Monday, March 2, 2015

The Cuban Comet

When on April 19, 1951, Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta became the first black man to play for a Chicago major league baseball team, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Before that in 1949, Bill Veeck bought Miñoso's contract from the Negro League New York Cubans and signed him with his Cleveland Indians, making Minnie Miñoso the first black player of Latin American origin to play in the big leagues. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda wrote that Miñoso is "to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers... the one who made it possible, ... the first Latin to become a superstar."



It's a strange coincidence that the seven time all star, three time gold-glover died just weeks after another Chicago baseball icon, Ernie Banks. Not only were both the first players of color to play on their respective Chicago teams, not only did both men have long and distinguished careers, but each would become unquestionably the heart and soul of their teams, even long after their playing days were over.

In Miñoso's case, it's difficult to say exactly when the end of his career came; he is perhaps best known as the only player to have appeared in a major league baseball game in five different decades, (seven decades in pro ball if you count plate appearances for minor league teams in 1993 and 2003). Miñoso's role was limited to pinch hitter for his old friend Veeck's White Sox, appearing at the plate eight times in 1976 and twice in 1980. In those ten at bats, Miñoso collected just one hit. Folks my age who never saw him in his prime, (and I'm no spring chicken), are more likely to think of Minnie Miñoso as a spry old man, rather than the "The Cuban Comet" as he was known in his glory days.

Call it respect, nostalgia, or a gag, just another bit of Veeckian mischief, but it's likely that those ten extra at bats for the White Sox while he was in his fifties, cost Miñoso some respect, at least among the folks who determine every ball player's ultimate dream, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his 2001 epic tome, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the author rates Miñoso as the tenth best left fielder of all time, between Willie Stargell and Billy Williams, both Hall of Famers. In his argument for Miñoso's induction, James lists by his reckoning, something not to be dismissed, the twenty greatest players in MLB history between the ages of 30 and 39. Minnie Miñoso is number 16 on the list, and the only one who is not in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Pete Rose, who was excluded for his off-the-field shenanigans. Given that Miñoso didn't break into the big leagues until he was in his mid to late twenties (depending upon which birth date you accept), his already impressive career stats could have been better, had he more years in his prime to play in the majors, were it not for the color-barrier.

The latest snub of Miñoso came less than three months before his death, when the "Golden Era Committee" made up of eight Hall of Fame players and the same number of executives, rejected all ten of the stellar players of the fifties and sixties who came before them, Miñoso included.

In an ESPN article published just two days before he died, Christina Karhl interviewed Miñoso at length about his career, his disappointment at the snub, and the open hostility he faced as a player. Miñoso says:

My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that's how I gave it back to them that way all the time.

He added this story about a confrontation with an opposing pitcher:

One day, this pitcher said he was going to get me. And I go up to the plate thinking, if I bunt it past this pitcher I'll get a base hit. So I put my hand out and push the ball up the line; we're both heading to first base -- and I didn't go after him. And he asked, "Why did you do that, why did you save me?" And I told him, "Because you have a wife, you have a kid, you have a mother. If you'd broken your leg or if I'd cut you, that would be on my conscience." Later on, he sent me a thank-you note, saying that I had earned his respect from then on.

Fitting last words I think for a great ballplayer and an even greater man.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Washington Park

View of Washington park looking toward South Open Green
I've spent a lot of my life in Chicago's parks. Ever since I first laid eyes on the magnificent sculpture by Loredo Taft, known as The Fountain of Time, there's always been a soft spot in my heart for Washington Park on the south side. I got to know the park in earnest in the mid-nineties when I began my extensive photographic survey of the parks of Chicago. Of all the landscape parks of this city, Washington stands apart in its great expanses. The field seen in the photograph above, originally called South Open Green, (today officially referred to as "Common Ground" Meadow), is certainly the widest expanse of open land in all the city's parks. As you can see, ball fields occupy the meadow as they have for nearly 150 years, ever since Paul Cornell, the founder of the community of Hyde Park who originally laid out Washington Park, convinced landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to put them there. In addition to the numerous baseball, softball, and football leagues that play their games in the meadow, Chicago's premier cricket league also calls the meadow it's home.

The biggest event the park hosts, is the picnic that follows the annual Bud Billiken parade which terminates in Washington Park. On any given weekend during the warmer months, you'll find it brimming with humanity in this, one of Chicago's loveliest parks.

But not today on a frigid late February afternoon, where aside from a couple of joggers and one solitary gentleman on foot, my only companions were a pair of cardinals and a few dozen black-capped chickadees, gleefully chirping and flitting from branch to ground and back, keeping me company.

