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Chicagoans of the Year 2014: The Jackie Robinson West Baseball Team

Jackie Robinson West’s dramatic run to a Little League U.S. title uplifted a city and captivated a nation. The inside story of how these South Side kids pulled it off

Photos: Taylor Castle

He felt sick. Worse than sick. “Devastated,” 12-year-old D.J. Butler recalls. His father, Darold Butler, the coach of his team, understood the pain. It had been 30 years since a squad from Jackie Robinson West, a baseball league on Chicago’s Far South Side, had gone to the Little League World Series. And on that day—August 10, 2013—Butler’s team was considered a lock to end the drought.

Instead, a tearful D.J. and the rest of the team watched in stunned silence as players from Michigan’s Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores mobbed each other, having drubbed the Chicago team 10–3 in the Great Lakes regional final. “It felt like the worst feeling of my life,” D.J. says. “That stuck with me for the whole year. I was so depressed. I didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

His dad wasn’t coping much better: “We were one game away, and suddenly we faced 365 days to get back to that point.”

That night, each in his bed, the father and the son tried not to brood on a troublesome question: Would there be another chance?

 

On a recent autumn afternoon 14 months later, the two, now conquering heroes, still seem a bit shell-shocked from the turn their lives have taken since that bleak day. The evidence is as fresh as the double takes that follow them to their table at the Home Run Inn pizzeria at 109th and Western, in the Far South Side neighborhood of Morgan Park—looks that flash again when another overnight star, 13-year-old first baseman Trey Hondras, and his father walk in to join the Butlers.

The celebrity treatment is understable. After all, the 2014 version of the Jackie Robinson West team not only made it to the Little League World Series but transformed, in the space of 10 electrifying days in August, from a collection of no-name underdogs to a national phenomenon that enthralled everyone from patrons in jammed bars to the president of the United States.

At times, reaction to the team’s run, which culminated with a Little League U.S. championship, bordered on the surreal. The city twice closed a chunk of State Street in the Loop so that frenzied fans could watch the last two games en masse on giant screens. An estimated 10,000-plus people—including the mayor and the governor—turned out for a parade in the team’s honor. Jesse Jackson took the kids to Disney World. Major League Baseball flew them to San Francisco to take the field before a World Series game. President Obama granted them a private audience during a midterm election campaign stop in Chicago in October and later hosted them at the White House.

The all-black team’s success inspired conversations that dug far deeper than line drives and late-inning heroics. Panelists on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight explored how the goodwill generated by Jackie Robinson West might kindle long-term investment in the poorest parts of Chicago. Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell lauded the kids for lifting the spirits of an entire city by providing an escape from “the daily bombardment of death and mayhem.” The New York Times credited the group with prompting “a dialogue on race.” Mayor Emanuel went a step further, declaring the boys “America’s team.”

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Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of young kids. But when I ask the guys gathered at Home Run Inn if they felt burdened by the weight of such attention, Trey’s face lights up. “Loved it,” he says. Well, what about the letdown now that the spotlight has faded? Trey and D.J. look at me, then at each other. “It hasn’t,” Trey says with a cackle. “No, not at all,” Coach Butler chimes in.

As if on cue, two dads and their young sons being seated at a nearby table begin stealing glances at the group. A moment later, the waitress approaches, beaming, and asks if the kids play for Jackie Robinson West. They nod. “The check is on us,” she says. The diminutive D.J. (he’s 4-foot-9) looks at me and shrugs.

Rock-star moments like these now seem almost humdrum to the boys, the fruits of a championship that in retrospect seemed fated. The truth is, the Jackie Robinson West team arrived at the Little League World Series as anything but a favorite.

Early on, in fact, the squad was treated “like some sort of charity case,” a fly to be swatted away to make room for the real contenders, says Coach Butler. His first visit to the stadium gift shop made that clear. “They didn’t have as much Great Lakes gear as the rest of the teams,” he says. (In the weeks to follow, the South Loop location of Dick’s Sporting Goods would sell more than 12,000 of the yellow team T-shirts, netting nearly $165,000, which it donated to the Jackie Robinson West Little League.) Less savory evidence came from the coach of a team that crushed Jackie Robinson West early in the double-elimination tournament. “Just be glad you’re here,” he told Coach Butler.

