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Schooled By JRW

Sitting at a crowded restaurant in the middle of Evanston Sunday night were two well-dressed octogenarian ladies at the table next to us. Midway through the meal, one leaned over and asked, "Do you know how the Chicago Little Leaguers did today?"

"They got beat 8-4," I told her, "but they made a nice comeback in the last inning when they scored three runs."

"Too bad," she said, "but they still did okay."

They did even better than that, otherwise the lady wouldn't have been asking. Had we been dining at adjoining tables, say, last June during the Stanley Cup playoffs, no way would she have asked for a Blackhawks score. Nor would she have inquired about the Bulls even in their '90s heyday. And absolutely no one - not old ladies, old men, Generation Xers, or Millennials - is asking these days about the Sox and Cubs.

The breadth and scope of the grip that the 11- and 12-year-olds of Jackie Robinson West Little League held on the city had a different feel than any other bandwagon, finger-waving, we're-number-one experience of past Stanley Cup, World Series, NBA or Super Bowl championship seasons.

No windows were smashed Saturday night after the team beat a talented group from Las Vegas to win the USA title. No cars were torched. Police on horseback didn't have to wade into drunken 20-somethings. Guns weren't shot into the air. No arrests were reported.

Surely there were far more people in Grant Park in November 2008 to celebrate Barack Obama's meteoric rise to the presidency than there will be Wednesday for the Little Leaguers' parade. But there also were a few million disgruntled McCain voters at home that evening with their TVs turned off.

If you find anyone in your neighborhood who was rooting for Las Vegas or South Korea, then you have discovered the village idiot.

The 13 kids from the South Side became overnight heroes featured on the front pages of newspapers. Editors designed photo layouts usually reserved for the likes of Kane, Toews, Cutler, Noah and D-Rose. Local and national newscasts often led off with images of yet another JRW victory. ESPN and ABC televised every pitch.

We tend to have a fascination with kids, especially ones like these who are so foreign to many of us. If you live in a neighborhood where there aren't any black kids and your experience includes no contact with them, you're stuck with images of violence, guns and death.

Sure, there are stories about schools where minority students all graduate and go on to college. There is news coverage about kids of color who excel in music or science, and, for sure, in sports. But a name like 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot to death last year after attending Obama's inauguration, is the one many people recognize.

So along comes Pierce Jones and his three home runs in JRW's first game in Williamsport. The shortstop Ed Howard displayed a range and arm of someone targeted as a high draft choice. Brandon Green not only has fine skills as a catcher, but he took the mound Sunday and held the hard-hitting South Koreans in check for most of the game.

While Dayan Viciedo was botching a fly ball in Yankee Stadium on Sunday, leading to four unearned runs in the White Sox sixth straight loss, D.J. Butler was flagging down a blast at the centerfield fence, reaching with his right hand to feel for the wall, and hauling in the drive with his glove.

Perhaps the youngsters impressed observers as much by their demeanor and behavior as they did with their athletic talents. Are we to believe that kids from Englewood, Woodlawn, Bronzeville or South Shore, who went to now-shuttered schools or whose present schools rank near the bottom for standardized test scores, don't have poise, humility, or a sense of how to act?

A significant aspect of the appeal of these kids and the interest they generated was a result of how they conducted themselves. They weren't cocky, rude or poor sports. On the other hand, they didn't come across as programmed young people constantly reminded by adults of proper manners and decorum. Despite their notoriety, there was no boasting, chest-pounding or conceit. They came off as kids having fun, enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience who respected the moment and the hard work and effort it took them to gain their place in the spotlight.

"I don't like losing," said first baseman Trey Hondras, reflecting on a earlier 13-2 loss to Las Vegas. "It's like a girl dumping you and going to your best friend. So, I mean, it really hurt. We had to keep going forward."

Not bad for a kid on national TV who had just slammed a home run to get JRW rolling against Las Vegas in the rematch. He was spontaneous, candid, and, well, cute. Trey and his mates gave us a chance to see who these kids really are. And they're not much different than decent kids anywhere, although their talent as baseball players is pretty damn special.

It might behoove the White Sox, who were swept three games at The Cell by Baltimore before dropping three over the weekend in New York, to notice how these Little Leaguers hit the cutoff man, lay down bunts, and run the bases. They did make mistakes, but it was evident that the kids were well-coached in the nuances of the game.

The Little Leaguers knew that when you're on second base you don't run on a ball hit in front of you, a mistake Sox baserunners have made too many times the past two seasons. For a team that has problems moving runners and scoring runs, it would be nice to see Robin Ventura's athletes bunt once in a while. This is a skill that JRW coach Darold Butler obviously teaches.

The kids run out every ball full speed. Okay, they don't play 162 games a season, but they're not making millions of bucks either. Adam Eaton hustles on every ground ball, but he has been cautioned to pace himself. Maybe that's the right approach in light of Eaton's two stints on the disabled list. However, as a fan, you like to see maximum effort. Besides, I doubt if anyone ever told Pete Rose to tone it down.

The Chicago kids capitalized on their speed, taking the extra base and turning singles into doubles. Sunday's game against South Korea was somewhat ironic because the Korean kids stung the local guys with their speed on a number of occasions. For instance, with runners on first and second, Chicago catcher Joshua Houston fired a pickoff throw to first, and the runner at second immediately took off and easily stole third.

The White Sox are transitioning into a team with more speed than the previous few seasons. Alexei Ramirez is running more, and Eaton can fly. Gordon Beckham has departed for Anaheim, and his replacement - whether it's Carlos Sanchez, Micah Johnson or Marcus Semien - will provide more speed than Gordon possessed. If Moises Sierra and/or Leury Garcia are around next season, they will be an uptick in team speed. Paul Konerko is retiring, and Adam Dunn won't be re-signed. Each would have a hard time beating little D.J. Butler in a foot race.

Of course, this all is conjecture about the future of the White Sox on the South Side. For now, the South Siders are not the team struggling to avoid last place in the Central Division. It's the group who reminded us how much fun we all can share from seeing a bunch of young kids play a game with enthusiasm, skill and dedication while competing with class and a love of the game.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jun 9, 2021