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Chicago's needed moment of pride

8/14/2014
Members of the Jackie Robinson West team ride in the Little League Grand Slam Parade on Wednesday in Williamsport, Pa. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Sometimes we all need a break. As a city -- one that has been in an epic and almost historic internal battle with itself for public reputation and universal perception -- Chicago needed a major story rooted in something other than Chiraq-ness to lift our spirit.

And again along comes a sports-related episode to change the narrative of our lives.

The Jackie Robinson West Little League team of Morgan Park will play Lynnwood Pacific in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on Thursday (2 p.m. CT, ESPN). Sounds simple. Even with it being the opening round of the Little League World Series, it seems pretty normal. But for Chicago, it isn't. It is one of those small watershed moments that grab a city by its shoulders for a short period of time to take away the pain and help rebuild its name.

The whole black badge of honor of Obama/Oprah/Jordan "representin' the Chi" has lost whatever meaning it used to have. Eighty-two people shot, 14 fatally, over July Fourth weekend; two teens shot during the Bud Billiken Parade near the parade route, a first in the event's 85-year history; 1,118 homicide victims under the age of 25 between 2008 and 2012; "Gang 'Interrupters' Fight Chicago's Cycle of Violence" is a headline on NPR.org; Hadiya Pendleton and Yummy Sandifer having Wikipedia pages and Blair Holt becoming a household name have made it almost impossible for Chicago to be looked at -- or see itself -- as anything but the "Chicagoland" CNN painted the city out to be in its recent documentary series.

That's why the Jackie Robinson West team reaching the LLWS, the first Chicago team since 1983 to do so, and the significance behind it is so ... necessary.

Gabe Bump, fiction writer and Chicago resident, said of this JRW run for the right to do something seldom seen by any Little League team from Chicago, "It's important because they are the kids Chicago wants to forget about. These are the kids that get their schools closed. I'm rooting for them because they're South Side kids, but it's much more to it than that."

Chicago needed this. The South and West sides needed this. Englewood, Roseland and Garfield Park needed this. Even with everything going on -- the Team USA basketball team with Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis arriving in town, the Nike World Basketball Festival jumping off, the Chi-League Pro-Am finals, the Air and Water Show this weekend, the Grant Park Music Festival, etc. -- the JRW team doing something this big is not only the most anticipated event happening in the city, but almost by de facto default (simply by the nature of the cloud of violence and social ignorance hanging over the city's head) is being recognized as the most important.

Just the sight of a group of young black kids doing something collectively with purpose and meaning and publicly achieving marginal historical success in Chicago is equivalent to giving someone who is having a hard time breathing an oxygen tube.

Roynal Coleman, a member of the 1983 team that was the first JRW team to make it this far and one of the only members from that team who still works with players on this year's roster, feels a special connection to what is going on.

"For those kids to make it, 31 years after we did it, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said. "It's a tough road to make it there. You can be the best team but never make it. I may be wrong, but I think we were the first all-black team [from Chicago] to make it there and they are only the second, so they have a lot to be proud of. And from the city of Chicago? It's a beautiful thing."

In sports, Chicago is used to, if not accustomed to, championships. No shade thrown at the Cubs, but between the Blackhawks' two recent Stanley Cups, the six Bulls rings, the White Sox's 2005 World Series win and the Bears' 1986 Super Bowl, the association of excellence and athletics is an expectation.

But the "stay calm" euphoria surrounding this Jackie Robinson West team is different. Maybe it's a buildup from last year, when the bandwagon got heavy and the city showed signs of climbing on before JRW lost in the final game that kept it from reaching the LLWS. There's almost a feeling that what is happening now has nothing to do with sports. It's something much bigger. At least, that's the way it is being taken in; that is how it is being embraced.

Basically, calling this a feel-good story is underselling the true nature of the weight this story carries at this moment.

But Mike Kelley, who is the district administrator for Little League District 4 and has been a vice president at Jackie Robinson West for 20 years and a coach with JRW for over 25 years, sees it slightly different.

"The significance is that now a lot more people get to see us play," he said. "We've been doing this for years. Yes, we are proud of them, but at the same time, we don't see it the way everyone else does.

"People say to us, 'Oh, your players are so well-mannered, so poised and disciplined,' and [I'm] like 'What do you expect? Compared to what?' These kids are baseball players. Some of them are third-generation members of this organization. It's not, 'Look at these little black kids playing ball,' with us. We're just playing baseball, something we do all of the time. It's a way of life for us."

Now JRW is going up against the big boys (and girl; Mo'ne Davis of the Mid-Atlantic representative Taney Dragons out of Philadelphia is another uplifting story of this LLWS). There are teams and players that may be more used to the LLWS stage, teams and players like JRW has never seen or faced before.

But compared to what some of these players have seen, faced and had to go through in their everyday lives, going against teams from Lynnwood, Washington; Cumberland, Rhode Island; Brno, Czech Republic; and Perth, Australia, is nothing. While being one of only 16 teams in the world left standing may represent more than a game to every other team in this double-elimination tournament, it's just another baseball game to these kids from the South Side.

Another step closer to fulfilling their dream. An escape from our daily nightmare.

Liz Dozier, principal of Fenger High School who gained national fame for being one of the few shining lights on CNN's "Chicagoland," optimistically called this "the age of possibilities" in Chicago.

Damned if the kids on this JRW squad haven't so far proved her right.