Today, given all that’s happened since, such a dismissive comment seems laughable. Then again, no one other than those close to the team knew what an extraordinary bunch Butler had assembled. Outsiders knew even less about the hunger the team felt to avenge a single heartbreaking loss the year before. “I wanted to make sure I never felt that way again,” says D.J.

 
Pierce Jones, one of the breakout stars of the Little League World Series, bashes a home run, his fourth of the tournament, in an 8–7 win over a team from Rhode Island.
Pierce Jones, one of the breakout stars of the Little League World Series, bashes a home run, his fourth of the tournament, in an 8–7 win over a team from Rhode Island. Photo: Chris Knight/Chicago Tribune

That loss, in the 2013 regionals, provided valuable lessons for Darold Butler as he began putting together his 2014 squad. The first was to avoid being caught off-guard the way the team had been when Grosse Pointe’s pitcher took the mound. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, 12-year-old Chad Lorkowski looked like he had wandered into the wrong ballpark. Loath as they are to admit it, the players from Jackie Robinson West had been intimidated by him. Proof came in the first two innings, when he held JRW hitless. Over five innings, he had 10 strikeouts. At the plate, the big kid crushed two monstrous homers. Butler promised himself that he would not let his boys be caught unprepared like that again.

On the positive side, three key Jackie Robinson West players—D.J., Marquis Jackson, and Darion Radcliff—were age-eligible to return in 2014. Their tournament experience, Butler knew, would provide a huge boost when the regionals rolled around.

As for filling out the rest of the new team, Butler would stick with a philosophy that, despite the 2013 loss, had served him well over the years. “I love a fast team,” he says. “When I was a player, speed was my game, and that’s the kind of team I like to coach.”

A star second baseman at Chicago’s Simeon high school, Butler, now 36, had been one of the most proficient base stealers in state history. That distinction, along with his stellar hitting, attracted the attention of the Toronto Blue Jays, who picked him in the late rounds of the 1996 draft. Instead of going to the minors, he chose to play college ball—at Spartanburg Methodist, a two-year college in South Carolina—and after that got married, went to work as a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific in Chicago, and started his family.

As D.J. grew older, Butler returned to baseball as a Little League coach seven years ago. And if there was anything he had learned in that role, it was that aggressive baserunning provides a distinct advantage. “Anytime you can make the opposing team make quick decisions, especially 11-year-olds, somebody’s going to mess up.”

His other strategy was to stock his roster with plenty of players who could pitch. To protect young arms, Little League rules strictly limit the number of pitches that can be thrown in a given period; for example, a player who throws more than 65 in a game is required to be given the next four days off from the mound. In tournament play, games often come in rapid succession, and Butler had seen how the lack of pitching depth had torpedoed even the strongest teams.

His criteria set, Butler and his staff scoured the rosters of the teams that made up the Jackie Robinson West Little League, “trying to figure out who would fit best.”

Thanks to the league’s founder, an old-school educator with a baseball background, Butler had a thriving organization from which to recruit. Joseph H. Haley had started Jackie Robinson West in 1971 with the idea of giving kids from traditionally underserved neighborhoods—Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Morgan Park, Washington Heights—a chance both to experience the sport he loved and use it to learn leadership, teamwork, and discipline. Accordingly, Haley chose to name the league after a man who epitomized those ideals. (“West” was added after Haley learned that another league already claimed the famous ballplayer’s name.)

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Today, more than 300 kids, ages 4 through 18, play for 28 teams at fields in and around Jackie Robinson Park on the South Side. Each season culminates with the selection of an all-star team of 11- to 13-year-olds to represent the league in a series of local and state tournaments that eventually lead to the Great Lakes regional. The winner of that tournament joins those of seven other regional tournaments to form the U.S. bracket of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

In making his final selections for the 2014 team, “Coach D.B.,” as he’s known to his players, also considered character. He had a good feel for that already; he knew many of the league’s players and their parents. “A lot of the kids came from baseball families,” he says. “They all have their own little different personalities. But you could tell they’d had good parenting. I knew that this group of guys could be part of something very special if they worked together as a unit.”

