In the southwest corner of Jackie Robinson Park, a six-acre oasis of green set among the brick bungalows of Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood sits a Little League baseball stadium. With its massive overhang and bountiful bleachers, it’s an almost perfect replica of Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which hosts the Little League World Series every year. But the view from home plate is different. In Chicago, batters look out at the South Side. In Williamsport, batters look out on a manicured outfield and grassy hills beyond the fence where fans picnic.
In 2014, the 13 Jackie Robinson West All-Stars, who play on the field at West 107th and South Aberdeen, saw that other view. Joshua Houston, who knocked a decisive single in the bottom of the fifth inning that tied the game and sparked a rally, stood at home and saw not only the immaculate grass and the spitshined foul poles but also 40,000 fans. Most were cheering for him.
The Jackie Robinson West team was hard not to root for. The first all-African-American team to win the U.S. Little League World Series title, the squad of 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds attracted an unusual amount of media attention. Some 1.7 million fans tuned in to watch Jackie Robinson West lose to South Korea in the finals. The loss seemed beside the point — they had already won the U.S. title — but the viewership numbers didn’t. These 13 black boys from the South Side were suddenly so in demand and so admired that Chicago’s municipal government planned a 70-block parade in their honor. After that came the massive, televised celebration at Millennium Park. Then the performance by Chance the Rapper, a trip to Disney World, and an invitation to the White House, where every player shook hands with the ex-Chicago community organizer now working in the Oval Office.
“It was like ‘Finally! You’re getting recognized for what you’ve been doing all this time,’” Todd Prince, the current Jackie Robinson West president, tells me. He remembers feeling elated. He remembers feeling vindicated. He remembers the love. Dressed casually in black sweatshirt-and-matching pants, he’s sitting in a South Side sandwich shop and reliving that moment. He’s comfortable crowing in part because he’s still proud and in part because he knows what happened next.
In the wake of the team’s championship, the vice president of the Evergreen Park Athletic Association Little League, whose team Jackie Robinson West clowned 43-2 earlier in the 2014 season, filed a complaint with Little League International alleging that Jackie Robinson West officials were “manipulating, bending and blatantly breaking the rules for the sole purpose of winning at all costs.” Three months later, reports emerged that Little League had investigated. Officials had found proof that Team Manager Darold Butler, Illinois District 4 Administrator Michael Kelly, Team President Anne Haley, and Team Treasurer Bill Haley conspired to recruit players from outside their district and cover their tracks by retroactively persuading officials in other leagues to alter boundaries.
Joshua Houston, for example, had previously played for the Lou Collier Stars. He was not eligible to represent the Jackie Robinson West district.
In January 2015, Little League International stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title. The New York Times covered the news. ESPN and Sports Illustrated had a field day. People felt duped. On “First Take,” ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith went on a tirade against Jackie Robinson West’s coaches and parents, whom he characterized as “starving for notoriety, starving to win, and willing to sell kids dreams out in order to pull it off.”
In February 2016, the parents for the 13 players on the 2014 Jackie Robinson West team collectively filed a lawsuit against the team’s director, Little League International, Janes, the whistleblower who alerted authorities to the boundary issues, and ESPN, whom they claimed defamed them in the wake of the scandal. The complaint against ESPN was thrown out, but other complaints remain pending. At the same time, the Jackie Robinson West organization, which had been ordered by Little League to dump the Haleys, went about reinventing itself. New leadership was chosen. New transparency requirements were adopted.Prince, a real estate appraiser by day, took over as league president in 2016. Last year, former Jackie Robinson West player and local school administrator Antjuan Mitchell replaced Butler as coach. (Mr. Butler did not respond to multiple requests for comment). Both men new they’d taken on extraordinarily difficult volunteer jobs.
“It’s still not a good situation all the way around,” Prince says. “You just feel for it. It went from super-high to super-low. We’re still not finished dealing with it.”
That said, Prince didn’t take the job to spend his time rehabilitating Jackie Robinson West’s name. He spends very little time thinking about that. How could he? The neighborhoods that Jackie Robinson West draws from, including Roseland, Washington Heights, and West Pullman, are rampant with gang activity and violence. According to a 2017 report, the three neighborhoods all rank in the Top 20 in Chicago by murder rate. To put it lightly, it’s hard for Prince to focus on baseball much less summon up the energy to care about optics.
Prince says the kids are his sole mission. Prince says Jackie Robinson West, elite as it may be, exists to provide help in a place where there isn’t enough. If people want to talk about 2014, he can’t stop them. It’s hard to let go of a good story and impossible to let go of a good story gone bad. But Prince has other matters that interest him more.
Founded in 1972 by Joseph Haley, a vice principal at the local Marcus Garvey elementary school on Chicago’s South Side, Jackie Robinson West, like many leagues in inner-city areas, was created as a safe haven for at-risk children. In its 46 years, the league has provided mentorship and a path towards a safer and more stable life for hundreds of young black men. The league has also earned a reputation for developing baseball talent.
Jackie Robinson West has racked up a stunning 29 state championships, countless Junior League World Series appearances, and sent multiple teams to Williamsport to vie for the big prize. This success, perhaps ironically, can obscure the actual goals of the program — particularly for those outside the program. Winning is a tribute to the kids, but it is not what the current stewards of the program focus on. They’re focused on providing a safe-haven.
