Little League Baseball has stripped the U.S. championship from Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West and suspended its coach for violating a rule prohibiting the use of players who live outside the geographic area that the team represents, it was announced Wednesday.
Jackie Robinson West must vacate wins from the 2014 Little League Baseball International Tournament -- including its Great Lakes Regional and United States championships.
The team's manager, Darold Butler, has been suspended from Little League activity, and Illinois District 4 administrator Michael Kelly has been removed from his position.
The organization found that Jackie Robinson West used a falsified boundary map and that team officials met with neighboring Little League districts in Illinois to claim players and build what amounts to a superteam.
As a result, the United States championship has been awarded to Mountain Ridge Little League from Las Vegas.
"Quite honestly, we had to do this," Little League International president and CEO Stephen D. Keener told ESPN on Wednesday. "We had no choice. We had to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. ... As painful as this is, it's a necessary outcome from what we finally have been able to confirm.
"The real troubling part of this is that we feel horribly for the kids who are involved with this. Certainly, no one should cast any blame, any aspersions on the children who participated on this team. To the best of our knowledge, they had no knowledge that they were doing anything wrong. They were just kids out playing baseball, which is the way it should be. They were celebrated for that by many, many organizations, many people. What we're most concerned about today is that it's going to be hard on these kids. And that's the part that breaks your heart."
President Barack Obama, who had honored Jackie Robinson West with a White House ceremony, said Wednesday that he continues to be proud of the team and that he blames the problems on "dirty dealing" by adults.
"The president is proud of the way they represented their city and the way they represented the country," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a briefing. "The fact is some dirty dealing by some adults doesn't take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men."
Jackie Robinson West drew significant attention as it advanced to the tournament's title game, where it fell to Seoul, South Korea. In a sport that increasingly struggles to attract African-Americans, the team representing Chicago's South Side emerged as a force, beating Las Vegas 7-5 in the U.S. title game.
The Chicago players were lauded for not just their prowess on the field but also for their sportsmanship.
"This is a heartbreaking decision," Keener said in a statement. "What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome. ...
"As painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries."
Dave Belisle, who coached the Rhode Island Little League team that was eliminated by Chicago in the second round of the United States bracket, expressed his disappointment over the situation.
"It's disappointing, very disappointed that someone would stoop that low to do something like that," Belisle said. "We had a great opportunity to do something wonderful and do it the right way, and they didn't."
"Watching those kids win the championship, and watching those kids in the parade, I don't know how [someone] could live with yourself, knowing you did it the wrong way," Belisle added. "You know what? They got their due, unfortunately at the cost of young kids. How bad is that?"
Former Las Vegas league president Kristi Black, whose organization pushed for the Chicago team to be stripped of the title, said she felt "sad" for the JRW players.
"For us, it's not about getting the title," Black, who was president of the Las Vegas league when its team was in Williamsport, told ESPN. "It's about preserving the integrity of the Little League World Series. I spoke with a couple of our kids this morning, and they're excited, but they feel terrible for the kids on Chicago team. Our kids have moved on. They're just of the mind that when rules are broken, that's not acceptable."
Evergreen Park, Ill., Little League vice president Chris Janes, whose concerns last year about the falsified boundaries prompted the initial investigation, also spoke out on the topic Wednesday night during an interview on "Outside the Lines."
"It's really simple, this is a game for kids," said Janes, whose 12-year-old son plays on a team beaten last year by JRW, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We are all volunteers and we are all playing by the same rule book. I wanted Jackie Robinson's story to be just as true as everybody else did. They were a great and fun team to watch. At the same time, I've got three of my own kids playing in our league. We've got a league of 200-plus kids playing and we're trying to teach them to do the right thing."
Little League embraces policies designed to preserve traditional community-based leagues in which classmates play with classmates, friends with friends.
"Little League takes these matters very seriously and has spent countless hours gathering information about the many issues facing Jackie Robinson West Little League and Illinois District 4," Keener said in the statement. "During our review, it became clear that both Jackie Robinson West officials and District Administrator, Mike Kelly signed documents to make players eligible who should not have been."
The national organization said it was Kelly's responsibility to verify player eligibility based on player information that is gathered and signed by the league president, player agent and team manager.
Little League said that it wasn't until meetings in January that local league officials acknowledged that they knew of the violation but had never reported it to Little League International.
"Unfortunately, no allegations against Jackie Robinson West Little League were made until well after the tournament ended, contributing to the difficulty of resolving these many complex issues," Keener said. "As an organization, Little League has faced issues similar to this in the past, and we felt that we must take the appropriate action set by that precedent."
Jackie Robinson West isn't the first team to have its Little League title stripped. In 1992, Little League took away the title from Zamboanga, Philippines, and handed it to Long Beach, California, after Zamboanga used several players who lived outside its district or were overage. In 2001, a team from the Bronx that finished third was forced to forfeit its games after pitcher Danny Almonte was revealed to be overage.
"This is not an issue that is rampant among Little League programs. This is an isolated case," Keener told ESPN. "We've only had to take this type of action three times in our program's 75-year history."
Tom Farrey of ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and ESPN.com's Joe McDonald contributed to this report.