With a fresh blanket of snow on a bright winter day like today, a park will reveal itself in ways it cannot during the summer when foliage and people are around. Being able to see from one end to the other, the landscape architects' work becomes readily apparent. Here you begin to understand that the great meadow is not just a flat patch of open land, but a carefully planned clearing, arranged brilliantly within the context of the rest of the park. Setting the meadow apart from the city to the west, is a ribbon of contoured land forms called berms. This undulating landscape, subtle as it is, serves two purposes. From the inside, it keeps the city beyond the park, with its visual clutter and traffic noise, out. From the outside, by hiding the ball fields within, it emphatically states to the world that this is first and foremost a landscape park, not a playground.

Section of Washington Park included in the University of Chicago bid for Obama Presidential Library
I'm afraid we don't put too much importance into the role of the urban landscape park anymore. To the designers of nineteenth century parks like this one, there was a premium put on open space in a naturalistic setting, intended for nothing more than walking or sitting, a place to get away from the frenetic activity of the city, including throngs of people. Today, big parks occupied by few people are seen as wasted space. Newer parks like Millennium Park and the new Maggie Daley Park downtown, cram as many activities, and people, as possible within their boundaries.The overall design effect is a jumble, not altogether different from an amusement park. Landscape parks if they're successful, give us a unified design with one feature effortlessly flowing into the next. New York's Central Park is a good example. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is even better. Not surprisingly, those two magnificent parks were designed by the same team of architects who designed Washington Park, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The ribbon of berms, trees and walkways on the western edge of Washington Park that Olmsted and Vaux carefully designed, about twenty acres in all, is in itself the size of a small park. This is the section of the park that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered to swap with the Park District for vacant city property, so it can be lumped together with nearby property as part of a bid for the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The board of the Chicago Park District, following the mayor lock, stock, and barrel, has agreed to carve up Washington Park. It hasn't been disclosed exactly how the western edge of Washington Park would be used in the proposed design, but if built, it would definitely change the character of the entire park.

It's easy to see why this patch of park land is coveted by the planners of the bid. Just west of the park, on the other side of King Drive, lie acres of vacant land, much of it owned by the University of Chicago, the sponsors of the bid. The site is perfectly situated in terms of transportation, less than a mile away from the Dan Ryan Expressway and directly underneath a CTA elevated station. While the available land is large enough to build a sizable building for
Vacant land immediately west of Washington Park
the presidential library, there may not be enough real estate necessary for the inevitable parking requirements, not to mention the landscaping around the library building that seems to obligatory as far as these things go. As others have pointed out, underground parking, similar to what currently exists at the Museum of Science and Industry, might solve that problem, and the willingness to scale back on the footprint of the entire library complex, would make this site feasible without intruding on Washington Park. There is also additional vacant land directly south of the site, across Garfield Park, just visible on the right of the photo that could possibly be incorporated in the design of the library complex.

I mentioned in the previous post, my opposition to taking over any part of Washington Park for the site of the library on the grounds that public land should not be surrendered for a private venture. In the case of this park, it's completely ridiculous to suggest that real estate located elsewhere could possibly make up for the loss of existing parkland that as we have seen, plays an integral role in the design of the rest of the park.

Furthermore, Washington Park has great significance to this city, as testified by its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately that distinction carries no weight as far as preservation is concerned, and as our mayor has shown before, he has no qualms about running roughshod over preservation issues regarding this city's architectural treasures.

They say that all politics is local yet in an interesting turn, this issue may be a 180 degree reversal of that old axiom. In a few weeks time, the president will have the final say about the location of his legacy library. That decision will more than likely be made before the runoff mayoral election between Emanuel and his opponent Jesus Garcia in April. I imagine it would be a tremendous slap in the face to the mayor if Obama chooses New York or Honolulu over Chicago, especially coming right before the election involving that president's former Chief of Staff. If that should occur, you can bet Garcia will make hay of the fact that the mayor couldn't bring home a prize that many in this town think is rightfully ours.

The land grab of public property that the mayor is advocating, is controversial, and it may be subject to law suits. If those suits become a reality, they could very well become the deciding factor that kills Chicago's chances for getting the presidential library.

And if that comes to pass, Garcia would indeed have a point that by not coming up with a more workable plan, Emanuel blew our chance of getting the library. Who knows, that might even be just enough ammunition to swing the election Garcia's way.

I'm on the fence right now but there are certainly loads of people in this city right now who would love to see Garcia become Chicago's first Latino mayor. They just may get their chance.

And Rahm Emanuel will have only himself to blame.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Park swap

There's a competition underway to determine the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Library. The four contestants in the battle, all major universities, are the University of Hawaii, Hololulu, Columbia University in New York City, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the University of Chicago.

President Obama has connections to all four. He was born in Honolulu, did his undergraduate studies at Columbia, and spent most of his working life before he became a US senator and president, in Chicago. Of the four, it seems to me that the University of Chicago would be the most logical choice, as the president has the closest ties to that institution, where he taught, as well as the south side of Chicago, the childhood home of the First Lady, and the couple's two daughters. It was on the south side where the president famously worked as a community organizer; he also represented a portion of the that part of the city as a senator in the Illinois State Assembly.