His son felt the same way. “When I heard that this was going to be our team, I immediately said, ‘We’re going to win the Little League World Series,’ ” D.J. says.

There’s no doubt that several of the players hail from rough neighborhoods. At one point, the team’s ace reliever, Marquis Jackson, acknowledged that a cousin of his had been shot while getting off a bus. The mother of another player, reserve outfielder Jaheim Benton, talked about how her family had been forced to live with a relative after her hours as a home-care provider were cut and Jaheim’s father could find only part-time work. In the media, that translated into “homeless.” (The story had one unquestionably positive impact: a Chicago funeral home owner paid a year’s rent for the family.)

But by and large, the familiar South Side narrative of broken homes and desperation bred of poverty is not the story of this team. Almost all of the players come from dual-parent homes. Most of their families are working class, their mothers and fathers employed in fields ranging from education (Ed Howard’s mother teaches language arts at a junior high in Dolton) to law enforcement (both of Pierce Jones’s parents work as officers for the Chicago Police Department).

In short, these kids were getting plenty of support at home, and they were about to get even more from the team. “Me and the coaching staff told both the players and their parents that this is their new family,” says Butler. “That’s how they’re going to have to treat it.”

The first practices, in early June, were relatively light. “We kept to pretty basic stuff,” Butler says. “Shagging flies, baserunning, hitting the cutoff man.” But soon, with just a few weeks before the first tournament games, the coach pushed harder. “We practiced a lot,” Butler says. “Three, sometimes four days a week, nothing under two hours.” And if darkness fell before Butler felt satisfied, he called to have the field’s lights turned on.

The kids didn’t mind—they loved playing ball. “We practiced Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday,” D.J. says, ticking off the days. “It was fun.” The real challenge was getting past some initial awkwardness, recalls outfielder Pierce Jones: “We all knew each other, we just never all played on the same team.” Few of them came in as good friends. “So the first practices, we wouldn’t say anything,” says D.J. “It would be quiet.” But as the guys spent more time together, especially once games started, he adds, “we started developing as a team and sort of bonded together.”

Gradually, their personalities began to emerge. This team did not lack for charisma. Trey, you might recall, would later endear himself to a national TV audience when, during his second Little League World Series at-bat, ESPN displayed this factoid: “Talks to girls before game for good luck.” Pierce Jones is similarly gregarious. “Take him off camera, he’s crazy,” says D.J. On the opposite end, baby-faced D.J. talks as earnestly and insightfully as an adult, and pitcher Josh Houston and slugger Cameron Bufford “are the shyest people in earth’s atmosphere,” says Trey.

 
Marquis Jackson gives Ed Howard a bear hug after the U.S. championship game. Josh Houston (left) and Brandon Green join in the celebration.
Marquis Jackson gives Ed Howard a bear hug after the U.S. championship game. Josh Houston (left) and Brandon Green join in the celebration. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Coach Butler found some creative ways to sharpen the players’ skills. He recruited pitchers from the previous year’s team and even some high schoolers to throw batting practice. For an added challenge, he brought in a junior college pitcher: Marcellus Sneed, Marquis Jackson’s brother. “I was trying to prepare them for the unexpected,” Butler says. “Last year we didn’t expect to see a six-two, 200-pound-plus 12-year-old.”

His hitters struggled against the older hurlers, which was fine with Butler. “I wanted them to get dominated,” he says. He just didn’t want them to give up. They never did. “They didn’t show any fear. They just went in the box, swinging the bat, trying to get a hit. That let me know what kind of group I had.”

Eventually, his players adapted to the older boys. “I actually hit off them and started getting confident,” says D.J. “We started thinking nobody could pitch to us.”

The road to the regionals played out like 2013, with the team improving with each qualifying round. In the state final, before moving on to the regionals in Indianapolis, JRW demolished a team from the Dundee area, 29–2.

