JRW Players Were The Champions We Needed

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As a Chicagoan, a baseball lover, and a youth coach, I am in a perfect storm reading the news that Little League International has canceled the US Championship of Jackie Robinson West and vacated its wins on the way to and through Williamsport, Pennsylvania based on residency requirements.  Oh, and I am also a civil rights lawyer focused most intently on the way America has used ZIP codes to carve up opportunity.  Race, poverty and place have conspired to create the new civil rights challenges of the 21st Century.

But that's not all.  I am the father of a 12-year old African-American boy who is a heckuva baseball player, and our family planned his eleven-year-old summer vacation around the Little League World Series last year.  We thrilled to the exploits of Jackie Robinson West and Philadelphia's Taney Dragons Little League with its star, Mo'Ne Davis.  JRW was doing so well, you couldn't buy Great Lakes fan gear - so we bought yellow T-shirts and magic markers from Kmart to cheer for our team.  Our joy was complete when they became America's team, playing phenomenal baseball and acting as true gentlemen on the field.  

As a civil rights activist, I paid keen attention to the makeup of the teams.  How was the Mountain Ridge team from Las Vegas, Nevada all white save for one player, in a state that is only 54% non-Hispanic white - and a diverse major metropolitan area, at that?  It can only be that the Mountain Ridge Little League, and the ZIP codes it represents, is a place of privilege with upper middle class families and players who can afford the travel and instruction that go with top-flight youth baseball.  

I have similar reactions to Evergreen Park, the suburb surrounded by Chicago's South Side on three of its sides where a Little League official originally raised the residency questions about JRW.  Although the community has diversified noticeably in the 2000s, for most of the last 50 years Evergreen Park was not a very welcoming place for African-American families from the nearby neighborhoods that make up the Jackie Robinson West Little League.  I have coached against its youth baseball teams, and their makeup still stubbornly reflects the legacy of segregation on the South Side.  

In August, my son was 5'10" at 11 years old, so I also watched with interest the big kids on a few teams who could make an outsized difference in the games.  Korea's team had several of them.  From a nation where adult males average 5'4", somehow Korea fielded a team of twelve year olds whose average height was over 5'7".  Their two 5'10" giants were the difference makers at the plate and on the mound.  Clearly this was a Korean 12-year-old national team, and I defy anyone from Little League International to prove to us that those players lived in any tightly-defined geographic area.

What the general public does not know is that there are competing youth baseball leagues with their own World Series, including Cal Ripken's brand in Myrtle Beach and another in connection with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  As the largest and oldest franchise, Little League has a deal with ESPN - but even on TV, there is competition.  CBS Sports televises an all-star series for 12 year olds with open tryouts in four regions of the country - no residency requirements.  In many ways the game is passing Little League by - the mound is too close to the plate and the bases too close to each other, so there is no base stealing or any of the related strategy.  Developmentally, this is not viewed as optimal for good twelve-year-old baseball players who are two years from High School.

Chicago and America were thrilled about the achievements of the Jackie Robinson West players because they occurred during a summer when too many young black males were killing each other on Chicago's streets.  We all needed to see success bubbling up from low-income black communities.  Nothing can take away from the magic of that story and the excellence that the boys showed on and off the field.  I know what it meant for all of the JRW players to affiliate with the league's community, because I was paying attention to its website when the mothers were raising money to make sure the team's families could travel to the regional championship in Indiana. 

If it is indeed a fiction that so much talent can come from a few disinvested ZIP codes on Chicago's South Side, then we all need to be worried about the truth - not least Little League International, which risks marginalizing itself into an artificial championship between privileged American communities and manufactured juggernauts from foreign countries.  At the end of our time in Williamsport, I asked a successful coach of 12-year olds if he had looked into competing for a Little League title, and he said, "Too many rules and regulations that likely every team there is violating."  

We have already booked a trip to compete in Cooperstown this summer.