SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – There have been countless viewing parties back home for the team that’s become the story of the summer in a city that could use some positive PR.
No, not the Taney Dragons. Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West League All-Stars.
The All-Stars, whom the Dragons will face Thursday at 6:30 p.m. with an appearance in the U.S. Championship game on the line, are the Little League World Series’ other feel-good story.
Made up entirely of African-American kids from Chicago’s South and Southwest sides, the team is the first Urban Initiative affiliate to make it to the Series since 2002, and the first all-black team from Chicago to play in South Williamsport in three decades.
They’ve given news cameras and reporters in Chicago a reason to travel south that doesn’t involve any kind of crime or bloodshed. The neighborhoods most of the team’s kids hail from tend to draw primarily negative publicity – lately, the All-Stars have changed that.
Dragons manager Alex Rice has been anticipating a matchup with them all along.
“I’ve been looking forward to playing Chicago since we got here,” Rice said. “I think it’s going to be a great evening. We sit right next to the Chicago coaches and kids. It should be a great game. I’m looking forward to it.”
The All-Stars have played four games here so far, posting a 3-1 record. They lost only to Las Vegas – the team that defeated the Dragons Wednesday night – in an outing that was ended by the mercy rule after four innings.
But just because they struggled mightily against Las Vegas (the final score was 13-2) doesn’t mean Chicago can be overlooked. They outscored their other three opponents 26-10, which means Jared Sprague-Lott, who is expected to start on the mound for Taney, will face a tough challenge.
“They can hit,” Rice said. “They’re aggressive on the base paths. I’m not that familiar with their pitching staff, but I know the one kid can really bring it.”
Rice said he planned to spend early Thursday studying up on the Dragons’ opponents. The winner of the game will play again Saturday afternoon. The losing team will head home.
This game, though, is about more than just its outcome. It’s a matchup of the tournament’s only two inner-city teams, and the fact that both have had success here says something about the state of baseball today, as well as its future.
There’s something big that can be taken away from that, according to Rice.
“I think Little League and MLB can all take a look at the product that’s going to be on the field [Thursday] and the potential of what they can find in inner cities,” Rice said. “I think you’ll see top-notch high quality baseball.”