In Indy, just as in 2013, Butler’s boys breezed through their first five games. Again, a single win stood between them and a drought-breaking berth in the Little League World Series. The night before the regional final—against a team from New Albany, Indiana—Butler fidgeted, not worried so much as anxious. “I just wanted to get it over with,” he says.

Right before the game, D.J. and the two other veterans from the previous year, Marquis and Darion, gathered the other players to dispense some last-minute advice. Be loose, they said, just not overconfident. “We’ve done good the last couple of games and all,” D.J. recalls saying, “but this is going to be a game.

Indeed, New Albany jumped on JRW’s best starting pitcher, Josh Houston, right away, going ahead 3–0 after the first inning. The Indiana team added two more runs in the second and two more in the fourth, leaving it up 7–3 with only two innings to go. Butler’s worst nightmare, it seemed, was playing out like some horrible rerun. “For part of the game, I was just like, Not again,” admits Trey’s father, Carlton Hondras. “But there was just something deep down inside saying, They’re going to be fine, they’re going to find a way.”

Sure enough, in the fifth inning, JRW broke out with three runs and still had the bases packed when Cameron Bufford, the team’s ninth-place hitter, came to the plate. “He hadn’t really been having a great tournament,” D.J. recalls. “But he told us, ‘If the first pitch is a curve, I’m swinging.’ ” It was, and Cameron unloaded. The drive soared back, back . . . a grand slam. “We’ve got it now,” Pierce Jones remembers thinking. And they did. Jackie Robinson West cruised to a 12–7 victory and, for the first time in three decades, a trip to the Little League World Series.

 

The next morning, the players boarded a flight for Williamsport. Growing up a baseball fan (he had begged for his first mitt at age three), D.J. had seen Howard J. Lamade Stadium, the site of the Little League World Series, on television many times. Nothing, however, prepared him for his first glimpse in person. “It was at night,” he recalls, “with the lights on. It was amazing, beautiful.”

As he and the rest of the team settled into the players’ dorm—a massive facility already bursting with kids from around the world—their hometown was gearing up for what would become a full-bore frenzy. As swept up as anyone, Brandon Green’s mother, Venisa, offered a prescient statement: “I think this will become one of those memories,” she told a local TV reporter, “that will be everlasting for the boys.”

That was true from the first game, especially for Pierce Jones. Leading off against Washington State’s Lynnwood Pacific, he belted the first of the three home runs he would hit that day, along with a triple, leading JRW to an easy 12–2 victory.

To the boys, it was just another win. To Chicago and the rest of the country, it landed like an atom bomb. Until that point, the tournament’s big story had been Mo’ne Davis, the Philadelphia phenom who was the first female pitcher to win a Little League World Series game. Suddenly, the all-black team from Chicago with the big bats and megawatt charisma seized the spotlight, thanks in part to a single, unforgettable gesture by Pierce as he rounded third base after his second blast. Breaking into a wide smile, he waggled his hand in a hang-loose flutter before leaping into a mob of his teammates waiting at home plate. Replays of the moment lit up ESPN highlights throughout the day and became the signature image of the team’s crushing victory. Months later, when I ask Pierce what possessed him, a sly grin crosses his face: “I’d seen Darion [Radcliff] do it. I didn’t want him to be alone.”

On the way back to the dorm, the players were swarmed by autograph seekers and fans clamoring for photos. “People started following the kids everywhere they went,” recalls Coach Butler. “Between us and the Philadelphia team, we were one of the most popular teams there. I just told the kids, ‘Have fun with it. Be yourselves.’ ” But when he reached his hotel room, Butler himself was overwhelmed: more than 200 texts and 100 missed calls. “I was like, OK, this is a big deal.”

The attention left little time to worry about the next opponent, some team from Las Vegas. But if JRW knew little of that squad’s reputation, most everyone else had become familiar with the powerhouse. The West Region champions swaggered into the Little League World Series having pummeled their opponents by a combined 147–22 in their three qualifying tournaments. Like Jackie Robinson West, they had creamed their first challenger in Williamsport 12–2, and many pundits—including the oddsmakers from their famously wager-happy city—saw the team as the overwhelming favorite to win it all.

