by Matt Altstiel, Chicago
Chicago and much of the world came to know the names, faces and stories of 11- to 13-year-old boys from Chicago’s South Side. These boys, of course, are players for the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, the Little League team that represented Illinois and the Great Lakes Region. Their magical run ended with an 8-4 loss at the hands of the bigger and ultimately more talented South Korean team. JRW made a most unlikely run, becoming the champions of the United States and just five runs shy of world champs.
Living in Chicago, I was rooting for this team to go all the way. Even if I weren’t a Chicagoan, I would have gravitated toward this team. Indeed, there were many reasons people around the globe started rooting for them.
For one, this Chicago team became the first national champion since 1967 to be from one of the country’s five largest cities. For another, this was the first all-black team to win the championship, and the only majority African-American team to even make to the World Series since JRW last did more than 30 years ago. The JRW kids come from the some of the most disadvantaged communities in Chicago, and the program has historically lacked the coaching, equipment and funding to compete with wealthier suburban teams.
This JRW team was everything one would want to show to young kids about how to handle themselves. We saw the exuberance of a home run, only to be followed by an apology to the opposing coach for what was considered excessive celebration.
We saw it at the end of a championship game when a JRW player coordinated an impromptu five-part fist bump with his Korean counterpart. Rather than sulk and cry, which, given the circumstances, they would have been excused for doing, these team members kept their heads high saluting the crowd.
Who knows where these kids will end up. I suspect that they will all be high-achieving adults and successful at whatever they attempt. Indeed, they’ve already shown the attributes to be winners in life at any age, far younger than most of us. They know how to win. They know how to lose. They know how to fight and how to be a team. In post-game interviews, they were selfless. They showed poise, understanding the enormity of the moment but never getting caught up in their new-found fame.
The team is important for other reasons too. It is the best possible antidote to the steady stream of headlines blasting the city’s violence and supposed criminality. This was a positive headline of what young men can be with the right influences.
If these kids are more emblematic of the future of Chicago than the 14 year-olds killing each other over social media, I am incredibly hopeful for the future of this city.
Jackie Robinson West players aren’t just champions for the South Side, or Chicago; they are America’s champions. Sometimes the best on the field are also the best off it. This was one of those times.
Congrats JRW; you earned it.