When the late-inning rally you knew the Jackie Robinson West players had in them fell just short Sunday in an 8-4 defeat to South Korea in the Little League World Series final, everybody at the watch party on the Far South Side immediately rose to their feet.
They screamed. They clapped. They hugged. Within seconds, they even were dancing inside the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center as Kool and the Gang's familiar sports anthem blared through the speakers.
Celebrate good times, come on!
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Good advice for a great accomplishment, even if the JRW kids with all the heart couldn't beat a team from Seoul. Chicago's boys of summer lost a game but will return home winners in ways they should appreciate by the time they're men reflecting on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. They supplied Chicago what the Cubs and Sox didn't: late-summer baseball excitement in a city starving for some. They captivated an audience of millions beyond America's third-largest city and captured the imagination of all generations.
The enduring memory of this team won't be the final out when JRW shortstop Ed Howard grounded out to second base on a fielder's choice. It will be the vim and vigor JRW players invested in every pitch for a payoff that had nothing to do with fame or money ESPN made off their popularity. They wanted to win for their coaches, teammates and families along for the ride of their lives, for themselves, and for a country that embraced their enthusiasm and a city that sorely needed their example.
Nobody's saying JRW's success in winning the U.S. championship will stop one African-American teenager on the South Side from going down the wrong path, but you can say this team just gave thousands of at-risk kids a reason to take the right one. Nobody's saying 13 black youths can cure all the problems that plague urban culture in their Chicago neighborhoods, but we can say they make us feel better about there being a solution. Nobody's saying you will remember every player's name after Labor Day, but it's a good guess people never will forget their smiling faces and hustling style and touching sportsmanship.
DJ Butler. Marquis Jackson. Brandon Green. Josh Houston. Eddie King. Jaheim Benton. Cameron Bufford. Ed Howard. Prentiss Luster. Darion Radcliff. Lawrence Noble. Trey Hondras. Pierce Jones.
Move over Jay-C and D-Rose, Kaner and Toews. These young stars own the city for a while, having just authored the best Chicago sports story of the year. A community came together Sunday, from 119th Street on the South Side to State and Lake in the Loop, from the suburbs to the inner city, to watch a World Series game in Chicago. It isn't every decade you write that sentence.
"They are the pride of Chicago,'' said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who high-fived Gov. Pat Quinn after JRW scored its first run. "This team has electrified our city and rallied people from every neighborhood to support these great kids. …They are great ambassadors for the city — and for the world.''
A sense of history hung in the air as Emanuel spoke, but the kind that had to do more with this team opening doors than the mayor closing their South Side schools — the kind that had to do with progress, not politics. A note sent to every JRW player and their terrific manager, Darold Butler, by Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's 92-year-old widow, summed it up best.
"To have an African-American squad from Chicago, the first from the city to qualify for the series since 1983, succeed and inspire other young men and women is so meaningful,'' Rachel Robinson wrote in a letter obtained by the Tribune. "Thank you for upholding my husband Jack's, your namesake's, legacy through your hard work, dedication and excellent teamwork.''
Ernie Banks felt so much gratitude to JRW for the way they represented the name of his mentor, Jackie Robinson, that he asked to extend an open invitation for a team dinner on Mr. Cub. Watching Sunday's final took Banks down memory lane to September 1953 at Wrigley Field when Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers star, visited him just days after Banks signed a Major League Baseball contract that made him the Cubs' first African-American player.
"Jackie wanted to make sure I knew how important it all was,'' Banks said. "What these kids did is important to notice too. This Little League story is big, big, big, considering everything going on in Ferguson (Mo.) and on the South Side. These are powerful kids. This was remarkable. All of Chicago should be proud of this team.''
Another Hall of Fame player who became a legend in Chicago agreed.
"They only play the game in Chicago for a few months a year because of the weather so to win the U.S. title is priceless,'' former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas said in a text message. "Congratulations to JRW.''
Similar sentiments flooded social media, with everybody from Chicagoan Isiah Thomas to broadcaster Robin Roberts to rapper Lupe Fiasco among those celebrities tweeting love for JRW. President Barack Obama called Butler after the game, one South Side product consoling another. More praise will follow. A parade ending at Millennium Park will come Wednesday because that's what cities do for their champions, which is what this JRW team's legacy forever will be.
"None of these boys will ever forget these moments,'' Gov. Quinn said in a yellow JRW T-shirt. "Neither will any of us.''
That's one governor's declaration nobody can dispute.