SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) — The kids from Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West defied the odds with their run in the Little League World Series.
Even at the end, the youngsters that had brightened a city and caught the imagination of the baseball world didn’t quit.
Down seven runs to powerful South Korea in the final inning of the championship game on Sunday, the Great Lakes Region champion scored three runs and electrified their fans before falling short, 8-4.
Despite the loss, their story – an all-black, inner-city team named after the selfless pioneer who broke the color barrier in the big leagues – might just resonate beyond their noisy trip through the tournament.
People in their hometown held watch parties and danced in the streets when they scored. Baseball people – players and former major-leaguers, executives and administrators – all cheered for them. There might be plans in Chicago for a parade in the team’s honor. They even got a shoutout on Twitter from “Uncle Spike” Lee.
“We appreciate it, all the support,” manager Darold Butler said. “How they were reacting – to 11- and 12-year olds playing baseball – like it was the `96 Chicago Bulls. It was great to see.”
The team’s achievements surpassed the emotions of an underdog team going the distance on a nationally televised stage.
Many took notice when Philadelphia’s Mo’ne Davis became the first female to pick up a Little League World Series win and the first to also throw a shutout, but in the end it was the kids from Chicago who closed the show.
The team is drawn from several communities on the South and Southwest sides of the Windy City. It’s fair to say that the actual Jackie Robinson – who made a path for others when he endured insults and slights but persevered after coming up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – would have enjoyed this.
Jackie Robinson West also earned the respect of their South Korean counterparts.
“We thought the Chicago team would go to the final,” said Jong Wook Park, coach of the Seoul team. “We thought the Jackie Robinson team was very strong. Lucky for us, their three good pitchers were already pitching from the last game.”
The league which makes up the Chicago team is a member of the Little League Urban Initiative, formed in 1999 to support local Little League programs in urban neighborhoods. There are almost 200 Urban Initiative leagues in 100 cities across the country.
This is the 15th time a team from Illinois has advanced to the LLWS and it marks the second appearance for Jackie Robinson West, which went 2-1 in the 1983 tournament.
The team is the second Urban Initiative team to make it to the LLWS, following Harlem in 2002.
When many current major leaguers learned that parents of the players were having difficulty coming up with the money to travel to Central Pennsylvania for the showcase games of Little League, they chipped in.
Colorado Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins, brothers Justin and B.J. Upton of the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford all dug deep to include the families.
“To go on the run they’ve gone on does a lot, especially for African Americans in baseball,” said Hawkins, who skipped Rockies batting practice on Saturday to watch Jackie Robinson West beat Las Vegas Mountain Ridge 7-5 in the U.S. championship game. “Other kids around the country, around the world, see those kids playing and say, `I want to play some baseball, too.’
“It’s a lot larger than just them going to play the championship game. They don’t even know, because they’re just playing baseball, which is cool.”
The number of African-Americans playing in the major leagues has dwindled steadily since the mid-1980s. Blacks made up about 19 percent of rosters three decades ago; On opening day this year, only 8.1 percent of the players were black.
David James, senior director of MLB’s RBI program which has goals similar to those of the Urban Initiative, said Chicago’s LLWS appearance was good for the game.
After Chicago won the U.S. title game, Major League Baseball’s Twitter account posted a picture of the team with the caption, “We’re proud of these guys.”
The White Sox even mentioned the hometown kids in a tweet just before the start of Sunday’s game.
“The (hash)WhiteSox will be rooting hard for (hash)JRW today! Good luck boys! (hash)LLWS (hash)LetsGoJRW,” it said.
After the loss to South Korea, Butler told his players to be proud and to hold their heads high.
“We were the best team in the United States,” he said. “We’re one of the best teams out here.”
No one disputes that anymore.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.