Last summer, a team of African American kids reminded the country of what baseball could be. They came from the South Side of Chicago, which was being torn apart by gun violence. They were named for the sport’s most significant icon of diversity. When the Jackie Robinson West Little League team won the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series, it was welcomed home with a parade and to the White House by President Obama.
On Wednesday, however, Little League International stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title and suspended its manager and a top regional administrator because the team had used players who did not live or attend school in the district it is meant to represent. A Little League investigation, begun following a tip from an official with a rival league, found that Jackie Robinson officials had gone outside the boundaries to add several talented players, according to a Little League spokesman.
Plainly put, they cheated. Not the kids. The grown-ups. And almost immediately, a debate began about the severity of the infraction, the fairness of the punishment and how Jackie Robinson West should be remembered.
“Me and my teammates, we work hard all year long,” Brandon Green, one of the players who celebrated the U.S. championship last August, said at a news conference in Chicago on Wednesday. “We went down there to play baseball. We weren’t involved in anything that could have caused us to be stripped of our championship. But we know that we’re champions. Our fans know we’re champions. Our team’s parents know we’re champions. And Chicago knows we’re champions.”
Little League International, which oversees the roughly 2.4 million players nationwide, will now recognize players from a Las Vegas league as the U.S. champs, even though the Chicago kids beat Las Vegas in the U.S. final, 7-5, and faced South Korea the following day. The Las Vegas kids, though, didn’t experience the group hug in Williamsport, Pa. They didn’t have their pictures taken with the president and first lady at the White House in November. Those experiences went to Jackie Robinson West.
“They created memories that will last a lifetime and nothing will take that away, and they showed the nation their character both on and off the field,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday. “The city remains united in its support of these great children, and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago.”
The White House voiced its support for the players as well. “The president is proud of the way they represented their city and the way they represented the country,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “The fact is, some dirty dealing by some adults doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men.”
Such a violation would seem to be isolated, but it’s not. Little League’s rules stipulate that players must play for teams in a specific geographic region. “It’s not hard,” said Don Montouri, the president of the Capitol Hill Little League in Washington, which serves 500 kids. Still, violations occur.
“I and the leagues around here, we try — and you understand that I said try — to follow the boundary rules and regulations,” said Andre Lee, the president of the Senators Satchel Paige Little League based in Northeast Washington. “But it happens. It happens in this city, in every city and state. For Little League to punish the kids? That’s the way I look at it is the fact that these kids are just what I just said — they are kids. They don’t know what a parent and the coach do as far as paperwork.”
Brian McClintock, a Little League spokesman, would not say how many players lived outside Jackie Robinson West’s boundaries. The organization suspended Darold Butler, the team’s manager, and Michael Kelly, the Illinois District 4 administrator, and said, “The decision is based on falsifying documents and illegally expanding boundaries to include residences that would verify the players’ eligibility.”
There was no immediate comment from the two suspended officials.
The investigation began in September, when Chris Janes, an official from a rival league — Evergreen Park, which was beaten by Jackie Robinson on the way to the World Series — alerted a regional office in Indiana of his concerns.
“This is a heartbreaking decision,” Little League President Stephen Keener said. “What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.”
Though this specific violation hasn’t happened on this stage before, adults’ meddling with the athletic accomplishments of children has a sordid history.
In the summer of 2001, a team from the Bronx stormed into the Little League World Series behind an electrifying pitcher named Danny Almonte, who threw a perfect game. It later emerged Almonte was two years too old to be playing in the tournament. Two-and-a-half years ago, a California Pop Warner football team made up of 10- and 11-year-olds was investigated because organizers had been handing out cash rewards for particularly violent hits, a miniature version of the NFL’s “BountyGate” that got the coach and the general manager of the New Orleans Saints suspended.
Scurrilous Amateur Athletic Union basketball coaches have long served as funnels for illicit payments from colleges to sway their players’ choices over which school to attend.
So this is not a baseball-only issue. But at a time when the African American participation in the game is dwindling — a study by the Pew Research Center found that only 8.3 percent of players on opening day rosters in the majors last year were black, down from 18.7 percent in 1981 — the Jackie Robinson West kids represented hope.
“I was just shocked,” said Lee, the president of the Senators Satchel Paige Little League. Lee’s group sent a team to Williamsport last summer to watch the team from Chicago.
“It’s about having them look at the game from the viewpoint that we’re trying to emphasize with them: You play good ball, and this is what you can do,” Lee said. “You can be the Jackie Robinson team.”
Officials from Mountain Ridge Little League of Las Vegas, the new U.S. champions, didn’t respond to e-mail messages seeking comment Wednesday.
It is left to all the Little League volunteer coaches and administrators to explain why last year’s winners have been declared losers.
“It’s sad for everybody involved,” said Montouri, the Capitol Hill league president. “From a parent perspective, we make it clear to the kids when you’re playing, you’re playing to be a good sportsperson, be a good citizen. . . . Now, you want to be competitive. You want to win, sure. But we try to instill in the kids that there are bigger reasons to play than just winning.”