Sure enough, JRW seemed overmatched from the beginning. Brandon Green, the team’s starting pitcher, failed to find the plate in his first 12 pitches. His delivery told his coach that he was rattled. Typically, Butler explains, before Brandon starts his wind-up, “he keeps his glove up over his face so that all you can see are his eyes”—a move employed by a number of big-league pitchers to intimidate the hitter. As the inning went on and the walks piled up, his glove started to drop.

With the bases loaded, Las Vegas’s cleanup hitter, Brad Stone, stepped up to the plate. He promptly clobbered Brandon’s pitch over the fence. The grand slam brought the crowd to its feet and delivered a gut punch to the team from Chicago.

In contrast with the nervous Brandon, Las Vegas’s pitcher, 6-foot-2 Brennan Holligan, mowed down one Jackie Robinson West batter after another with a fastball that seemed untouchable. By the end of the game, a 13–2 laugher, he had allowed JRW only two hits.

In the postgame handshake line, Butler’s “Nice game” was answered with a smirk from the Las Vegas coach. “That’s all right,” Butler remembers him saying. “Just be happy you’re here.” Butler, stunned, turned to one of his assistants. “Did you hear that?” The assistant nodded.

Later that evening, some of the dejected Jackie Robinson West players and their parents sought to escape the spotlight—and the memory of the beat down they had just taken—at a nearby Buffalo Wild Wings. Instead, they were greeted by the sight of the Las Vegas players celebrating at another table. The Chicago team had barely settled into their seats when Trey Hondras’s father, Carlton, saw the other group look over and snicker. Not long after, they started yelling and clapping. “You know why,” Carlton’s brother explained. “They just put the score up on TV.” Carlton was furious. “I try to teach my son sportsmanship,” he says. “When you beat somebody on the field, it’s over. You don’t rub it in.”

“They were cocky,” adds D.J. “Their coach was very cocky.”

There was only one way to get even: JRW had to win its next three games to play its way out of the losers’ bracket to, potentially, face Las Vegas in the final. “We knew we would not lose if we played them again,” says D.J. “We just hadn’t played our best.” For Trey, the early loss served as an important wake-up call: “It brought us back to reality.”

The defeat certainly hadn’t dampened interest in the team. “It got so that we couldn’t even go out of the dorms,” says D.J. “We’d try to walk, and then they’d recognize us. It would take us, like, two hours to get to the stadium.” For him, the newfound fame grated quickly. “It was fun for, like, the first three days. Then it started getting old.”

Pierce agrees: “We didn’t learn how to say ‘No’ until the Saturday before the championship game. It was kind of ‘Yes’ all the time until then.”

After a while, the team would simply hole up in the dorm. They found plenty of company there. “We hung out with Philly, the team from North Dakota,” recalls Pierce. “And the Japan team, which was surprising.” They spoke English? “No, that’s the surprising part.”

“We had to share bathrooms with the Australians,” offers D.J.

“And they think we have an accent,” Trey adds, shaking his head.

The Jackie Robinson West players were largely unaware that they had become a national sensation. Support poured in from around the country. Hearing that some of the parents could not afford to stay for the week-and-a-half tournament, several major-leaguers, including the Cubs’ Wesley Wright, chipped in to cover their lodging. (The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Carl Crawford, who had become a fan of the team during its 2013 run, paid the $40,000 hotel tab for the players and their parents during the regionals.)

The day after losing to Las Vegas, the Chicago team pulled out an 8–7 squeaker against a squad from Rhode Island when Josh Houston drove in the go-ahead RBI in the fifth inning. “It was a scary game,” Trey says. “I mean, it was an elimination game, and I had to pitch. I was like, If I blow this game, the whole team’s going to be mad. I pitched my heart out.”

