Say It Ain’t So

By Ken D’Angelo ‘71


This time of the year I usually begin to emerge from my winter blahs. You see, I love baseball. In a few days pitchers and catchers will be showing up at spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona. A couple of weeks later all of the players will be on hand working away the off-season kinks. Then the first week of April, which seemed so far away in November, will arrive and the new season begins. This year is different. The annual joy of anticipation has been tempered by a soul-searing sadness. This week the Jackie Robinson West [henceforward JRW] Little League National Champions, were stripped of their crown for breaking the rules of the Little League organization. Their pitchers didn’t doctor the baseball. Their hitters didn’t cork their bats [to get explanations re, “doctoring” or “corking” ask a baseball fan]. They didn’t have a spy in the outfield with binoculars and a walkie-talkie stealing their opponents’ signals. No one remotely thought they were on PED’s [Performance Enhancing Drugs]. They didn’t take money from gamblers to throw a game. No, these misdeeds are the domain of Major League Baseball, you know, the adults. These boys simply played baseball. They played it well enough to win. They won a lot. They were the best in the country. Now it is all gone. They are punished for the malefactions of others, adult others. Those who should have been guarding these youngsters with the ferocity of a mama mountain lion behaved like reptilian creatures who will eat their young.

These kids are from the tough streets of Chicago. They are all black. Some are disadvantaged. They were betrayed by adults who knowingly broke the rules of the organization. One of the basic rules of Little League is that players on a team must all be from a specific geographic area. If you played sports in a public school you would know that your team was not allowed to enroll players from outside the school district. If they did they would be breaking a “non-recruiting” rule that is prevalent in scholastic sports. Any kid who falls into this category is an “ineligible” player. Teams who have broken this rule have been stripped of championships in the past. This is not an unknown rule. It is basic to the organization.

Well, the adults who ran the JRW team broke that rule. I can’t help but ask myself “Why did they do it?” I’ve ruled out that it was for the kids. Did they think that it was no big deal, or that everyone was doing it? That because the kids were poor and disadvantaged they needed an illegal edge? I believe that it was a manifestation of the “little league parent syndrome” inflated exponentially. You may have seen this displayed by parents who seem to live out their frustrated fantasies through their kids. They are so emotionally invested in their kid’s success and its reflection on them that they lose all sense of ethical behavior.

The most disturbing part of this affair has been the comments posted online by people who seem to have an irresistable urge to get their opinions in front of the rest of us. Ninety percent, give or take a point or two, were expressing sympathy for the players and disdain for the adults who were the real wrong-doers. The rest sent a frisson of revulsion down my spine. Some commented that the kids “were in on it too.” My initial response was a fervent wish to have a baseball bat in my hand that I could use to pound some sense and decency into these yahoos heads and hearts. I don’t know about you but when I was twelve if I was told by a parent, coach or teacher that my suspicions were “nothing to worry about, its all taken care of,” my response would be “OK. When is the next game?” Some posts were blatantly racist, bigoted and ignorant, e.g. “what can you expect from those people,” and, “its how Chicago works.” I have neither time nor space to explore the history of dirty politics in American cities. The sad truth is that Chicago is not unique. Unfortunately, neither is bigotry.

So this April when I watch my first ball game of the season, I’ll be happy and smiling, watching the game with a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other. Somewhere deep inside of me though there will be a furtive tear for a group of 11 and 12 year olds who through no fault of theirs have a glorious victory tainted, a visit with the president tainted, the adulation of their hometown tainted. It is very sad, so very sad.