Wednesday, February 11, 2015


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.

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