The next day, the team advanced again, this time with a 6–1 win over a Texas opponent. A 6–5 victory over Mo’ne Davis and her Philly team two days later gave Jackie Robinson West what it wanted: a spot in the U.S. title game and a rematch with Las Vegas.

The boys might have been eager, but even staunch Jackie Robinson West supporters wondered how the team could possibly stop the Las Vegas juggernaut. While Chicago was eking out one-run wins, the Vegas team had pummeled its three opponents by a combined score of 33–5. “I don’t think anybody believed that we could win,” Butler says.

With the championship game a day away, the team had time to practice, but Butler had a better idea: a break. “If we can’t hit by now, it’s not going to happen,” he told league officials, declining a practice field. “We’re just going to chill out.” Butler says he didn’t have the heart to deprive his players of a day off. “We’d been on the road a long time.”

So while fans back home fretted about the big game, the kids did what kids do. “We went into the dorms and played Ping-Pong, watched some of the consolation games,” Pierce says. Among their other coping strategies: indulging superstitions. At first, for example, they kept their rooms tidy. But after the Las Vegas defeat, D.J. says, “we kind of junked them up, because when we cleaned them up, we lost.”

 
The kids from Jackie Robinson West returned to Chicago as conquering heroes. A parade in their honor culminated with a rally at Millennium Park, attended by an estimated 10,000 people.
The kids from Jackie Robinson West returned to Chicago as conquering heroes. A parade in their honor culminated with a rally at Millennium Park, attended by an estimated 10,000 people. Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

The U.S. championship, held on August 23, drew a TV audience of more than five million, up more than 60 percent from 2013’s title game. At bars and homes and school gyms around Chicago, as well as on State Street in front of the Chicago Theatre, fans gathered for watch parties.

“We were a little nervous,” Pierce recalls. “But before we went to take batting practice, [Jerry Houston, an assistant coach] came in and gave a 30-minute speech about how nobody expected us to be here and no matter what happens we had still made it a long way. We had still accomplished something.”

Coach Butler felt better when he saw the opponent’s starting pitcher. As he had suspected, it was Brennan Holligan, same as in the earlier matchup. It was true that the big pitcher had manhandled the JRW kids the first time around. But now they had seen him throw 79 pitches. They were used to his fastball. They also knew that he didn’t have an effective second pitch. Or, as D.J. bluntly puts it: “His curve ball was crap.” Says Coach Butler: “The intimidation factor was over. The surprise element was over.”

Despite Butler’s confidence, the game began in a way that was eerily similar to the first one. His starting pitcher, the usually unflappable Josh Houston, gave up three straight singles, loading the bases. But when Josh got two quick outs without any runs scoring, it appeared the team might escape the kind of early hole that had doomed it before.

Then came a miscalculation by Butler. With Las Vegas’s 4-foot-9 gnat Drew Laspaluto up to bat, the coach signaled D.J. to come in a few steps in center field, not wanting a bloop hit to fall in front of him. As soon as he heard the crack of the bat, Butler knew he had made a mistake. The ball sailed over D.J.’s head, driving in three runs. The Nevada fans roared. The Las Vegas hitter, now standing on second base, made an arrow-shooting gesture, as if he’d delivered a deathblow. In the outfield, D.J. glared at his father. “I wasn’t happy,” he says. “He was hot,” his dad clarifies. After that top half of the inning, the son gave his father a chewing out. “I was like, I hope the camera’s not on me right now,” recalls Butler. “He’s letting me have it.”

But now it was time for Jackie Robinson West to bat, and in this case, Butler’s intuition proved right. In stark contrast with the first game, the Chicago players jumped all over Brennan Holligan. Trey Hondras blasted a pitch over the right-field fence for a two-run homer. Darion Radcliff followed with an RBI single to tie the score. In the second inning, Trey smashed an RBI single of his own to give Jackie Robinson West a 4–3 lead.

It was the first time that Las Vegas had trailed in a game all tournament, and it showed. From his vantage point coaching third base, Butler could see the change in the team’s dugout. “All that cockiness was done,” he says. “I’m hearing things, complaining, the kids going back and forth with the coach, him saying, ‘Calm down! Calm down!’ You could see them losing it.”