I am not aware of any specific connections the president has with the west side of Chicago (where UIC proposes to build the library) or with that institution itself.

The U of C is pushing full steam ahead with their bid, but with reservations. They are adamant about building the new institution in the neighborhood surrounding its campus but not on the campus itself. They claim that the library will do much more good in the community, in terms of spurring on new development, creating new jobs, and bringing new opportunities into the neighborhood. One of the stipulations that the Obamas and the group who will select the winning bid have, is that the land proposed for the site must owned outright by the bidding institution. The university owns considerable property in the surrounding community but apparently not enough contiguous tracts of land sufficient for a site for the library and its environs.

Not to fear, says Mayor Emanuel, the city will just take existing Chicago Park District land adjacent to U of C property, then turn it over to the university, thereby creating a site suitable for the needs of the proposed library. In exchange for the park land, the city would convert currently non-functioning city-owned property into usable park space.

This real estate slight of hand is a win-win proposition, a no-brainer right? After all, in the words of the mayor, we need to jump on this because we shouldn't have to wait for another president to come from Chicago before we get this opportunity again.

I understand the logic but there are ethical issues about grabbing public land and turning it over to a private entity, even if it is for an institution to be open to the public.

"Ethical-schmethical...", the folks in the affected communities seemed to say in a public meeting, "...we want the library and all the perks it will bring." And who can blame them? Drive around much of the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods to the west and south of the university, and you'll find acre upon acre of vacant lots interspersed with boarded up buildings and shuttered businesses. One can only imagine how plopping a presidential library smack dab in the midst of all the desolation would mean a sudden infusion of jobs, money and opportunity.

One can hear the residents of the community saying the park land in question is not heavily used, it's just land filled with grass and trees, there's nothing particularly useful there. After all, what could be more old fashioned than an uncongested urban park filled with nothing but grass and trees?

The Chicago Park District agrees and last week they rubber stamped the mayor's proposal transferring public park land to the city. The Chicago City Council is expected to follow suit shortly.

Here is a link to a site with a satellite view of  the area surrounding the University of Chicago, with the two proposed sites highlighted in red. One proposed site consists of about 20 acres on the western edge of Jackson Park, the other consists of roughly the same amount of acreage on the western edge of Washington Park. Both parks linked together by the Midway Plaisance served as the site of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, two of the preeminent American landscape architects of the nineteenth century, or any century for that matter, were responsible for the design of the parks before, during and after the Fair. As you can imagine, the two parks play an integral role in Chicago's history, are a significant part of this city's tremendous architectural legacy, and, simply put, are some of the most beautiful places in the city.

Jackson Park

It may be a tough sell these days but no one should take lightly the idea of carving up these historic, magnificent, public parks, even for a worthwhile cause.

One of the problems, as pointed out in this open letter to the president and all parties concerned from Charles Birnbaum, the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, is that the mayor and the university are presenting this issue as an either/or; either the presidential library gets built on public park land, or it gets built in New York of Hawaii. If that happens, the folks in the affected communities will have the people who care about the parks to blame as the mayor and the university "did all they could" to bring the library here, but those damn park people got in the way.

Not surprisingly, that turns out to be a bunch of hooey. Mr. Birnbaum points out minor alterations in the proposals which would not intrude into park space, but the mayor and the U of C are so far un-moved. This scenario is painfully similar to the one we experienced a couple of years ago with the former Prentice Women's Hospital, an architecturally significant building that was destroyed by Northwestern University. That institution proclaimed that despite owning hundreds of acres of land in the Streeterville neighborhood, only the Prentice site was suitable to build a new research building. For his part, the mayor signed off on the destruction of the important building by saying it was OK to demolish it since we had other buildings in town by the same architect, Bertrand Goldberg. Then with the most egregious malfeasance, the Chicago Landmarks Commission in one breath voted to landmark the building, then in the next breath said it didn't matter, the city and the university needed the land so the new landmark, and in effect, all landmark buildings in the city be damned.

Essentially the Park District did the same thing last week when they declared that the land they are entrusted to maintain and protect as a public trust, could be traded off at the mayor's bidding.

Washington Park


This is not only a bad idea for the parks affected, but a terrible precedent which could have major ramifications for all our parks.

But why should any of this surprise us? As we've seen, in the recent words of a friend, when university officials want something, there is little that can be done to get in their way.

I would add, especially when the mayor is in bed with them.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Rules are rules

A couple years ago I wrote about the greatest act of sportsmanship I've ever encountered. It happened during a college softball playoff game when a batter hit the ball over the fence for a home run, the first (and what turned out to be the last) of her career. As she rounded first base, she tore an ACL and crumbled to the ground. Unable to stand up, let alone run the bases, her coaches conferred with the umpires who told them that in order for the home run to count, the batter without any assistance from her teammates or a pinch runner, would have to complete the circuit around the basepath. At that point, Mallory Holtman, the first baseman on the other team asked if there was any rule against the opposing players assisting the stricken batter. The umps said no, and Holtman joined by the shortstop Liz Wallace gingerly picked up their opponent and carried her around the bases, lowering her leg to touch each base and finally home plate. The run that the team in the field willingly gave up, ended up costing them the game and a chance for the championship.

