Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: Adults get in the way of Jackie Robinson West achievement

Where is the innocence?

This is Little League Baseball, where kids play the greatest game ever invented. And the Jackie Robinson West team out of Chicago was an inspiration to us this summer, especially to those of us who believe inner-city kids are being under-served when it comes to baseball.

The Jackie Robinson team was stripped of its U.S. Championship on Wednesday and its coach has been suspended because the team used players from outside its allowed geographic area.

So the team, made up of African-American kids, comes crashing down.

It’s a shame and not the fault of the players, who were simply doing what grown-up told them to do.

I’ve read stories in which Chicago politicians criticize the ruling by Little League Baseball. But I ask those politicians: What was Little League Baseball to do?

Your criticism should be directed toward the organizers of the team who reached outside of the boundaries to stack the team. They are the ones to blame for Jackie Robinson West losing this championship.

But a greater good can still be achieved.

There are not enough minority children playing baseball in America. They are drawn to other sports such as football and basketball because costs are lower and they are easier sports for them to relate to because people who look like them play those sports.

I’m involved with a youth baseball league in Wichita called League 42, in honor of Jackie Robinson. We’re 19 months old and in our first season we had around 220 kids involved playing baseball at McAdams Park. Many of our kids are African-American and quite a few more are Hispanic.

It is with first-hand experience that I can tell you that kids who are introduced to baseball love to play. The problem has been subjecting to the game; too often minority children grow up in America without ever holding a bat in their hands or putting a glove on their hand because they lack the financial resources to play.

Jackie Robinson West and 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, who became the first African-American girl to play in the Little League World Series for the Taney Dragons out of of Philadelphia, were two of the biggest stories of the summer.

It’s not coincidental, in my opinion, that many girls have been registering for League 42 since last summer. I think Davis’ influence has a lot to do with that.

Hopefully, baseball’s breadth of influence is expanding.

But adults need to be careful not to put a damper on a great thing. Rules need to be adhered to. Sportsmanship has to come first.

Those kids who played for Jackie Robinson West were not only really good ballplayers, but good kids. They carried themselves well and the joy they were experiencing playing baseball was obvious on their faces. Nobody could have imagined that the organizers of the team had stepped outside of the rules to make the team stronger.

Winning at all costs is such a tired endeavor because it’s not really winning. What the rule breakers was not only unfair to Little League Baseball, but it robbed these kids, tarnishing those too young to be tarnished.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is standing by the team.

"These remarkable boys brought our entire city together and reminded all Chicagoans how important it is to support our children," Emanuel said in a statement printed in the Chicago Tribune. "They created memories that will last a lifetime and nothing will take that away, and they showed the nation their character both on and off the field. The city remains united in its support of these great children and in our hearts, they will always be champions in Chicago."

I found the comments from Chicago alderman Carrie Austin in the Tribune particularly interesting.

"They are still champions, and I believe people across this city will feel just like I do," she said.

But Austin said "tarnishing the achievement" is a terrible idea.

"Here's something that united us as a city, as a nation, and you want to strip that on a technicality?" said Austin, who is running for re-election Feb. 24 against three challengers.

"The players played the games, and they won the games," Austin said. "Now you want to take this away over a boundary? Why would you strip these children of this achievement? Their lives have already been hell."

Jackie Robinson West coaches should possibly face some type of sanction, Austin said, but even the adults who broke the rules had their hearts in the right place, she said.

"I think the coaches were trying to do what they could to help these kids, help these players," she said.

Austin said African-Americans formed Jackie Robinson West and other Little League teams because their children weren't welcome on nearby white teams.

"Why do you think Jackie Robinson West was created? Kids like these weren't allowed to play in other leagues, so they formed their own. And now, after they whipped your butts, you're going to turn around and challenge it on a technicality. These kids are still champions, and I don't want to hear anyone say anything different," Austin said.

Passions, understandably, are running high. This team’s achievements went beyond Chicago to every city in America. It’s not easy learning that rules were ignored to build a team that didn’t meet the criteria of Little League Baseball.

But what happened in Williamsport, Pa., last summer can be bigger than this team, bigger than baseball. Kids of color, regardless of their boundaries, banded together to play the game. It was a step in the right direction, even though adult-driven missteps occurred.