After Jackie Robinson West’s glory, a hard truth
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com | @ricktelander September 2, 2014 9:27PM
Members of the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League baseball team participate in a rally celebrating the team's U.S. Little League Championship Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) ORG XMIT: ILCA106
Updated: September 3, 2014 11:36AM
I’m writing this from the stands at Jackie Robinson Park, home of the beloved Jackie Robinson West team that just won the Little League United States Championship and nearly beat South Korea for the global crown.
What a gorgeous day!
Eighty degrees, azure sky with puffy clouds, gentle breeze.
There is this nice baseball diamond in front of me and three practice fields at the corners of this small park at 106th and Aberdeen. Just to the north is Mount Vernon Elementary School. The grass all around is lime green. Summer is holding on.
But this being the first day of school for Chicago kids, it’s understandable that nobody is here playing ball. Sort of.
It’s 4:45 p.m., school’s done, sun still high, yet there is not a single human in this park. Except me.
The emptiness plays into the troubled feeling I got when the JRW kids first started their lovely, improbable march to the crown. TV took over everything, you know, with ESPN even putting pro baseball expert Karl Ravech, former major-league star Nomar Garciaparra and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin on the broadcast team. That team somberly dissected the exploits of mere children, some of whom stand under 5 feet tall and weigh less than family dogs.
I was troubled by the halo of symbolism and expectation and thankfulness dropped on the Jackie Robinson team, out of nowhere. Like — boom! — we love you! You are our saviors!
No children can be that.
Play is what children should do, what they must do to become actualized adults. Play is the joyful work of youth.
And these guys were good, excellent, at playing ball. They were fun to watch, too, and maybe — as in the feel-good movie ‘‘The Sandlot’’ — one of them will go on to star in the major leagues. Who knows?
But I’m guessing it was a relief for most of them to get back to school, to at last be away from the parades and awards and podiums and seventh-inning sing-alongs, and be kids again.
Some have deep voices, and some still sound like Munchkins. As I’ve said before, Little League ball is as much about hormones as strategy.
But I believe that many observers, if they get beyond the surface good cheer for a deed well done, will find as much troubling symbolism here as magnificent.
This was ‘‘America’s Team,’’ sure, but there was not one white player on the team. Not one white coach, not one white anything. There was not a Hispanic player. Or Asian. Or even a black immigrant from the islands. Every kid and coach on JRW was an African-American, and if that doesn’t speak to persistent, untenable segregation in our nation and city, I don’t know what does.
Where I am is a part of Chicago that white and beige and yellow people seldom see, or even hear about — except when there is crime to report. The neighborhood is filled with tiny brick houses, so small and square and similar that they seem lifted from a game board.
This area is calm, but there is crime and severe poverty in most any direction on the South Side. We didn’t see any of that during the Little League World Series, and we didn’t think much about anything troubling until we found out one of the kids on the team is homeless.
It was so comforting to find that 12 of the 13 players came from two-parent homes. This implied jobs, structure, discipline, love. The way it should be. The way the Cleavers were, the way we like to dream about America and equality.
But the facts obliterate this façade. According to the 2011 U.S. census, the net worth of the average black household is $6,314, compared to $110,500 for the average white household. And all indications are the disparity is growing.
So many young black males have been incarcerated — often for laws that target mainly them — that we were delighted by these well-mannered young kids, so polite that one hitter went to the opposing dugout to apologize to the coaches for celebrating a home run.
This was beautiful. But, again, these are kids. Such acts, such displays of dignity by a small group, do not solve the racial divide in Chicago, which might just be the most segregated city in America.
And poverty? President Obama just spoke about the crippling effects of a resurgent economy that only is leaving the impoverished further behind.
Oh, and Ferguson, Missouri, and those troubling race riots over a white cop’s shooting of an unarmed black male — JRW did much to help us think that was not the norm. That it was an aberration, a hiccup.
It was not.
The park is still empty, but it glows in the dimming sun.
These are my thoughts.