Stories like this one should make everyone stand up and cheer because they define in the purest sense, what athletic competition is supposed to be all about. Baseball fans like to think of the game we call "our national pastime", as an institution that exemplifies all that this country is ideally supposed to represent: fairness, decency, and above all, in its rules that ensure every player gets his or her turn at bat, democracy itself.

In reality, when adults codified the rules of the game, thereby wrestling baseball from the domain of children in the mid 19th century, the overriding question on the minds of the majority of folks who have played the game since was this:  "How can I get around those rules?"

An early star of the game who later became an owner and big time promoter of baseball, Albert Spalding, described his game in typical nineteenth century bravado this way:
Baseball is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness, American Dash, Discipline, Determination, American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm, American Pluck, Persistency, Performance, American Spirit, Sagacity, Success, American Vim, Vigor, Virility.
You may notice that nowhere does Spalding mention honesty and fair play.

Granted there were some magnificent players like Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants and "Gentleman" Dave Malarcher of the Chicago American Giants of the Negro National League, who were known for their scrupulous attention to good sportsmanship. Both players were documented overruling umpires' decisions in their favor when they thought they were the wrong calls. Needless to say, these two extraordinary individuals are in the minority in the annals of baseball history.

Commenting on the character of some of the most honored and cherished members of the baseball community, Bill Veeck once said:
Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils.
Veeck should know, he was probably as rowdy and raucous as the best of them. He made a career as an executive and owner of several clubs, by thumbing his nose at the baseball establishment, including their rules. One of the eminently quotable Veeck's most famous quotes is this:
I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity.
In his autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck, Bill Veeck took pains to point out the lengths of his mischief. Probably the most famous and notorious of his stunts came when he was the owner of the woebegone St. Louis Browns. On August 19, 1951, as a gag, Veeck sent three foot seven inch Eddie Gaedel up to bat against the Detroit Tigers. Veeck's stunts indeed tested the limits of baseball rules, ethics and sometimes even decency.

There was one rule that Veeck actively sought to break, baseball's infamous color line. As owner of the Cleveland Indians in 1947, Veeck signed the first African American player in the American League, Larry Doby. The following year he signed the great Satchel Paige who at 43, became the oldest "rookie" in major league history. Aghast, baseball insiders claimed that had Paige not been black, he never would have been signed at that advanced age. Taking aim at injustice, Veeck replied, "Had Satchel Paige been white, he'd have been in the major leagues for twenty years."

For his efforts, Bill Veeck, "the game's enfant terrible",  became one of the most beloved, and at the same time, most vilified individuals to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Another colorful Hall of Famer who didn't have too many qualms about stretching the rules, especially when they pertained to him, was John "Mugsy" McGraw, the longtime manager of the New York Giants. In his playing days, McGraw, a third baseman, had a penchant for grabbing the belts of base runners when the ump's eyes were fixed elsewhere. One runner got wise to McGraw, and while standing on second base between pitches, he unbuckled his belt. When his teammate at the plate singled, the runner zipped past third base and scored, while the embarrassed McGraw stood at third base holding a belt.

One of McGraw's most legendary escapades took place in 1901 when he signed a second baseman named Charlie Grant to his team at the time, the Baltimore Orioles, (today's Yankees). Grant was a seasoned professional ballplayer playing for the black team, the Chicago Columbia Giants. As the player was light skinned and had straight hair, McGraw planned to pass him off as a Native American named Tokohama, a name McGraw made up. Blacks of course were not allowed to play "organized baseball" in those days, while there was no such restriction on Native Americans. Before the season began and Grant was able to become the first black player to play in the major leagues in the 20th century, albeit not in the open, his cover was blown in Chicago, as he was well known here.

It was "The Old Roman", Charles Comiskey, the owner and founder of the White Sox who famously declared: "If McGraw keeps this 'Indian', I'll put a Chinaman on third base." Comiskey was not being blatantly racist; he played with and against many black players in exhibition games during his playing career and would have loved to have been able to sign blacks to his team. But rules are rules and Comiskey was only stating the obvious; if McGraw was going to play fast and easy with baseball's color line, so would he. In the end, the sanctity of the rule barring blacks prevailed, and Charlie "Tokohama" Grant was back with the Columbia Giants in a matter of days.

