Jackie Robinson West gives us a return to innocence
BY RICK MORRISSEY Sports Columnist August 27, 2014 4:14PM
The team entered the stage area. Jackie Robinson West Little League Team rally in Millennium Park at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 28, 2014 2:33AM
In sports, we latch on to anything that remotely resembles innocence, knowing how rare and precious it is. We want to believe in purity so much it hurts.
That’s a huge part of the draw of the Jackie Robinson West team, a bunch of little kids playing a kid’s game. Playing it surpassingly well, of course, but playing it with a child’s joy. Is there anything better than that? No, and there’s nobody better than JRW, other than South Korea. But I think I speak for the city when I say, ‘‘Who?’’
There those kids were Wednesday morning, aboard trolleys and buses along a parade route through Chicago, crowds cheering them as though the boys had won the big-league World Series instead of the national Little League title. All the local TV stations covered the 2½-hour event live, helicopters included. That the kids didn’t have agents by the end of the rally in Millennium Park is being investigated as a possible miracle by the Vatican.
The looks on the players’ faces! They still weren’t quite sure what to make of all the attention. Listening to speeches by White Sox vice president Ken Williams and Cubs president Theo Epstein. Watching emcee Hawk Harrelson work the crowd like a tent-revival preacher. Accepting the adult attention and wanting to get back to their kid lives, all at the same time. I’d like that image to stay in my mind forever. Something we can believe in for a moment without fear of that belief being crushed.
They’re children, some as young as 11, and they represent sport at its purest. So does Little League baseball, for the most part. Athletics minus the garbage. Is it? Not always, but I want to believe in it with all of my tiny heart.
Here’s why we are so desperate for innocence, real or imagined: Several hours after the Jackie Robinson West kids were being greeted as heroes, USC cornerback Josh Shaw was admitting he wasn’t the hero he had portrayed himself to be.
Shaw had said he sprained both his ankles jumping from the balcony of an apartment complex to save his 7-year-old nephew, who he said was drowning in a pool. It was a feel-good story of the highest order. It also was a tall tale. Almost immediately, the school began receiving phone calls from people who contradicted Shaw’s story. By Wednesday afternoon, USC had suspended Shaw indefinitely.
It’s hard to trust much in the sports world these days. Come to think of it, it wasn’t too easy to trust the sports world years ago, either. Remember all the other things that were supposed to represent the purity of competition until we got wise to them?
College sports? Please.
The Tour de France? A pharmaceutical smorgasbord.
The Olympics and its hierarchy? Unless there’s such a thing as an amateur prostitute, no.
High school sports? Steroids, unsavory recruiting, out-of-control coaches . . . stop me when you’ve heard enough.
So here were 13 kids who captivated a city and a nation with their grit, enthusiasm and sportsmanship. And here they were, waving to the fans along the parade route Wednesday, smiles on their faces to go with wide eyes. It’s a little strange to be 12 and have adults falling at your feet, so you could understand their disorientation.
Finally at 12:30 p.m., in front of thousands of adoring fans at Millennium Park, the boys stood arm in arm, brothers in baseball. They weren’t thinking about being uniters of a torn-up city or peace-restorers or anything else of that heft. They probably were thinking about lunch.
As I’ve written before, we’ve put a little too much on these kids’ shoulders. They represent a town. They represent some of what is right about the South Side. They’re a balm at a very difficult time for Chicago and our country. All of that good stuff.
But they’re ballplayers. And they’re kids.
‘‘They’re the coolest little kids I’ve been around my entire life,’’ manager Darold Butler told the crowd at the rally.
It helps that they’re national champions. We as a city wouldn’t be paying them much mind otherwise. We like winners.
But we like innocence, too. Long for it, really. Thank you, Jackie Robinson West, for feeding us.