Gentrification and Jackie Robinson West Little League: Was the playing field ever even? | WBEZ
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Gentrification and Jackie Robinson West Little League: Was the playing field ever even?

It was the feel good story of last summer. Thousands of Chicagoans tuned in--and turned out--for the boys of Jackie Robinson West.

"It’s the thing that we actually needed this summer with all of the different violence...to really bring people together to show what we can do," Chicago Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) said.

Many other politicians showed support--Mayor Rahm Emanuel organized watch parties, rallies and parades during the team's August run.

When the champions returned home and paraded the streets of Chicago, Maria Hamilton, 83, stood at the corner of 79th and Halsted Streets. She wasn't a baseball fan, but said it was exciting and she felt proud watching the local kids play on the national stage.

"They smiled, they never pout or say nothing...they go right ahead and do the best they can in the game. And I really think they’re going to go places," Hamilton gleamed.


The whole city was electrified; giddy even.

But, amidst the excitement, there were signs that something was off, in some cases literal signs.

Like the one the mayor of south suburban Lynwood put outside village hall to celebrate the village’s "own" Jackie Robinson West player. Or the congratulatory posts on social media from Illinois House Rep. Robin Kelly, calling out two players from South Holland and another from Dolton, all outside the city limits.   

When WBEZ asked Nedra Jones, the mother of the team’s home-run hitter, Pierce, how much of her time was occupied by baseball, she said, "A hour there, two-and-a-half-hour practice, an hour back, three or four times a week."

The signs were eclipsed by the city’s newest and brightest stars.

The Little League World Series games shattered ESPN ratings records. The kids were all over TV, newspapers, social media, even the White House.

Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, said it felt all too familiar.

"It feels just so typical--the ways in which the media built up this group of young kids for the all the obstacles they confronted and then now is taking a seeming glee in tearing them down," Zirin said.

He says gentrification is the real scandal in this story.

"The amount obstacles of obstacles and hoops that Jackie Robinson West had to go through just to field a team is something that Little League Inc. never took into account--it’s the most unequal of possible playing fields," Zirin explained.

He believes baseball has become a casualty of urban gentrification. And that there’s a reason leagues look for players outside their boundaries.

"Little league is such a suburban operation," Zirin began. "And the boundaries in the suburbs, by necessity, don’t only mean a greater number of kids who play baseball--but a greater number of fields, a greater number of community centers, a greater amount of infrastructure than cities could possibly hope to compete with."

There are twice as many baseball fields in Evergreen Park as there are in Roseland.

There may as well be no parks in the far South Side neighborhood, according to longtime Roseland resident James Brown.

"We’re out there in Roseland--if I’m not mistaken there’s six parks. And you could ride past those parks on any given day and they’re not being utilized," Brown said.

The high school football coach spent last summer in the car with his son Semaj, 12, taking him and friends to and from baseball.

"I gotta take my son all the way to Englewood to play in a program that’s nice...that’s sad," a visibly upset Brown shared.

There is a league in Roseland, but Brown said there's no coach.

Little League International has more than 6,500 teams participating in 90 countries around the world. The U.S. is broken down into regions and districts. There are six leagues in District 4, which covers the Southeast Side of Chicago, all the way down to near Calumet.

Before the start of the 2014 season, Little League International changed residency rules to allow little leaguers to play where their school was located. The goal, they said, was to "ease the burden on parents and guardians."

But where a kid lives and where they go to school can be quite different in Chicago.

It gets more complicated, Brown’s sister, Victoria Harper Peeples explained, when neighborhood violence and resources are taken into account.

"We (are) stressed out just trying to make sure, ‘did I put them in the right school, did I let ‘em hang with the right friends, did I put him on the right baseball team?’ There’s just so many things that we have to do as parents, and we always put on the spotlight."

Harper Peeples put her two boys on the Englewood team too. She still felt angst, even right after the boys won their championship game last summer.

"I mean, it’s no chance that mom or dad could make a mistake. It’s like, we almost have to be perfect individuals, at least in the sight of our children," she explained.

Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson held a pair of news conferences in as many days, calling the league's decision “inappropriate.” He invoked the legacy of Muhammad Ali, who had his heavyweight title stripped when he refused to enlist.

"Champions don't belong on the ground," Jackson began, "and so, they stand up."

He encouraged the players and parents to stand up and fight. Ousted JRW president Bill Haley hired high-profile attorney Victor Henderson, who said there are no plans for a lawsuit at the moment. Henderson will also represent the players, and said no one should question their integrity.

"It may to pass that 'i's were not dotted and 't's were not crossed and if that happens, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it...but we’re not there right now," Henderson told reporters on Thursday.

Henderson said he intends to investigate the league’s decision to strip the team of its title. He said that on the baseball field, and in life, it's important that the same rules apply to everyone.

"Whether it’s Ferguson County, Missouri or whether it’s Eric Garner in Staten Island or whether it’s Jackie Robinson in Chicago...there should just be one set of rules," Henderson began. "We don’t want one set of rules for a team for Chicago and another set of rules for a team in Evergreen Park. We don’t want one set of rules for the police and another set of rules for young black men…"

In light of the involvement of attorneys, Little League International said it is not commenting on the decision, except to say they’re standing by it.

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow her @katieobez

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