Monday, September 1, 2014

The game still matters

In a time when folks are declaring gloom and doom for the sport of baseball, this year's Little League World Series produced no fewer than two powerful, feel good stories that prove the game we still refer to as "The National Pastime" matters.

"Throw like a girl" has been the mantra of baseball fans across this country as one of the highlights of this year's Series was a flame throwing 5'4" 13 year old from Pennsylvania named Mo'ne Davis. Young Ms. Davis, only the 18th girl to participate in the Little League World Series became the first member of the female persuasion to pitch a shutout in the competition held annually in Williamsport, PA. That performance against South Nashville on Friday August 15 turned Mo'ne into a national celebrity.

It was hard not to root for Ms. Davis and her team the Taney Dragons from Center City, Philadelphia. The Dragons team, much like my son's travel baseball team, and decidedly unlike most of their competition in the LLWS is integrated; its players and coaches reflect the multi-cutural population of the city they represent. Also like my son's team, one of its best players happens to be a girl.

But I couldn't root for the Taney Dragons on August 21st because that day the team from Philadelphia faced the team from my home town, Chicago: Jackie Robinson West.

The team that is known affectionately around these parts simply by its initials JRW, is an all-star team, its members chosen from a league of the same name located on the south side of Chicago. Much has been made about this all African American team representing a part of town that lately has gotten more publicity for bad things rather than good. People have expressed amazement at their success given that in our time fewer and fewer African American players play in the Major Leagues and interest in the game in the black community is at an all time low.

But there's nothing at all amazing about the success of JRW. The league was established back in 1971 by Joseph H. Haley, an educator by profession. His league has become one of this city's most cherished institutions, thousands of Chicagoans from all walks of life including a few major leaguers have had the honor of calling themselves members of Jackie Robinson West. In the words of the Illinois General Assembly's official proclamation marking Mr. Haley's passing in 2005:
From a league with just five teams, Jackie Robinson West Little League has grown to more than 1,000 players on 36 teams; the league has instilled the values of good citizenship, perseverance, team effort, sportsmanship,and self-discipline in generations of young people; Mr. Haley wanted the children in his league to get a good education and taught them that school was more important than baseball.
On the evening of August 21st, the alderman of the ward where my son plays baseball, arranged for a viewing party to watch the game between JRW and the Taney Dragons, which would determine who would go on to the US finals. It was one of dozens of such parties around Chicago to support the team that represents not just the south side, but our entire city.

In that game Chicago would never look back after scoring four runs in the bottom of the first. Despite a late rush from Philly who down by one run, loaded the bases in the top of the last inning, the game ended 6-5, JRW.

The mostly white crowd at our event went wild when Philly harmlessly lined out to the Chicago second baseman to end the game.

It took a spectacular double play to win the next game against a strong, highly favored Nevada team who smoked both JRW and the Dragons in their first meetings. But in the end, JRW won that game too and became the US Little League Champions.

Unfortunately, JRW lost the World Championship to South Korea the following day but it hardly mattered. The city of Chicago threw them a huge party that culminated Downtown at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park. It was the kind of celebration normally held all too infrequently when one of this city's professional sports teams wins a championship. Sadly I missed the event as I was out of town.

Public figures and executives from both of Chicago's major league baseball teams were there to speak words of encouragement to the young players and to all young people of the city, black, brown and white, at least those who cared to listen. The message was simple: their most important job was to get a good education first, and good things most likely will follow.

In both victory and defeat, JRW has represented Chicago honorably. As a result, the team and the league have rightfully been embraced by the entire city.

Coming as it did on the heels of a well publicized national tragedy, some writers could not resist the temptation to frame the story of a Little League baseball team winning the national championship within the subtext of race in America. In a blog for The Nation, directly under a picture of the young members of the JRW team aboard a float being cheered on by throngs of white people during a parade in Williamsport, Dave Zirin wrote this:
... the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people.
The whole point of Zirin's piece was to compare the public's reaction to this year's Little League World Series, to that of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. Zirin expresses his astonishment over JRW "beating the odds" as an all black team from the inner city where: "the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities" has decimated "Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands." These are the very conditions Zirin argues, that paved the way for incidents like the one in Ferguson.

In other words, blacks don't play baseball anymore, so the story goes, because society has taken away the apparatus for them to do so.

If anything, the events of this summer have proved (to anyone who didn't know it already) that theory to be nothing but hooey.

The point Zirin seems to miss is that successful Little League programs, like so many other successful institutions involving children, are not the result of any social safety net, but are the result of the one most important factor in determining the course of a young person's life: parents.

From an article written by Bob Cook in Forbes Magazine, published just before the start of this year's tournament:
What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status. 
“It’s a combination of factors,” said (Joseph Haley's son who took over the league upon his father's death, Bill) Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.
“That’s how it started for me.”
Those words ring true for anyone who has ever been involved with Little League baseball at any level.

In expressing his amazement over the success of the team from the Jackie Robinson West league, Dave Zirin (who happens to be white), seems to fall into the trap of mistakenly assuming that African American communities are places filled with nothing but hopelessness and despair, fueled by poverty and racism. Implicitly he's saying that it's hard for black folks to do anything on their own without help from above. As such, characterizing the success of JRW as "astonishing" and "against all odds" is parochial at best, patronizing at worst.

The success of the Dragons and JRW teams are tremendous accomplishments to be sure, but no different from those of any other Little League team who reaches those heights. What Zirin and other social commentators fail to take into account is that the stories of Mo'ne Davis, her Taney Dragons teammates, and the team from Jackie Robinson West are not simply triumphs of the human spirit, but like anything worthwhile in life, are the result of countless hours of dedication, hard work, and the pursuit of perfection from everybody involved: the players, the coaches, the community, and especially the parents.

That's a valuable lesson all of us need to learn.

Thank you Dragons and JRW for being such magnificent teachers.

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