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McGRATH: South Side Little Leaguers just miss out on trip to Williamsport

After dominating GreLakes Regional Jackie RobinsWest All-Stars were beaten regional final by Chad Lorkowski 6-2 200-pound seventh-grader.

After dominating the Great Lakes Regional, the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars were beaten in the regional final by Chad Lorkowski, a 6-2, 200-pound seventh-grader.

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:29AM



Oblivious to the mission, a high-spirited team of 11- and 12-year-old kids from the South Side has done much to disprove the theory that baseball has become passé among urban minority youngsters.

The Jackie Robinson West All-Stars came within one game of a trip to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series. After dominating Great Lakes Regional play with five consecutive wins in Indianapolis, the Chicago kids ran into a 12-year-old man-child named Chad Lorkowski in Saturday’s ESPN-televised regional final. Lorkowski, a 6-2, 200-pound seventh-grader, led Grosse Pointe, Mich., to a 10-3 victory, slugging two long home runs and striking out 10 in five innings of overpowering pitching.

Thus the team from one of Michigan’s most affluent communities is off to Williamsport for the crown-jewel event of youth baseball. The proud Jackie Robinson West kids return to their hardscrabble neighborhood with a lifetime’s worth of memories and a community’s gratitude for doing it proud.

“We’ve thought we might have something special in this group for the last two or three years,” said Mike Pettis, father of 12-year-old infielder/pitcher Kendall Pettis. “They’re talented kids who just love to play baseball. We were thinking in terms of the state level. To get this far is pretty amazing.”

Illinois has not been represented in Williamsport since a team from Lemont qualified in 2006. A Jackie Robinson West team reached Williamsport in 1983, back when African-American involvement wasn’t such an issue.

Since then, Major League Baseball has seen a sharp decline in African-American participation among players and spectators as young athletes growing up in a faster-paced world embraced previously scarce opportunities in football and basketball. Baseball was said to be too slow and boring to hold their attention, expensive to play and difficult to master besides.

But there was nothing fluky about the Jackie Robinson stars advancing as far as they did. They were 12-1 at the district, sectional and state levels to reach Indianapolis, rallying for six straight victories after dropping their first game in the state tournament.

They needed nine innings to win their regional opener, edging Hamilton, Ohio, 5-4 on Lorenz Elion’s walk-off home run. They “10-runned” their next three pool-play opponents, beating Knox County, Ky., 11-0; Burlington, Wis., 15-5; and Hagerstown, Ind., 16-2, all in five innings. The regional semifinal was another five-inning walkover, 12-2 against Burlington.

The Robinsons didn’t face Grosse Pointe in pool play, and they were overmatched against Lorkowski in the title game. He belted a two-run homer in a three-run first inning and went deep again in the second as Grosse Pointe seized an 8-0 lead.

Meanwhile, the Robinsons deviated from their trademark efficiency, committing three errors in the first two innings, to go along with three wild pitches and two passed balls. A baserunning misstep cut short their two-run fifth inning just as Lorkowski reached the 85-pitch Little League limit and moved to first base.

A disappointing end to a glorious summer.

I happened upon the Robinson All-Stars on Thursday night. The White Sox were off and the Cubs had played a day game, and while channel-surfing in search of some baseball, I came across an ESPN promo advertising Illinois vs. Wisconsin in the Great Lakes Regional final.

“Illinois” meant Jackie Robinson West? Cool. I work at Leo High School, and some of our baseball players are Jackie Robinson West alums. Based at Jackie Robinson Park at 107th and Aberdeen, the league has helped stock teams at Simeon, Morgan Park and other area high schools for 40-plus years.

“This is great for Chicago baseball,” Morgan Park coach Ernie Radcliffe said. “It proves that all city kids need to compete at the highest level is opportunity and proper training.”

The Robinson kids are a little down in the mouth today, no doubt, but they’ll get over it. When my son was 12, his Pacific Little League All-Stars advanced just as far in the West Regional, only to have their Williamsport dreams crushed by the blistering heat and for-real curves of a 12-year-old man-child named Kevin Graham. Matt McG was one sad cowboy on the quiet ride home, but with the passage of time, that summer has become a favorite family memory.

A few years back we attended an impromptu reunion when much of the team gathered for the funeral of one of the boys’ fathers, my friend Bob Kammeyer. It was gratifying to see what fine young men those fine young ballplayers turned out to be. None of them peaked at 12.

I wish the same for the boys from Jackie Robinson West.



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