Chicago’s journey to the U.S. Little League World Series final could be good sign for baseball’s inner-city initiatives


Chicago’s Little League manager Darold Butler lifts third baseman Cam Bufford onto his shoulder. (Charlie Nye/AP)

Chicago’s journey to the Little League World Series U.S. final sounds like a screenplay, but this fairy tale is happening in real life.

The inner-city squad, comprising African-American players from the Jackie Robinson West league on Chicago’s South Side, is poised to take the whole thing if it can win just two more games in Williamsport, Pa. First, they’ll have to get through the fearsome Las Vegas Mountain Ridge squad, which is coming to the U.S. final undefeated and having already scored a 13-2 mercy-rule win over Chicago on Sunday. If Chicago makes it past Saturday’s game, it will run up against a tough international team from either Japan or South Korea on Sunday.

But just because the odds are not in Jackie Robinson West’s favor, doesn’t mean fans should count them out. Players such as Pierce Jones, Joshua Houston, Marquis Jackson and Darion Radcliff are up for the challenge and they’ve come prepared. Per the Chicago Tribune:

Jackie Robinson made getting to the World Series look easy, outscoring opponents 212-28 in 14 games. The team is 4-1 in Williamsport and 18-1 in tournament play.

The journey for African Americans in baseball, however, hasn’t always gone so smoothly, and the number of major league players who identify as African American is shrinking. In 1980, African-American players made up 19 percent of MLB rosters; at the start of the league’s current season, that number is just 8.1 percent, according to the Associated Press.

Jackie Robinson West’s success in this year’s Little League World Series is a signal that those numbers could reverse in the near future, or at the very least the team’s rise serves as a symbol reminding us they could. No one would like to see that more than Little League and MLB officials themselves. Each league has initiated a program to help rebuild baseball in inner-city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are minorities. Jackie Robinson West is actually a product of the Little League’s Urban Initiative, which helps provide resources to ensure successful programs. The MLB has a similar initiative called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI.

“All of us at MLB is talking about that team,” David James, senior director of MLB’s RBI program, tells the AP. “It’s really good for the game.”

Urban Initiative officials are slower to take credit, however, for Jackie Robinson West’s rise success, noting that without a supportive community, the program would never work.

“Everybody wants to talk about the Urban Initiative League and how we’ve helped Jackie Robinson West,” Urban Initiative director Demiko Ervin told the AP. “They’ve benefited from the program, but I’ve got to give so much credit to the folks in that league and folks in that community. … It doesn’t work if you don’t have the coaches and the volunteers that come out, support them and do the things that it takes to run a league.”

Jackie Robinson West’s success has led to support from celebrities, too, and not just in words and tweets of encouragement (of which there have been many). Several MLB players, organized by Colorado Rockies pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, donated funds to pay for the Chicago team’s trip to Williamsport, the Sun Times reports.

It would be disappointing to come all this way and not win, as it also would for the other remaining teams, so while the rest of us think about the larger implications of Jackie Robinson West’s rise, the team is thinking about its next game.

“I feel a win, honestly,” Chicago Manager Darold Butler told DNAinfo Chicago on Friday morning. “Vegas hasn’t lost yet, and I feel they’re going to come in relaxed and think they have a cakewalk against us and not realize the game is over until it’s too late. They’re not going to know what hits them until it’s over.”

The U.S. championship game will air Saturday on ESPN at 2:30 EDT.

Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, a fast-breaking sports blog, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, aka “mostly the fun stuff.” She is also an avid WWE fan.
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