A Shameful Day For Little League
I awoke on Wednesday morning this week to the news that Little League Baseball had stripped Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team of its U.S. Championship. If you remember at the end of last summer, the kids of Jackie Robinson West captured national attention and media love as the first Little League team made up entirely of African American kids to win the U.S. Championship, knocking off a team from Las Vegas to claim the title. The Southside kids ultimately went on to lose the World Championship to a team from Seoul, South Korea, but were nonetheless greeted at Midway Airport by throngs of cheering fans upon their arrival home in the Windy City, honored in a parade in front of thousands lining the streets, celebrated on the field at Wrigley during a Cubs game and even got an invite to the White House where they met the President of the United States. Pretty amazing and heady stuff for a bunch of eleven and twelve year-olds to say the least.
But as the case with many fairy tales, the story was ultimately too good to be true. It seems boundaries had been falsified so players (assumingly highly skilled ones) could be illegally added to their roster from outside their designated geographic region, something that is a big time no-no in Little League play. Essentially they built an All-Star team with no regard to the rules other teams were playing by. Their manager Darold Butler has subsequently been suspended, and district administrator Michael Kelly removed from his position. The U.S. Championship has now been awarded to the Little Leaguers from Mountain Ridge Nevada, the team they beat on their way to the International Finals.
“Quite honestly, we had to do this,” Little League International president and CEO Stephen D. Keener told ESPN on Wednesday. “We had no choice. We had to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. … As painful as this is, it’s a necessary outcome from what we finally have been able to confirm. The real troubling part of this is that we feel horribly for the kids who are involved with this. Certainly, no one should cast any blame, any aspersions on the children who participated on this team. To the best of our knowledge, they had no knowledge that they were doing anything wrong. They were just kids out playing baseball, which is the way it should be. As painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.””
First let me say I do feel bad for those kids. Really bad. They weren’t the ones who made the collective decision to try and cheat the system in an attempt to strengthen their team. But, unlike many it seems, I have absolutely no problem with them being stripped of their title. The adults in charge put together an illegal team and were caught – plain and simple – and that cannot be allowed. The appropriate actions were taken, it’s just unfortunate that it’s the kids who must pay the emotional toll for the transgressions committed by adults.
Dave Belisle, who coached the Cumberland Rhode Island team that was eliminated by Jackie Robinson West in the United States bracket, expressed his disappointment over the situation. “It’s disappointing, very disappointed that someone would stoop that low to do something like that,” Belisle said. “We had a great opportunity to do something wonderful and do it the right way, and they didn’t. “Watching those kids win the championship, and watching those kids in the parade, I don’t know how [someone] could live with yourself, knowing you did it the wrong way,” Belisle added. “You know what? They got their due, unfortunately at the cost of young kids. How bad is that?”
I couldn’t agree more. It is disappointing. Disappointing that adults would care so much about winning in something that is supposed to be as innocent and pure as Little League that they would even consider “bending the rules” at all, yet alone to this degree (if you need an entertaining refresher course on the evils of adults in Little League revisit the movie The Bad News Bears). But there is a price one must pay when caught cheating, and there’s a life lesson (albeit a tough one) the kids could learn from this if only they were being allowed to do so. Too many times children are shown by their big league heroes that its ok to break the rules, especially if they think the means justifies the end result. Inject yourself with PED’s and get a huge major league baseball contract. Go ahead and cork your bat. Put a little pine tar on the baseball so your pitches are harder to hit. But the parents and authority figures surrounding these Jackie Robinson West kids are telling them, “Yes the adults cheated and put together a team that wasn’t legal, and we screwed the other teams in the tournament, but we think that should all be ignored so that you can still be champions. All that matters is we won.” Now that I have a real problem with.
That afternoon a press conference was held at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Headquarters in Chicago, with defiant parents and community leaders telling anyone who would listen that their kids should still be champs no matter what the circumstances. Now they weren’t saying that they were innocent of rules violations, just basically that they shouldn’t have been caught. Again, nice message to the kids. To ratchet it up even a notch more, Reverend Michael Pfleger played the race card (to my utter amazement) when he questioned whether racism played a role in the investigation and decision saying, “I can’t help but question whether the same thing would have been done with another team from another place — another race.” Really? You really think Little League Baseball, a world wide organization with every imaginable ethnicity involved is suddenly racist? Excuse me? And of course, standing shoulder to shoulder with Pfleger was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, once again looking for media attention as if his last name was Kardashian. Ironically Jackson even suggested to the Mountain Ridge team that they shouldn’t accept its newly awarded championship, saying the team “did not earn it.” Venisa Green, a mother of one of the boys actually said, “It is amazing to me that whenever African-Americans exceed the expectations, that there is always going to be fault.” Wow.
I know this is hard to convince some people of, but not everything you don’t agree with is an issue of race or color. These kids and their journey were embraced by the entire nation, perhaps in part even due to their skin color. This is an issue of cheating – plain and simple. Once the infractions were confirmed it wouldn’t have mattered if the kids were orange, blue, purple or green. This is not a black issue. This is not a white issue. But it is an issue that is very black and white – you cheat, you get caught, you pay the price. Its a good lesson for every kid and every parent who’s paying attention. Your coach cheated. Your administrator cheated. And you know what? I find it hard to believe that at least some of these parents didn’t know what was happening as well. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here for the kids and it’s that cheating doesn’t pay – but if you parade the kids in front of the world and tell them they’re being picked on because of their skin color and are really still the champs – what message are you sending?
On a side note I feel just as bad, if not worse, for the kids on the teams that Jackie Robinson West beat along the way. These are the kids that got truly robbed in my book. They didn’t get a parade. They didn’t get national acclaim. They didn’t meet the President. They got beat by a team put together by unfair tactics and that should never have taken the field together. The Cumberland kids didn’t get a chance to compete for the U.S. Championship because they were beaten 8-7 by a team that never should have been competing. I feel bad for the New Albany Indiana kids in the Great Lakes Regionals because they didn’t get a chance to feel the joy of actually winning the tournament. The Mountain Ridge kids didn’t get the chance they deserved to take on South Korea. Part of me is just grateful that Jackie Robinson West lost in the World Championship to Seoul considering how this situation would have made us look as a nation if they had won and then found to have cheated.
When it’s all said and done no laws were broken, just rules, so true punishment doesn’t find those responsible, it just hits those undeserving of it. But there are no other choices than what was done on Wednesday as far as stripping the title and removing wins. Personally I’d like to see Butler, Kelly and anyone else found to have knowledge of the situation made to march down Madison Avenue wearing sandwich boards with the words “I cheated and it cost a bunch of kids” scrolled across them. I’ll even supply the rotten eggs and tomatoes to the Jackie Robinson West kids if they want to be first in line to throw at them.