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In the fifth inning, however, just when it seemed like Jackie Robinson West had things in hand, Josh gave up a lightning-strike two-run homer, which vaulted Las Vegas into the lead again, 5–4. To Butler, more disturbing than the homer was Josh’s response. The pitcher fell to his knees, screaming, and pounded the dirt. “I had never seen him show any emotion, no matter what,” Butler says. His players were shocked, too. Says Trey: “To see that reaction . . .” D.J. finishes the sentence: “It was intense.” Explains Josh now: “I was afraid. I didn’t want to let the team down.”

Butler immediately sent his pitching coach, who also happened to be Josh’s father, to the mound to calm him down. “I’m not taking you out,” Josh’s dad told him. “This is your game. I’m not warming anybody up. Just calm down.”

It worked. Josh got the next out to end the inning. “And then,” says Trey, “he got mad.”

In the bottom half of that inning, after a couple of Jackie Robinson West hitters had been walked, Josh lined a shot off the second baseman’s glove to tie the score. Chicago scored twice more that inning to take a 7–5 lead.

Las Vegas’s last hope came in the sixth when it got two players on with one out. But the next batter hit a sharp grounder to relief pitcher Ed Howard, who wheeled and threw to Marquis Jackson at second, who then threw to first, where Trey Hondras stretched out in near splits to make the catch. After a moment’s hesitation, with Trey still splayed out waiting for the call, the ump punched the air. A double play. Trey slapped the ground three times. It was over.

From the stands along first base, where parents in Jackie Robinson West T-shirts threw their arms up, to a fan-packed State Street back home rose not so much cheers but a joyous collective roar that was equal parts relief and euphoria. At the stadium, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” rained down on the Jackie Robinson West team. Marquis Jackson strode up to little Ed Howard and threw his arms around him so hard that he lifted his teammate off his feet. Trey Hondras shouted “Whoooo!” and unleashed a grin of pure exultant disbelief.

At the press conference after the game, Trey provided an indelible analogy to sum up the team’s redemptive win: “I don’t like losing. It’s like a girl dumping you and going to your best friend. It really hurt. Getting revenge is like getting a better girl and showing her off to your best friend.”

Of the many ways to celebrate in the hours after their triumph, the team chose what might seem, at first, the least likely. The 13 boys, unaware of the delirium that would greet them when they landed at Midway Airport in a couple of days—people wanting to see them, touch them, somehow be a part of what the victory had come to mean—met up with another group of players: the team they had just vanquished. Whatever tension may have existed earlier in the day was quickly forgotten. They sat on picnic tables, exchanging practice jerseys. Kid stuff, some might say. “We found a way to become rivals in a short time,” Coach Butler says. “That went away right after the game.”

That Jackie Robinson West would lose the next day to South Korea 8–4 in the Little League World Championship was almost beside the point. They had done what they had set out to do. And in the process, they had made history, becoming the first all-black team to win the U.S. title.

 

At the Home Run Inn, late afternoon has given way to early evening. Reliving their adventure has left Trey and D.J. looking beat, but they can’t resist a little more banter as they get up to go. Trey, for example, laughs about his final time hitting against South Korea. “I had to do something goofy,” he says. “It was my last Little League at-bat. I wiggled the bat at the pitcher.”

Neither he nor D.J. will be back next year. They will be too old. But that’s a far cry from saying they’re done with the sport. Their goal is to play major-league baseball someday. For a moment, D.J. gets all dreamy. “If we make it to the MLB,” he says, “we’ll already be known. It’ll be like, ‘D.J. Butler, from the Little League World Series.’ ”

Trey nods, adding matter-of-factly, “We basically got a gateway to the major leagues.”

It’s time to go. Their day isn’t over yet, though. They’re being fitted for custom U.S. champion jackets—a gift from Crawford, the Dodgers star—and they need to get to the shop before it closes.

Heads turn as they make their way out of the restaurant; smiles follow them out the door. But neither D.J. nor Trey pays much attention. Celebrities rarely do.

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