In a sense, Chris Janes might be the Charlie Comiskey of today. He's the guy who blew the whistle on the Jackie Robinson West little league team whose national championship was stripped away last week.  In his role as vice president of the suburban Evergreen Park Athletic Association, Janes saw it as his duty to report his suspicions that JRW was fielding some players who did not live within the bounds of that league's territory, in violation of Little League rules. Incidentally, Janes's team was handed a 43-2 defeat by JRW in the tournament, which I'm sure had nothing to do (wink wink) with his decision to turn them in.

Well it turns out that Chris "Without the boundaries, it's not Little League anymore" Janes himself is not above accepting players in his league who do not live within its boundaries. The night that the ruling on JRW was announced, a Chicago woman came forward and claimed that Evergreen Park officials forged documents so that her son could play in that league.

Janes denied any wrongdoing. There are actually no rules prohibiting kids from playing in leagues outside their home districts for the majority of little league activities, only tournaments officially sanctioned by Little League Inc.who runs the annual Little League World Series. Janes insists that while his league does accept outside players whose parents come to them, they do not actively recruit players, nor do they play those boundary-busting kids in tournaments that prohibit them from doing so.

Would he if he could, play kids who weren't from Evergreen Park in Little League Inc. sanctioned tournaments? Your guess is as good as mine but honestly I think it's clear he would.

I haven't a clue how JRW comes upon its players, but I strongly suspect that, just as most little league programs like Evergreen Park's, parents and kids come to them, not the other way around. The organization has been around for a long time, and is very well known. It seems very reasonable that folks from all over the Chicago area would be thrilled to get their kids into the program.

That does not excuse the JRW administrators of willfully violating the rules of the tournament. In fact, there are so many loopholes and waivers enabling kids who live outside the boundaries to play on any given team, even in the Little League tournaments, that it's truly surprising to me that the adults who run JRW didn't go the extra mile to make sure that all the players already on the team could legitimately play in the big tournament. Unfortunately they didn't, and that's why they find themselves in the mess they're in. Perhaps they felt they were just too busy trying to run a little league program made up of hundreds of kids, not just the thirteen kids we keep hearing about. Perhaps in their over-zealousness to gain attention for their program and the contributions that would help out an institution that does a great deal of good in a troubled part of the city, they overstepped their bounds and broke a few rules. Maybe they just felt the good they did for the community overrode the tournament rules.

BUT THEY CHEATED!!!

I hear those cries coming over and over again from dozens of indignant coaches and parents of the teams that were vanquished by JRW in last year's tournament. One of those voices is that of Kristi Black who's the president of the Mountain Ridge Little League, who fielded the Las Vegas team that was the runner up to JRW in the tournament. According to Ms. Black, the tournament "has an asterisk on it like the one on Barry Bonds home run record." The coach of the Vegas team, Ashton Cave, compared JRW's misdeeds to those of cyclist Lance Armstrong, who like Bonds, was found to have used performance enhancing drugs.

I'll give you three guesses, who do you think Ms. Black and Mr. Cave believe should be crowned the US champion? Bet you won't need all three guesses to come up with the correct answer.

The voices of "reason" in defending the move to strip the championship from the kids who themselves did not cause this problem, claim that it's important to teach young people the value of respecting rules, and that a championship won fraudulently is no championship at all. In time they say, the thirteen members of the team JRW sent to Williamsport, PA, will learn a valuable lesson and be all the better for it.

I'm not so sure. My guess is that the lesson those thirteen boys will learn is that the world is an unfair place. What they will take away from this experience is that it doesn't matter how hard you work for something, there's always a chance someone out there will be willing and able to take what you earned away from you, especially if you're black.

WHOA, FOUL!!!, cry those same indignant voices, THIS IS NOT ABOUT RACE, IT'S ABOUT FOLLOWING RULES. WE SHOULD NOT HAVE A DOUBLE STANDARD, THE RULES ARE THERE FOR EVERYONE TO FOLLOW!!!

With this I agree, up to a point. The Little League does indeed have a precedent for stripping away championships for rule violations. It would be unfair of them to treat JRW differently than other teams simply because they're black. What does seem strange to me is their one-size-fits-all system of punishment for transgressions. There is no redress, and there are no considerations of the severity of the transgression.

Most systems of jurisprudence I know of enact punishments that fit the crime. After all, we don't get our driver's licences revoked for a single parking ticket. Not so apparently with the Little League where it's one strike and you're out.

So where do JRW's transgressions fall in the greater scheme of things? I can sort of understand Little League Inc's philosophy of limiting players on a team to a confined community. But as I pointed out in my previous post, we've become a highly mobile society, and the definition of a community is much broader and more complicated than it once was. And as I mentioned above, there are petitions to be filled out and waivers that can be signed, that allow the de facto expansion of a league's boundaries. In my opinion, this legal end-run around the rule contradicts the spirit of the boundary regulation, if not the letter of it. Many teams take advantage of these loopholes.

Because of that, the question of whether JRW's transgressions created an unfair advantage for their tournament team is debatable. Remember these are twelve year old children we're talking about, not "ringers brought in to create a super team", as they've been depicted. To hear the folks who support the stripping of the championship talk, you'd think JRW enlisted Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols to play for them.

