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Jackie Robinson West team has big fan in Dodgers’ Carl Crawford

The Jackie RobinsWest All-Stars huddle with major-leaguer Carl Crawford Skype Saturday. The South Side team plays their second game Little

The Jackie Robinson West All-Stars huddle with major-leaguer Carl Crawford on Skype on Saturday. The South Side team plays their second game in the Little League World Series on Sunday in South Williamsport, Pa. (Photo by Seth Gruen/Sun-Times)

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Updated: September 18, 2014 6:48AM

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The Jackie Robinson West team got a call from its most famous fan Saturday.

Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford spoke on Skype with the 13 Little Leaguers from Morgan Park. The experience might have given the youngsters an indication of how popular they have become.

‘‘That’s the first time I actually went voice-to-voice with an actual person that plays in the major leagues,’’ said Josh Houston, who was the winning pitcher Thursday.

Said Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler: ‘‘If anything, that will motivate them. These are guys that they look up to. So to see these guys actually calling them by their names and acknowledging all the things that they’re doing, that will have them turn it up a little bit more.’’

Crawford is a charter member of the Jackie Robinson West fan club. Butler said Crawford has been ­following the team since it fell a game short of qualifying for the 2013 Little League World Series.

Millions more have followed Crawford’s lead in the week since the team qualified for the 2014 LLWS. That growing fan base landed Jackie Robinson West on
national TV for its game Sunday against Nevada
(1 p.m., Ch. 7).

Jackie Robinson West’s opening game Thursday earned a 2.4 rating in Chi-
cago, the highest for any round on ESPN networks in the market.

‘‘It feels just like playing with no cameras,’’ shortstop and pitcher Ed Howard said of the exposure. ‘‘I don’t worry about the cameras; I just play my game.

‘‘I heard a lot about Chicago, what they’re doing, cheering for us and stuff. That just gives us motivation to play better.’’

But Howard isn’t close to having the full picture. Dick’s Sporting Goods in the South Loop has been selling ‘‘Great Lakes Champion’’ T-shirts since the team qualified. The store already has gone through three shipments, and community marketing manager Brian Dibbert said the store sold out a shipment of 500 in 18 minutes Saturday. All proceeds go to the Jackie Robinson West Little League.

‘‘I’m a little nervous, but we’ve got to get through nerves sometimes,’’ Trey Hondras said. ‘‘So probably the first inning [Sunday] will be a little nervous, but after that it will be good.’’

The baseball world took notice of Jackie Robinson West heading into the tournament. The number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has decreased in recent years, and the hope was that Jackie Robinson West would help inspire other African-American youths to play the game. Combine that with its high-powered offense, and Jackie Robinson West is the most-talked-about team in the tournament.

The players seem numb to it all. For them, the game doesn’t change just because it’s on national TV. With a victory Sunday, the team would be one win away from getting to play in the U.S. championship game.

‘‘They don’t have a clue,’’ Butler said. ‘‘Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. They don’t understand ESPN, ABC. They just play.’’


Twitter: @SethGruen

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