Of Baseball, Boundaries, and Bitches *Lessons from Jackie Robinson West*

Let me be clear.  This is a subject matter I am very passionate about.  Baseball is a sport I grew up loving.  It was by far my favorite sport to play.  I’m old enough to remember when there was only a couple games on television per week.  There was Monday Night Baseball on ABC.  Then then there was the Game of the Week on NBC.  As an African-American male, I’m old enough to remember when boys like me wanted to be like Dave (Winfied), instead of Mike (Jordan). Dave Winfield is the only player to ever be drafted in four different major sports: The NBA, ABA, NFL and MLB.   Winfield chose baseball, and was inducted into both the college and MLB Halls of Fame.

Since I becoming a baseball umpire several years ago, I don’t see many black boys playing baseball.  I penned my initial thoughts a few years ago on this very subject.  When I do see it, the players tend to fall into a couple of categories.  Either there are one or two good players on mostly white little league teams, or it’s a predominately African-American school whose players participate because they don’t possess the tools to chase the basketball or football dream.  When I work a game, and I see a kid who looks like me when I was young, and has talent, my eyes get a twinkle.  When I see a team of boys who can pitch, field, catch and execute proper baseball strategies I am ecstatic!  Baseball is a beautiful game and I believe we can be great at it again, though MLB doesn’t seem to think so, shunning us for the more docile/thankful Latin born ballplayer.  *That’s another discussion.

I was stoked like much of the country this past August to see the likes of Mo’ne Davis pitch her way into America’s heart.  And I watched proudly as Jackie Robinson West (JRW) took on all comers with success till they ran into the buzz-saw that was team South Korea in the Little League World Series.  Though they lost the championship game 8-4, JRW’s journey was celebrated and the kids were touted around the nation.  They made numerous appearances, including national news shows and a presidential visit at the White House.  During the summer of 2014 Chicago made other headlines too.  Some black neighborhoods were experiencing a level of gun violence only comparable to Fallujah.  The JRW story gave us much needed relief and gave us an example of hope in the youth growing up in the third largest city in the nation.

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Now that ‘Boundary-Gate’ has caused The Little League International to revoke the United States title from JRW, their ‘all American’ narrative of inspiration, teamwork and overcoming the odds has been blemished.  People are choosing sides regarding the crime, the investigative process, the motives of the whistle-blower and the subsequent punishment. I understand defending the boys. They competed and achieved between the lines. Their on the field accomplishments, as well as their attitudes and sportsmanship are something all of us can be proud of. Unfortunately many of my African-American contemporaries are not viewing this situation with an eye towards nuance.

Being heavily involved in youth sports, some of the best people I know are coaches, managers and other volunteers to give kids a positive experience.  They use youth sports not only to teach competition, but to give life lessons regarding unselfishness, sacrifice and teamwork.  I also know of the adults who turn something that is supposed to be fun, innocent and pure into a very petty and muddy pile of manure. Rules are skirted all the time to gain advantages. Not just in baseball, but also in football and most notably in basketball.  There is so much corruption in youth sports including high school sports, it’s impossible to catch it all. I wouldn’t want the job of trying.  Most age or area restrictive tournaments have processes to eliminate as much of the shenanigans as possible. And yet most of it isn’t caught. In this case, JRW got caught and is suffering the consequences and shame.

Chris Janes, coach of Evergreen Park who was pulverized by JRW 44-5 went “Edward Snowden”, forcing a campaign of shade-throwing on Chicago’s boys of summer.

*I ran and played on an adult basketball team years ago that were defending champions. That following season we developed a rivalry with a new team. We met them in the playoffs.  Instead of using the men on their official roster, the one they used all season long, they brought in three additional athletic beast 6’6 and over.  We protested before the game but they refs didn’t act.  We lost to that team on a last second shot. My only protest was in not shaking their hands as I had lost respect for them as men. My team decided to play and we went for their throats.  I did not complain to the league after we lost to change the result.  

Was Chris Janes bitter?  Probably. Was race a matter? Rarely is race not a factor in this country. Was it a bitch move?  Absolutely, per my example above!

Neither of these is the larger point. Or are they? As a black male close to the age of 50, I know that in any given public situation, I am judged by a different standard than my white counterparts. I’ve never been employed in a corporate environment where I could get away with what white men are able to get away with and remain employed. The United States is fraught with examples of unequal justice and protection under the law. This is why Darold Butler should have known better. Did he not know success would bring envious eyes to JRW?  He did something that many teams do. He played fast and loose with residency boundaries and it eventually backfired.  As the kids’ accomplishments are being dismissed, Butler is silent and cowering in obscurity. This is where the blame should be placed. He, and any other coaches who knew the rules- and went forward in spite of them- have cost the JRW organization public humiliation.

Look, no one is more ‘fight the power’ than I am. There are times for protest, civil disobedience, and campaigns to address or change unjust laws and rules. Picking and choosing our battles carefully is important. In light of the current situation, I would rather the focus be on the JRW program’s ability to come back and make the best of the situation. The coaches should take responsibility and apologize to the players for putting them in this position. They should commit to better leadership and accountability in the future. They should remove the burden off the backs of the players, and give them recourse in preparing for the upcoming season. JRW was allowed to keep the monies they’ve raised. They can invest in the community and develop more ballplayers. The sport deserves it. The kids deserve it.  What I don’t need is for the kids to be twisted into carrying the martyred stained banner of being ‘moral’ Little League champions. Nor should they be exploited by apologists on television while wearing their uniforms forced to defend themselves.

 

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