To me, far more serious infractions, perhaps worthy of stripping a title, would include fielding players above the stipulated age limit, paying families for the services of their children, players using illegally modified equipment such as corked bats, the use of performance enhancing drugs, or any other transgression for which no waiver or loophole would ever be considered.

Obviously you can't justify infractions by saying that everybody does it, but I find much of the rhetoric leveled at JRW to be vindictive, self-serving, and dare I say, hypocritical. If it were up to me (which of course it isn't), a much more reasonable punishment for boundary infractions would be limiting sanctions to the administrators, in the form of fines or suspensions. I regard revoking the championship from the children of Jackie Robinson West to be draconian, if not unjust.

All the talk going on in the week since the championship was stripped, seems to miss the point of children's athletic programs. Any reasonable person would say that the purpose of such programs is to not only teach kids how to play the game, but also to teach values such as teamwork and sportsmanship. Winning and losing are of course integral parts of any game but in no way should they be front and center in children's sports. Critics claim that by their actions, the folks at JRW placed winning above everything else, but it seems to me that the other teams' fixation on cheating and unfair advantages on the part of JRW, places a far greater emphasis on winning, than do the infractions themselves.

If the coaches of the teams who lost to JRW were truly concerned with the spirit of the game and not only about winning and losing, they would accept the outcome of the tournament, not try to make excuses for losing. It's their responsibility as teachers and role models to understand that it's just as important to teach kids how to be gracious losers (as the JRW kids were when they lost the world championship to a team from Taiwan), as it is to be respectful winners.

Of course there would be no game of baseball without rules. But not all rules are created equal; some are integral to the game, others are not. If everyone slavishly followed every rule enacted since the game's inception, runners would still be put out by being hit (or plugged, which is the correct term) with the ball, pitchers would still be throwing underhand, and blacks would still be banned from the game.

It's far easier to tear down that to build. The folks at Jackie Robinson West have done a magnificent job over the years, building an important institution in the city of Chicago. Tens of thousands of kids have walked through their doors since 1971 when the league was founded. It's true that their administrators may have run roughshod over some tournament rules, but put into the their proper perspective, these transgressions don't amount to much, little more than bureaucratic neglect.

Players like Christy Mathewson, Mallory Holtman, Dave Malarcher, and Liz Wallace, all understood that the game was bigger than they were. Despite having the rules in their favor, they all chose to do what they considered to be the right thing, rather than accept a ruling against their opponents that they felt was unjust.

By insisting that JRW's championship be revoked, then reaping the spoils by claiming the championship for themselves, the adults of the Las Vegas team are doing far more to undermine youth baseball than the adults at Jackie Robinson West. As of last Wednesday, the Las Vegas team is now the US Little League 12U Baseball Champion. Talk about an asterisk.

Most of us within the game or without, fall far short of the moral and ethical credibility of Mathewson, Holtman, Malarcher and Wallace. Like the proverbial warning about throwing stones if you live in glass houses, those of us without the integrity of those four, had better be careful before we start pointing fingers at anybody else.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

JRW

On September 1st of last year I wrote this post expressing my appreciation for the Jackie Robinson West little league team from the South Side of Chicago for winning the United States 12 and under Little League Championship. Today the team was stripped of that championship on account of recruitment issues as some of the players on that team did not live within the boundaries of the league.

Well I'll go on the record and say here and now that I stand by my post and my appreciation.

It was Chris Janes, a little league coach and Vice President of the south suburban Evergreen Park Athletic Association who set the investigation in motion late last year. In a radio interview on a local sports-talk station, Janes said he e-mailed the offices of the Little League governing body, raising questions about the validity of some of the JRW players, after he saw TV reports showing the mayors of suburbs, definitely NOT within the JRW's boundaries, publicly congratulating specific players and claiming them as their own. Whether it makes a difference or not, Janes's Evergreen Park little league team was defeated by JRW by a score of 43-2 in the sectional tournament leading up to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.

Well as Marcellus once said to Horatio:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I don't for one minute condone cheating by breaking rules in any sport. It's especially disgusting when it comes to cheating in athletics involving children. There is no question in my mind that if the adults who run JRW and the district they represent, willfully violated Little League rules, they should be punished with appropriate fines and/or suspensions.

But guess what? It gets complicated. We live in a society where the nuclear family does not always consist of a mother, a father and their children all living under one roof. A lot of kids spend part of their time with one parent in neighborhood X, part of their time with another parent in neighborhood Y, and the rest of their time with an aunt, uncle or grandparent in neighborhood Z. Public school issues in this city encourage parents to list their kids' residences in whatever neighborhood affords their children with the best opportunity. Is that cheating? Well, perhaps, but frankly, given the circumstances, most parents who care about their children, are not beyond bending the rules (many of them arcane), in order to give their kids a bit of an advantage.