A few days after our conversation, Prince sends me a lengthy text. He wants to tell me about this one kid who showed up in cleats four sizes too big looking to play. He turned out to be parentless, a ward of the system. Prince and he got close. Prince tried and failed to help him make a high school team. He tried to talk him through disappointment. He tried to be around.
“One day I received a call saying that he would be killed for messing up a drug package he was supposed to be handling,” Prince says. “I knew the guys he was dealing with meant business. I went to where he was and talked to the guys and found out he was going to be killed for $200. I paid the guys the money.”
Eric is 28 now and has a steady job.
Prince is proud of that. He’s proud that Eric sometimes calls him “dad.” He’s also proud to have coached Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Corey Ray. But he doesn’t seem overawed by the idea of professional ball. When kids make it to adulthood in one piece, that’s the win. Anything after that is gravy. That’s why the whole Jackie Robinson West recruiting scandal story fails to resonate within the confines of the Jackie Robinson West Little League district. Compared to the struggles at hand, it’s nothing. It’s a blip. It’s what other people think. What do they know?
Antjuan Mitchell understands how baseball can change a life. It changed his. The 39-year-old, who looks like a less manicured Idris Elba, signed on last year as the new coach of the Jackie Robinson West All Star team, the kids who compete for the World Series. He’s enthusiastic about it, but his eagerness does nothing to temper his authority. He’s a school administrator and he seems like a school administrator. Sitting across from him in a South Loop coffee shop on a less-than-sunny April afternoon, I feel like a student again. Antjuan Mitchell seems like the right guy for the job.
He’ll have to be. After all, he’s taking over a disgraced team with zero home field advantages. “Can you go ahead and criticize people for the way they handled things?” he asks rhetorically. He says yes, but he doesn’t. Instead, he talks about what’s next.
“Listen, you’re talking to someone who grew up without their parents and then lost their grandmother,” he explains. “Moving forward has been something that’s uniquely easy for me.”
Raised in the city’s gang-infested Roseland neighborhood, which had six liquor stores on a single city block, Mitchell remembers losing touch with some kids then finding them begging outside bodegas and supermarkets. He didn’t want to go that route. He was determined to take care of himself and to develop the skills necessary to do that. He says that Jackie Robinson West gave him a place to do that.
For Mitchell, Jackie Robinson West led to a scholarship to play baseball at Mt. Carmel High School, then to Trident College and then to the 26th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. By then, Mitchell had removed himself from Roseland’s vicious cycle. He thought about what he wanted. He made informed choices. He went to Keller Graduate School and earned his MBA. He came back to the South Side on his own terms.
That was Mitchell’s big win. That’s why he’s coaching. That’s why he insists the league matters. That’s why he feels like there’s a community that has his back — and why he’s right.
“I’ll always give thanks to the league,” says Bo Fletcher, a 22-year-old former Jackie Robinson West player who is now on a baseball scholarship at Grambling State. “That was my foundation. Without them I would never have probably played baseball. It gets a lot of kids a lot of places.”
Adds Rod Robinson, 47, a current Chicago Police captain who started playing for Jackie Robinson West at age nine, the league has always been “about winning but more so about making you better as a person.”
“I can seem fanatical,” Mitchell says about his coaching style. “That’s because it’s not about baseball, it’s about life. If you can’t follow instructions now, if you can’t be a good teammate now, you’re not going to be later in life.”
On a recent afternoon this April, the streets surrounding Jackie Robinson Park are mostly quiet. Some kids are walking home from school, passing the endless rows of modest single-story residences and boarded-up shops that line the side streets. Soon, however, the park will be filled with Jackie Robinson West players reporting for practice.
The 13 players from the 2014 team? None of them are still involved with Jackie Robinson West. Most play on top-tier high school teams: De La Salle Institute, Marian Catholic, and Brooks College Prep Academy. Houston, who had the decisive hit in the game against Las Vegas, now plays third base for Mt. Carmel, the same elite baseball program Mitchell played for two decades ago. And while it might be tempting to believe that these now-teenagers want to put the 2014 season behind them, their success indicates that maybe they haven’t. They know what is it win big. They visited the White House, and shook the hand of the first black president. You can’t take that away.
Baseball, Mitchell contends, parallels life. “It teaches you to manage your emotions. It shows you how to overcome adversity. It shows you how to stay in the moment. Not get down on yourself. What happens when you get punched in the face?”
This sounds like another one of Mitchell’s rhetorical question, but it’s not. Not on the South Side. Not in an area of the city that has seen 364 instances of robbery, burglary, and theft in the first third of this year. Naturally, Mitchell has an answer of his own. Naturally, he’s thought about it.
“You can only control what you can control,” he says. “You’re going to be stronger in life if you’re able to take a hit, identify what happened, create a strategy, and move forward.”
And so he plans to spend this season focussing on his current team, another set of impressive young baseball players sporting the Jackie Robinson West yellow and blue, and, hopefully, making it back to Williamsport. Would winning be nice? Yes, but the key thing is to convince another group of players that they can win.
“You’re dealing with kids,” he adds. “If you turn the page, move forward and it becomes very clear in your actions and your methods and your teaching that’s what you’ve done, they’ll follow suit.”
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