Little League team from South Side defies the odds
BY SETH GRUEN Staff Reporter August 13, 2014 9:59PM
Jackie Robinson West Little Leaguers from Chicago surround teammate Cam Bufford (hidden by players) after his grand slam gave his team a 10-7 lead en route to their 12-7 win over New Albany, Ind., in the Little League Central Regional baseball championshi
Updated: August 14, 2014 10:20AM
Darold Butler started coaching Little League because he wanted to pass baseball on to his son, D.J.
Now the coach of the Morgan Park-based Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, who gained overnight celebrity when his team qualified for the Little League World Series, wants to pass it on to his community.
The Jackie Robinson West team is the first all-black team in three decades to make it to the Little League World Series.
“It’s a good thing,” Butler said of race being a component of his team’s story. “For people who think or have the perception that blacks don’t play baseball, this will change a lot of people’s minds. They will see that blacks do play baseball and we do play at a competitive rate.”
Butler, who played baseball at Simeon and was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 24th round of the 1996 amateur draft, will have his biggest stage yet when his team opens play in the double-elimination tournament in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on Thursday.
Turn on any major-league baseball game, and it’s clear that the number of black American players has dwindled over the years.
Baseball has tried to counteract that trend by reaching out into communities and encouraging young black athletes to take up the game.
“It’s a great endorsement for some of the initiatives and a great inspiration for some kids to possibly look and see that they can have some success and possibly want to participate,” said Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, who will call Thursday’s game on ESPN.
Jackie Robinson West came within a game of making it to the World Series in 2013. Butler said that playing on TV boosted participation in his league this season.
Butler said that baseball vies for the interest of youngsters with several other sports. He particularly pointed to basketball as a reason Chicago Little League teams have made it to South Williamsport so infrequently.
“We have other sports that we’re competing against with basketball,” Butler said. “Chicago is still a basketball town, and the kids love basketball.
“It’s not necessarily bad, but [basketball’s popularity] waters down some of the talent when it comes to baseball.”
Butler’s hope would be that this Little League World Series — regardless of his team’s result — helps to grow the game at home.
For the 13 kids representing Jackie Robinson West Little League, Chicago and the Great Lakes Region, which the team won in Indianapolis on Saturday, the interest they have generated is secondary.
“I don’t think they are playing for anything other than love of the game,” Larkin said. “And trying to win.”