Getting back to Chris Janes's shocking discovery that some of the JRW players may not have come from within the boundaries of their league, if it was such public knowledge that the mayors of the towns some of these kids came from were able to make public pronouncements, how is it that the administers of the National Little League were unable to figure it out on their own? After all, JRW was not an unknown quantity when it entered the tournament this year, they've been around for a very long time. It was no secret to anyone that this was not a rag-tag group of kids from a small corner of Chicago, but an all star team comprised of kids who were selected from far and wide.

Personally I think this kind of recruitment is a bad idea. Why after all is it so important to build an all star team of 12 year olds? There's plenty of time for that in their young careers. 12 and 13 year old kids are still learning the game and in my opinion, winning should not the be all/end all of playing a sport at that age. As the parent of a little leaguer, I've had a lot of experience with 12 and 13 year old ballplayers and can personally say they're all great. The parents are another story.

"Without the boundaries, it's not Little League anymore. Little League stands behind its boundaries 100 percent", said Chris Janes, the coach who blew the whistle on JRW. Now I can't say what goes on in Evergreen Park, but if Mr. Janes really believes that, he's either blind or delusional.

My son's travel team has played in several tournaments in the region, including the 12 U divisional tournament that led up to the Williamsport Little League World Series. In that tournament, (governed by exactly the same rules that govern the LLWS), the team we played, and ultimately beat to win our division, was from another park in Chicago. It was a well established fact that this team recruited players from all over the Chicago area. I knew one of the players very well as he was once on our team in our park's house league. The boy lived within neither park's boundaries. We later encountered another player from that team, their best pitcher, in a Wisconsin tournament. He was representing a team from a suburb that was closer to Kenosha, Wisconsin than Chicago.

And truth be told, half of our park's traveling team is comprised of players from another park. My wife and I don't do it, but parents routinely choose and sign their kids up in little league programs that are miles from their homes. There are many reasons for doing this. Frankly I don't see it as a big deal.

But rules are rules.

That said, from what I understand of the situation, the officials at JRW broke Little League rules by not respecting the boundaries of other leagues within their division. The official Little League rules state that it's OK to do that so long as they get the approval from the officials from the other leagues affected. This apparently did not happen. For their part, the folks in the division seemed to look the other way.

It appears to me that the National Little League looked the other way as well. Let's face it, the story of Jackie Robinson West was a gold mine for them. It was only when their hand was forced that they took action.

Too bad for the kids some say, but they won the tournament unfairly. What about the other kids who didn't get to play because their rightful spots on the team were taken up from kids who didn't legitimately belong there? What about the other teams in the tournaments who got beat unfairly by JRW?

These are legitimate points to be sure.

But the kids who DID make the JRW team, didn't have anything given to them. They worked hard to get where they are, played the games and won enough of them to win the US Championship. They were all (as far as I know) 12 year olds, it's not as if they had a bunch of high school kids playing on the team. From my personal experience with the game, I find it highly unlikely that most of their opponents in the LLWS, including the highly regarded Taney Dragons from Philadelphia, held hard and fast to the boundary rules. Had JRW lost the US tournament, no one would have bothered with investigating them. If as I suspect other teams played fast and easy with the rules, then JRW had no unfair advantage.

The point everyone seems to miss in all the heated conversations about this issue, is that JRW and little league programs everywhere are not simply about the all star teams that represent them in tournaments. They're about the hundreds of kids in each league who with or without any baseball acumen, participate in the house leagues, learning the game, not to get the chance to play
high school, college, or professional baseball, but to learn about teamwork, sportsmanship, fair play, and mostly just to have fun. For some disadvantaged kids, their little league experience may be their one and only outlet to escape an otherwise troubled life.

I can't see much good coming out of stripping the championship from a group of kids who were just doing their best to play baseball, but I do see a great deal of potential harm to little league programs across the country. Yes the blatant violation of the rules is wrong and needs to be addressed. But from my own experience, for one reason or other, mostly out of convenience, the majority of adults involved in little league baseball at one time or other violate the spirit if not the letter of the boundary rules. As we have seen, ninety nine times out of a hundred, the officials are more than happy to look the other way, as indeed they should.

In this case if it were up to me, I would sanction the administrators of JRW and the district for their transgressions, and maybe even some of the administrators in the Little League for dropping the ball on this.

But I would leave the kids out of it.

That last part is not going to happen, it's a done deal as the players of JRW have been stripped of their hard earned championship and all the other championships that led up to it.

How typical, it's the adults who fuck up and the kids who get screwed.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Oops

This week we experienced the fifth worst snowstorm in the recorded history of Chicago. This is what it looked like from our back window:


video

The 19 or so inches that fell in about as many hours hardly phased us a bit. With the exception of the schools closing, the city was functioning at almost full capacity the following day. To be honest, we were lucky as the blizzard happened during the weekend. Given that the storm was actually worse than predicted, had it occurred during a weekday, it would have been another story.

