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Friday, April 23, 2021

Big Heartbreak for Little League'ers

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

It was disappointing when we heard Lance Armstrong cheated and Alex Rodriguez cheated and the New England Patriots cheated and even Jerry Rice cheated. But a Little League team?

The amateur sports world was rocked this week when it was revealed that the Chicago Little League team, playing under the name of one of the most hallowed people in sports history – Jackie Robinson – used ineligible players to help it win the United States championship and advance to the Little League World Series. And even though it’s possible for coaches and managers to unwittingly use illegal players, it seems clear that the people in charge of the Chicago team knew exactly what they were doing and, of course, why they were doing it – to win, win, win.

It was dishonest and it was also stupid, because, as we all know, crime doesn’t pay, unless you have a guaranteed contract like Rodriguez, who will still earn millions of dollars even though he cheated and then lied about it. But the people who seem to be at fault for the Jackie Robinson West team – including manager Darold Butler – didn’t directly make any money from their team’s success. They did it just so they could win, win, win.

The saddest part of this whole mess, of course, is that the kids who did nothing wrong will have to suffer the consequences. Actually, the saddest part was Jesse Jackson suggesting that the decision to strip the team of its U.S. title was racially motivated instead of morally motivated. How pathetic – instead of using this as a learning tool for these kids, Jackson and other race-baiters are trying to put the blame on league officials instead of the team officials that broke the rules.

The Jackie Robinson West story was one of two plot lines that captivated the country last summer. The other was the Philadelphia-area team that featured Mo’ne Davis, who ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jackie Robinson West’s success was inspiring because it was an inner-city team from one of the most crime-ridden areas of Chicago. That’s why they were such heroes to so many people, especially in Chicago, which treated the team like conquering heroes after they returned home following their defeat to South Korea in the World Championship Game. The kids were feted and even got to meet President Barack Obama.

And now this.

Perhaps this incident will make people rethink how they approach the Little League World Series and make them understand that this is supposed to be all about the kids. But we doubt it. For one thing, the Little League World Series rakes in big money from ESPN and its various sponsors, and we all know that money talks. There’s nothing wrong with televising the series, but what’s sickening about the ESPN broadcasts is how they go about it – they analyze and dissect things like it was the real World Series instead of a bunch of kids getting together to have fun.

It’s all about balance. There’s nothing wrong with giving the kids special treatment and memories that will last a lifetime. As Gene Hackman said so memorably in Hoosiers (the greatest sports movie of all time), some people would kill to be treated like a god for just one day. But it also conjures memories of Bruce Springsteen’s song Glory Days, where some adult loser keeps daydreaming about those glory days when he was a young phenom.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that special treatment as long as it’s handled properly. When the Naamans Little League team went to the World Series in 2003, the adults running that show did a terrific job keeping their kids balanced and their focus was on having fun, not winning. And now, almost a dozen years later, those 12-year-old kids are in their early 20s and have wonderful memories of their trip to Williamsburg, Pa. And someday they’ll be able to show their press clippings to their grandchildren and show them that, yeah, Pop-Pop was a big shot once.

That’s what the Little League World Series is supposed to be all about, and hopefully the kids on the Jackie Robinson West team will remember all the good things they did together and not reflect on the fact that their accomplishments are tainted because of the actions of some self-serving adults.

Hopefully, this won’t destroy their love for the game of baseball, which is at its best on the sandlot with not a single grown-up in sight.

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