Jackie Robinson West a reason for hope in Chicago

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By the time Cedric Watson navigated through TV news trucks creating congestion outside his house across from Jackie Robinson Park on the Far South Side, he already was late for a physical therapy appointment Monday in Tinley Park.

He finally arrived with a valid excuse.

"I walked in and they said: 'That's not like you. Where have you been?' " Watson recalled Wednesday in front of his house. "And I was like: 'Sorry, but it was worth it. I've never seen anything like it. You should see what's going on in my neighborhood.' "

The next night, they saw for themselves. Watson, who has lived on Aberdeen Street for 18 years, welcomed some familiar faces who trekked over from Tinley Park on Tuesday night for the watch party in honor of the Jackie Robinson West team that — 600 miles away at the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. — is bringing a city together.

New and old friends will gather around the big screens again Thursday night at the same place, hoping for the same result, as Jackie Robinson West plays in the U.S. semifinal, one game closer to history.

Suddenly, 13 African-American Little Leaguers have turned Chicago into America's biggest small town, a community celebrating something positive in a place with a reputation for marking victims instead of victories.

"We get so much negative publicity with gangs and shootings that you have no idea how much fun it is to see the attention this has created all over," said Watson, 43. "For a lot of people around here, them winning the World Series would be like the Bulls winning it all."

Phenomenal female pitcher Mo'ne Davis graces the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, but the kids of Jackie Robinson West will leave the most indelible image of this year's Little League World Series in the minds of Chicagoans. Usually, if news crews venture south of U.S. Cellular Field after dark, it is to capture bloodshed — not bliss. Until this week.

When Bulls star Derrick Rose told the crowd before Saturday's Team USA exhibition at the United Center that his hometown needed more positivity and less tragedy, this was what he meant. The team known as JRW represents a good start.

Too many local kids have gotten caught in the crossfire on nearby streets, too many lives have ended before they really ever began. Yet the increased exposure of Jackie Robinson West, locally and nationally, has cast the stereotypical black, inner-city youth in a different light — and a fairer one, according to lifelong neighborhood resident Sharon Polk.

"Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of bad going on in this community, but I still think there's more good than bad that you just don't hear about," said Polk, a substitute teacher out for a walk Wednesday. "If they win, this could be a Disney movie. It's uplifting and shows regardless of where you come from, you can achieve your goals."

That message affects the group of 7- and 8-year-olds who took turns at the park imitating Pierce Jones, Jackie Robinson West's power hitter who has become this neighborhood's favorite No. 23. And that message resonates with teenagers such as DaJuan Golden and LaTice Scarelli, who are pulling for Jackie Robinson West because of what it potentially does for kids all over the city who look like them. They are tired of living this way.

Golden recalled being at Brainerd Park on Friday with a large group when someone started shooting in their direction. He said his sister was hit in the arm. On the same night, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood, Scarelli said he and a couple of buddies were jumped by thugs who believed they belonged to a rival gang.

"It's hard to be a 14-year-old kid around here because automatically people think you're a gangbanger if you're around friends, and we're not," Scarelli said. "We just like staying in groups. It's safer. So maybe something like this World Series might help people wake up and think kids down here really do have a future."

Golden, a budding tight end at CICS Longwood, nodded.

"This shows that kids who hang out at Jackie Robinson Park could be doing something good and not always up to bad stuff because they hang around together," he said. "There's more than just violence on the South Side."

There is progress that excites White Sox President Ken Williams, among other Sox officials. Williams laughed recalling how he and Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf bemoaned a baserunning mistake by Jackie Robinson West while they were engrossed by the Little League game as the Sox played.

But Williams' favorite moment from the team he has adopted — if not scouted, yet — came when Jackie Robinson West's Trey Hondras apologized to Rhode Island coach Dave Belisle after showboating during his home-run trot.

"They are learning lessons transferrable in life and have become, in a sense, unconventional role models," said Williams, who takes pride that six Jackie Robinson West players belong to the Sox's Amateur City Elite (ACE) program. "I told someone yesterday, those kids don't realize all the players in major league baseball clubhouses who are watching their every move."

Considering only 8.3 percent of the players in those clubhouses are African-American, Williams finds significance in an all-black team becoming the darlings of the tournament. He hasn't enjoyed a World Series this much since 2005.

"Anytime you see a glimmer of hope for the future, it's exciting for the game," said Williams, a member of MLB's diversity committee. "As for the city, it's not just great for the South Side but the West Side, the North Side, all sides. There are so many stories of tragedy that this is an uplifting, refreshing turn of events to see so many signs of positivity and togetherness."

Another sign: David Floyd, a member of the city's first all-black Little League champions in 1959, stood in disbelief Tuesday night at the watch party alongside hundreds of adults and kids as the streetlights went out. Nobody pushed. Nobody shoved. Nobody shot. Everybody left with a smile, wanting to return.

"Even in the darkness there was light — the light from a victory created by this great group of kids," said Floyd, 67. "It was calm because everybody was here to support them for the right reasons."

For a refreshing change, they aren't hard to find.


Twitter @DavidHaugh

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