New York City had the opposite experience the week before. The forecasters predicted a storm of epic proportions for Monday, January 26th. The city government reacted in kind, virtually shutting down the biggest city in the country in anticipation for what appeared to be a Snowpocalypse on top of Snowmageddon. What New York  got instead was a day off and only about eight inches of snow, a drop in the bucket for that town. Mayor Bill de Blasio was excoriated for his perceived over-reaction to what amounted to a slightly worse than average winter storm.

In a sense, de Blasio was the same situation as Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Super Bowl losing Seattle Seahawks. As the snow was falling in Chicago, Carroll's team in case you missed it, down by four points, had a second and goal from the New England five yard line with about 30 seconds left to play in the game. At his disposal was one of the best running backs in the league, Marshawn Lynch, and three chances to run the ball into the end zone to score what would have been the winning touchdown. Instead of running the safest and most obvious play, handing the ball off to Lynch who is deadly in such situations, Carroll chose to call a more risky pass play. The play backfired, as Patriot rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russel Wilson's five yard pass at the goal line, game over. For his part, Carroll has been raked over the coals for the call which more than likely cost his team the championship.

Now had the Monday storm occurred as predicted and de Blasio's actions saved his city from much grief, the mayor would have been heralded for his actions, much as Richard M. Daley was four years ago during our third worst snow storm ever when he recommended that everybody in Chicago leave work in the middle of the day, even before a single snowflake fell. Likewise, had Ricardo Lockett, the Seattle receiver been able to out-muscle Malcolm Butler, (who truth be told made a magnificent play), for control of the ball at the goal line and score a touchdown, Carroll would have been applauded for his gutsy call.

I guess the lesson to be learned in all this is as much as we appreciate bold, outside of the box decisions, (when they turn out to be the right ones), we absolutely relish it when people in a position of great authority screw up. As luck would have it, de Blasio and Carroll both got unlucky in a big way.

Oh well, better luck next time fellas.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ernie Picasso

You know I had to stop by to visit the statue of Ernie Banks at Daley Plaza today. Banks, the beloved shortstop and first baseman of the Chicago Cubs between 1953 and 1971, died last Friday and this city is in mourning. It was announced that the statue which normally graces the Clark Street entrance of Wrigley Field, would be temporarily moved to Chicago's most important public square to honor the man known by just about everyone who cares a hoot about baseball as "Mr. Cub". There was also supposed to be some kind of ceremony honoring him but that never seemed to materialize. Instead, a few local TV crews, about two dozen folks, a friend and I, turned out at lunchtime to stand around and take pictures of each other in front of the likeness of the late ballplayer.

As we walked away, the sight of that familiar batting stance as seen through the Picasso brought something to mind. Wasn't there some connection between Ernie Banks and Picasso?

It didn't take me long to figure it out.

Way back in 1967, the massive sculpture by the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was unveiled to a collective groan among much of the population of the city of Chicago. On the minds of most of the city after Mayor Daley the First pulled the cord to unveil the sculpture was: "what the hell is that?" The moment was best described by none other than Mike Royko, in his column the following day*.

Anyway, the uproar against the Picasso became pretty intense and the moment before I snapped the picture above, in a flash I realized the connection. After the sculpture was unveiled, one of our fine aldermen, mortified by the new work of Modern art, introduced a resolution on the floor of the city council, recommending that the Picasso be "deported", and replaced by a statue of Ernie Banks.

"Which alderman?" my friend asked. "I think it was Vito Marzullo" was my answer. That's my standard response to questions about the goofy actions of Chicago aldermen.

It turned out the alderman in question was actually the honorable John Hoellen of the north side 47th Ward, whom if memory serves, was the last Republican ever to serve in the Chicago City Council. That makes sense since A) Marzullo the Democratic machine politician would never have been so brazen to publicly challenge the mayor who supported the sculpture, and B) representing a south side ward, Marzullo would have been much more likely to support a statue of Nellie Fox or Minnie Minoso.

Anyway, it dawned on me after that realization that the long departed alderman finally got his wish, well at least half of it. Nobody today in their wildest dreams would ever think of getting rid of the Picasso. At nearly fifty years of age, it's as much a Chicago icon as the Wrigley Building, the Art Institute Lions, and of course, Ernie Banks.

I know many of my colleagues in the art world would be aghast. but personally, I think old Pablo and Ernie make quite the pair.

The Ernie Banks statue will remain on view in Daley Plaza this week, after which it will be returned to its proper home outside the ballpark that Mr. Banks christened the Friendly Confines.


*Apropos of the passing of Ernie Banks, after reading the Royko piece on the Picasso on the link I shared, please be sure to scroll down and read his brilliant account of attending Jackie Robinson's first appearance in Wrigley Field, written the day after Robinson's death.