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The Wrenching Fall of a Champion

There are no winners in the heartbreaking disqualification of Jackie Robinson West.

The Jackie Robinson West team in November 2014   Photo: Taylor Castle

The news this morning was crushingly awful: Little League International had revoked the titles won by Jackie Robinson West.

The announcement would have hurt no matter how little personal connection I had to the story. Like so much of Chicago, so much of the country, I had filed the team’s triumph in that part of my heart reserved for the truly good things in life, a story to counteract the daily grimness that seemed to wash up on the shores of the news hourly.

But I had come to know the team—its players, its coaches, the parents—interviewing them, spending time with them, feeling through them their joy at having brought so much wonder, so much hope to a city and to a people. I had written about their soul-stirring journey for Chicago’s December cover story, an article that in part announced that we’d chosen the team to be one of our Chicagoans of our Year. Like so many, I delighted at the earnestness of the coach’s son, 4-foot-nothing D.J. Butler, and the megawatt charisma of his teammate Trey Hondras. I remembered how, when we piled all the players on a bus we rented to haul them to a photo shoot, one mother had packed a little snack and a few dollars into a clear sandwich baggy and wouldn’t let the driver leave until she knew it was safely in her son’s hands.

By now, we know findings of a months-long investigation by Little League officials: that those who put the JRW team together had unfairly bolstered it by using a falsified boundary map to add players who would not have otherwise been eligible.

Even Stephen D. Keener, Little League International president and CEO, seemed to feel the sadness of the moment. “This is a heartbreaking decision,” he said in a statement. “What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome.” 

The decision seemed even more wrenching given that, time and time again, a Little League spokesman had said the organization had found no merit to the cheating allegations. To his credit, dnainfo.com reporter (and a former colleague of mine) Mark Konkol stayed with the story as new allegations surfaced. And good for him. No matter how heartwarming a story—and I personally believe much of it still is one—no one should be allowed to cheat and no proof of that cheating should be soft-pedaled to keep a myth alive.

That doesn’t mean it hurts any less for life to let us down, yet again, by snatching away a wondrous moment.

What I will choose to remember is something that happened after the Chicago magazine photo shoot in November, when the players piled off the bus we’d rented at their home field in Morgan Park. It’s not a defense of anything or anyone. It’s just what I recall, and part of why—for me—it hurt so much to hear the news this morning.

Players piled their gear (the photographer had asked them to bring balls, bats, and gloves, for the shoot) on the sidewalk or the nearby grass. They had changed out of their uniforms hours ago so that some of them—like Brandon Green in a bright red sweater, white dress shirt, and creased slacks—looked dressy; others, in jeans and hooded sweatshirts, casual. 

It had been a long day. 

They were ready to go home. 

But their parents, having not seen each other for a while, were deep in conversation. 

Growing fidgety, a couple grabbed their mitts. Another grabbed a ball. The group started playing toss. Another player joined in. Then another. Someone pulled out a bat. They pealed off and ran toward the field. Several players followed, whooping as they went. Within moments, someone was on the mound, another player at the plate. It was cold and raw in the late early-November afternoon. Shadows crept toward the field. The outfield, and parts of the infield, lay under a carpet of fallen leaves. No matter. They laughed and goofed and chased each other. They threw it around the horn, having recorded an imaginary out. “Hit it in the air!” someone taunted the player at the plate. 

He did. 

The ball soared, in fact, deep into right. Tracking the trajectory, one player settled under it. Pop! The drive landed in his mitt. The kids went crazy.

No cameras caught the play. No applause rose from the abandoned stands. No one on the leaf-strewn grass, parents or coaches, paid the slightest attention. It didn’t matter. There were no allegations. No sneering remarks. No bad news. They were simply playing baseball. They were happy.

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