SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Everyone loves a winner, so the success of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team is certain to spur more interest in youth baseball in Chicago.
Being on national TV for two weeks is about as good as it gets, marketing-wise, and last year’s team that lost in the regional had already laid the groundwork.
“I’m sure it will,” Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler said. “Last year we were a game short (of making it to the Little League World Series), and I heard the numbers around Little League in Chicago were huge.
“We had only two or three ESPN3 broadcasts and two ESPN (broadcasts), and that was just in the regional. This one here was way bigger. If the numbers were up last year, I’m sure they are going to be up this year.”
Jackie Robinson West began with only one team when Joseph Haley founded it in 1971, well before Little League Baseball launched the Urban Initiative in 1999 to help deal with the challenges of youth baseball programs in inner cities.
According to Little League Baseball, there are 220 leagues in nearly 90 cities under the Urban Initiative program. In 2002, the Harlem Little League became the first Urban Initiative team to advance to the Little League World Series, and now Jackie Robinson West is the first to win a U.S. title.
Jackie Robinson West is just one program, but it has been one of the most prominent area program for years, winning 23 state titles. More than 500 players registered to play in the league in the spring, and of those, the 13 All-Stars on the championship team came together in June and have been on an amazing journey since.
The coaches realize the more attention the program receives, the more interest there will be from kids who want to play. The next step is trying to convince their parents to enroll them.
As any parent knows, it’s a major commitment for both the kids and the adults, and time is a very valuable thing. But Butler said the success of his team should make it easier for kids to successfully lobby their mothers and fathers.
“If I was 10, 11 or 12, I would be on my parents’ case to sign me up and play Little League,” Butler said. “I’m just being real. If I had seen a classmate or someone I knew or kids my age doing what (Jackie Robinson West) is doing, and every time I look up they’re on somebody’s TV channel, I’d be like ‘Where is this Little League? I need to sign up.’ So they better open up registration, because there are a lot of people who want to play.”
Butler and his staff say they are in this simply to teach kids the game, and hopefully, turn them into good citizens the rest of their lives.
“Honestly, we’re just trying to motivate kids and inspire kids to play baseball,” coach Jason Little said. “That’s the whole purpose, (being in the televised title game) especially. Before, being on ESPN, you really don’t notice the attention. But being on ABC — everybody has ABC.”
Little was referring to the fact many families can’t afford cable and would’ve gotten to see the team play only in the weekend games on an over-the-air TV channel. Some of the Jackie Robinson West families could not have afforded to go to Williamsport for two weeks if not for some help from major league players. Little League covers only travel and expenses for the players and three coaches. Families are on their own.
Justin and B.J. Upton, LaTroy Hawkins, Torii Hunter and Wesley Wright contributed $20,000 to help send JRW parents to Williamsport, in an effort spearheaded by Hawkins, who grew up in Gary, Ind. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford also chipped in on his own with a sizable donation to pay for travel and lodging expenses.
“The bills don’t matter,” Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. “As long as it gives them a chance to play.”
Butler played in the Jackie Robinson West league as a kid, began coaching his son, DJ, when he turned 8, and eventually became the team’s manager.
“I guess they trust me to lead, what I do and how I coach,” he said.
Asked what Jackie Robinson West does differently than other leagues, Butler credited himself and his coaching staff.
“If a kid wants to learn, teach him,” he said. “I put everything into this to the point where I miss a lot of work. I could be at work trying to make money. … But it’s something I love doing, and I wear it on my sleeve, and the coaching staff too.
Butler was a big part of the team’s success. The kids learned fundamentals and played like a team, without the petty jealousies that can occur when some players get more credit than others. He also handled the media with grace and humor, and didn’t look to steal the focus off the kids, as some other coaches seemed to do at the Little League World Series.
“A lot of people don’t know he works super hard with the kids,” Little said. “He inspires me to work harder with my own son, who is 10. There are some days where I want to give up, just take the day off. He’s like ‘I’m out at the park with my son.’ It makes me say, ‘I guess I have to work harder too.’ ”
The success of the team could have long-term effects on the city, or it could be a blip in a summer of endless violence.
Some of the kids themselves said they would like to be looked upon as role models for their peers, and one player, Lawrence Noble, said he believes it can change things in Chicago.
The uniform may have said Great Lakes, and they played their home games on the South Side, but the players knew “Chicago” was their real affiliation.
“We’re representing Chicago, because of all the bad stuff that’s been happening in Chicago,” Noble said. “This is one of the more positive things that have come out of Chicago in a long time.”