JRW kids got fireworks in their honor Sunday night as high-rise buildings lit up with the team’s name. There will be a parade Wednesday, and more fireworks.

“This is something Chicago needed,” said Kyle Kelly, a 45-year-old railroad man from Englewood. “You saw the positive news they gave us. They are role models.”

Kelly, who was wearing a Jackie Robinson West T-shirt, as was his wife, was asked if the players can, or should, be role models.

"Believe it or not, they are role models," he said. "Them little guys, everybody will know every last one of those teammates' names when they get home.”

Yes, they are role models because they’re just kids.

They are Jackie Robinson West. On Sunday, we were all Jackie Robinson West. What a team. What a story.