Thursday, February 12, 2015

JRW: Punishing kids for the sins of alleged grownups is completely wrong

My son Joe was looking for another place to pitch one summer. This was a decade or so ago when he was playing high school baseball. Maybe he'd just graduated; I don't remember exactly. I do remember that some of his school teammates recruited him to pitch for the Morton Grove American Legion team where they had signed to play.

There was a problem, however. We lived within the boundaries of the Portage Park American Legion team. Portage Park had to give up its territorial claim on Joe before he could legally pitch for Morton Grove. Paperwork was involved. (When isn't it?) But, with the help of the Morton Grove coach, the proper authorities in Portage Park were contacted and the papers duly completed. Joe was able to play on the same team as his friends.

I couldn't help but remember that story yesterday as the news about Little League International's decision to strip Jackie Robinson West of its national title stormed across the Internet. I didn't have the heart (or the stomach) to turn on local sports radio during the day. Watching the news last night was painful. I loved the JRW story. Like so many in Chicago, I watched the games on TV and rooted for those kids; I was so happy when they won. I was a fan.

I remembered a couple of other things yesterday, too. I had occasion to coach my youngest son, Jim, when he played at Oriole Park. Oriole Park did not have a Williamsport team, but in addition to our house league teams for various age groups there were "all star" teams that played in various tournaments, mostly against area parks. No one cared about residence in those days, but there was always concern that unscrupulous coaches would try and load up their 10 or 11 or 12-year old teams with older players. Danny Almonte was the Little League scandal in those days -- the 14-year old pitcher who mowed down 12-year old lineups in Williamsport like a sharp scythe in a field of ripe wheat. As a result, I had to bring more than the equipment bag to tournament games; I carried a folder full of birth certificates, one for each kid on my team. No opposing coach ever demanded to check -- but I had them just the same. And tournaments got wise to forgeries, too: I had to get a bunch of duplicate birth certificates from the County Clerk's Office over the years for Joe and Jim both because a lot of tournament organizers refused to accept photocopies.

Because my kids played ball and because I coached (however badly), I had a chance to see and observe a lot about youth baseball. I came to one overwhelming conclusion: There is nothing wrong with youth baseball except grownups. If -- as Little League International has concluded -- some involved with JRW played games off the field as well as on, fibbing about where kids lived in order to assemble a super-team, I know one thing: The kids -- the players -- were not at fault. The JRW kids won the games on the field and their accomplishment should not be diminished, and certainly not invalidated, because of grownup foolishness.

As for the coaches and the directors or officers of the program? They're supposed to know, and follow, the rules. If they did not, whether intentionally or because of ignorance, they should be punished. There undoubtedly were forms that could have been completed to allow kids from outside the boundaries to play for JRW. If some actively tried to conceal the truth about their players' residences instead of getting the proper clearances, those persons should be banned.

Fr. Michael Pfleger and the Rev. Jesse Jackson used yesterday's JRW press conference to suggest a racial motive for Little League's belated investigation. The Evergreen Park coach whose complaints about residence issues sparked Little League's investigation is white. He was on all the TV newscasts last night, too, telling the world that he has had to change his phone number and seek police protection. Only Channel 9, to my knowledge, reported that the Evergreen Park coach is married to an African-American. His Evergreen Park team, according to Channel 9, is composed of mostly African-American and Latin kids. On the other hand, it is impossible to overlook the evidence that some people -- way too many people -- are taking an unholy glee in JRW's downfall. Still, I believe it oversimplifies matters to reduce this sad story to black and white. The color green is also involved. Green, as in the color of envy, and green, as in the color of money. Grownup concerns.

And the timing of all this stinks, no matter what anybody's motivation may be in pursing this investigation now.

I seem to recall that, in the small-time tournaments I was involved with, opposing coaches could check my kids' birth certificates right up until the first pitch was thrown. After that, the only thing that mattered was what happened on the field. Grownup interference -- except for coaches trying to intimidate younger, inexperienced umpires (and that's a whole other discussion) -- ended and the kids got to play their game. So should it be with Williamsport. While the TV cameras are out filming the kids going to go-kart tracks and amusement parks in the greater Williamsport area, the grownups can sort through and validate all the papers from all the players and run down any rumors they want. If a 14-year old is found masquerading as his own little brother, bench him. If a team is found to have a player from outside their assigned area (without the proper paperwork) bench that kid, too. But once the games start, all that matters is what happens between the lines. If it later develops that tournament officials were snookered by doctored paperwork, punish the persons who did the doctoring. But don't punish the kids. Don't change the results.