One of the most frequently asked questions in this line of work, the chronicling of teams and games, is what sporting event did you enjoy covering most?
I never hesitate with the answer — the Little League World Series. I’ve been blessed to have a front-row (OK, so it’s probably more like auxiliary press) seat for Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, and World Series. I’ve been fortunate to cover the Final Four, college football national championship games, and the Frozen Four.
All wonderful events, but none of them can bump the slice of baseball Eden that is South Williamsport, Pa., off the top spot. Waxing poetic on Williamsport is easy. It’s like the sports version of Neverland. What happens off the field with kids trading pins and making friends with peers from other countries at the Grove, the dormitory-style housing complex for the teams, is just as much a part of the experience as balls and strikes.
We can debate the ESPN-televised exploitation of 11- and 12-year-olds like a hardball version of the Hunger Games, but when you’re in the Little League complex at the games, as I was in 2006 with the Portsmouth (N.H.) Little League, you don’t feel the intrusion of the cameras and their inherent moral dilemma. It’s like a baseball Magic Kingdom with Lamade Stadium as Cinderella’s Castle.
So, it is sad to see the Little League World Series experience sullied (again) by adults and scandal. Last week, Little League International stripped Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West Little League of the 2014 United States title and vacated all the games it won to reach Williamsport for using ineligible players.
After declaring in December that Jackie Robinson West hadn’t violated any rules, despite a detailed report from DNAinfo Chicago, Little League determined that the South Side outfit used players from Chicago’s south suburbs and submitted a falsified boundary map to Little League that annexed the territory of neighboring Little League teams. All the Little League teams that reach Williamsport are league All-Star teams.
Little League scandal should be an oxymoron. The lesson here is that there is nothing for kids that overzealous adults can’t ruin with their misplaced aspirations and vicariism.
The Jackie Robinson West kids are being forced to pay for the sins of their fathers, mothers, and Little League organizers. Their accomplishments have been asterisked and diminished through no fault of their own.
They just did what their parents and coaches told them to do. Played ball.
The team was a real feel-good story. In a time where African-American participation in baseball is waning, the all-African-American team from Chicago’s South Side captured the hearts and imaginations of baseball fans, along with Philadelphia female pitcher Mo’ne Davis.
Ratings for the US title game of the Little League World Series, which featured Jackie Robinson West vs. a team from Las Vegas, were up 65 percent from 2013. The championship game against South Korea enjoyed a 35 percent bump.
The team was feted with a parade in Chicago, celebrated by the White Sox and Cubs (with the Cubs wearing warm-up hats and jersey that were replicas of the Little League team’s), honored before a World Series game in San Francisco, and even invited to the White House by President Barack Obama.
An American success story has morphed into a cautionary tale of youth sports overkill.
It’s a stark reminder of what happens when adults become too involved and too invested in the child’s play of youth sports, which has become a cottage industry of talent distillation at earlier and earlier levels.
No matter how well-intentioned they may have been, Jackie Robinson West Little League manager Darold Butler, league president Bill Haley, and Illinois District 4 administrator Michael Kelly failed their kids and failed to set a good example.
Butler has been suspended by Little League International. Haley must be replaced for Jackie Robinson West to be taken off tournament probation. Kelly, who should have blown the whistle on Jackie Robinson West’s roster irregularities, was removed from his job.
But they’re not the only adults who come out of this looking like they have misplaced priorities.
There is a potential Deflategate-esque, sore-loser element. The whistleblower on the Jackie Robinson crew is Chris Janes, vice president of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association, a Chicago-area Little League outfit that lost, 43-2, to Jackie Robinson West in the sectional round.
Janes crusaded to expose the Jackie Robinson West Little League team. By the letter of the law, he is absolutely right, and he has a right to stand up for his kids. But there is something unseemly about a grown man working to expose a team of children and efface their accomplishments.
Whatever you think of Janes and his motives, death threats over Little League baseball represent a new cultural nadir.
This is not as egregious as the last major Little League scandal, the Danny Almonte case in 2001. Purposely using an overage player in a Little League tournament is about as loathsome as it gets and a distinct unfair advantage.
One of the alleged ineligible players used by Jackie Robinson West hails from Dolton, Ill. Dolton is 2.3 miles from Roseland Stadium on Chicago’s South Side, which is where Jackie Robinson West Little League plays its games in the 11- and 12-year-old division.
According to DNAinfo Chicago, two other players attend school in South Holland, Ill. The school is 8 miles from Jackie Robinson West’s field. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s akin to a kid from Milton playing for a Little League team that plays at Jim Rice Field in Roxbury.
The adults knew what they were doing was wrong.
In our culture it’s easy to be cynical about everything.
But if we have to be cynical about the Little League World Series then we’ve all lost.