The Jackie Robinson West All-Stars got the royal treatment at Wrigley Field. The city’s most entertaining baseball team continued their victory lap on Labor Day, ending an unbelievable summer for the kids from the Morgan Park neighborhood.
The Cubs proudly wore yellow-black-and-silver camouflage jerseys with WEST on the front and No. 42 on the back before their game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“This is awesome,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said, pounding his chest.
Who knows what the impact will be 10 or 15 years from now, but the group that won the Little League World Series U.S. title became a feel-good story for a segregated city, as well as a sport that can feel too old, too slow, too exclusive.
As Cubs president Theo Epstein said: “The best thing to happen to the whole city of Chicago this summer – certainly from a baseball standpoint – was put together by 13-, 12-year-old kids from the South Side.”
“It’s huge,” Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler said. “I already got a few calls about kids playing baseball. Just outside. No parents, no coaches. Just five, six, seven, eight kids playing baseball on their own.”
If Major League Baseball wants to keep growing its business, that should be an important big-picture issue for incoming commissioner Rob Manfred, funding the game at the grassroots level, increasing access to the expensive travel-team/showcase circuit and working with the NCAA to support college-baseball programs limited to 11.7 scholarships.
“At industry meetings, in lots of front offices around the game, people talk about (it),” Epstein said. “People ask the question: How can we get young kids playing baseball again, especially in cities, especially in the inner-city?
“There’s nothing that a bunch of suits in a boardroom can do that would be as powerful as what those 12-year-old kids did to demonstrate how compelling the game of baseball can be, make baseball cool again for young kids.”
Cub players seemed genuinely excited to interact with the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, who were recognized by the White Sox on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field.
Renteria gave the players a pep talk. First baseman Anthony Rizzo posed for pictures in the dugout before the two teams joined together for one big photo. The kids chatted with Wesley Wright and Edwin Jackson, who were part of the group of major-league players that helped cover the travel costs and send the families to South Williamsport, Pa.
“Not only baseball,” Wright said. “Just the way they’ve handled (all this) attention (with) great sportsmanship and class. Whether you play baseball or not, I think these kids can be role models for a lot of their peers. They’ve shown incredible maturity for their age group.
“They’re not overwhelmed by a lot of things that I was at that age.”
The kids walked the warning track, stood on the field during the national anthem and went out to their positions before the first pitch. They also helped lead the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch.
“In this day and age, so much negativity is put out there,” Wright said. “They hear it and see it a lot. Just for them – and other young people – to see that doing positive things and working hard and staying disciplined can be rewarded as well. You can become known for doing good things.
“I think these kids are going to realize in a couple years just how much of an inspiration they were to a lot of people. And I think it’s our job to bring a spotlight to that type of thing.”
The hope is this momentum doesn’t fade away once Chicago Public Schools are back in session on Tuesday.
“We really have to support them,” Epstein said, “and capitalize on this moment and learn from what the Jackie Robinson West Little League has been doing effectively for four decades now – plus.
“Which is proactively go out to schools, find kids and sell them on the game of baseball, get them off the streets, get them learning from great mentors, playing together, learning about sportsmanship and competition and hard work and discipline and make them better people.
“(They’ve) made a positive impact on tens of thousands of kids over the years and it’s really a model organization. We can all go to school on how they’ve built their program.”
There was the ESPN exposure, the phone call from President Barack Obama and a victory parade that ran from Jackie Robinson Park to Millennium Park.
“It’s still a dream,” Butler said. “I have not touched the ground. I’m sure the kids haven’t touched the ground yet.”