Vickroy: JRW success shows that character counts
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy August 26, 2014 6:30PM
Jackie Robinson West Little League manager Darold Butler (right), a Southland resident, said the national championship team's players "are who they are" because of the families they come from. | AP photo
Updated: August 27, 2014 2:11AM
Between his power naps Tuesday, I caught up with Darold Butler, head coach of the U.S. Little League champs.
He was still in shock from the welcome home hoopla that Jackie Robinson West received Monday at Midway Airport.
“I had no idea all these people were watching,” said Butler, of Chicago’s Morgan Park community, where the team is based.
Sure, his kids restored our interest in baseball at a time when both the Sox and the Cubs are failing to generate much excitement. But the Jackie Robinson West story is so much more than a sports story.
It is a tribute to hard work, perseverance, good parenting, good coaching and the importance of finding joy in whatever it is that drives you.
Not only has the team captivated the world with its incredible talent, shining a big bright spotlight on Chicago’s South Side, these 11- to 13-year-olds have impressed us with their spirit, their determination and their ability to be both gracious winners and losers.
They’ve shown us that integrity and resilience are just as important as winning. And that integrity and resilience just might be the secret to winning.
From the beginning, Butler said, the program always has been about teaching players life skills as much as how to throw, how to hit and how to turn a double play.
“Between me and the other coaches (first-base coach Jason Little and assistant coach Jerry Houston), we’ve always emphasized to the kids that no matter what happens, you’ve still got to be good sports,” Butler said. “At the end of the day, you’ve still got to be good people.”
He said it helped that they started with great kids.
“It was not hard to do,” he said. “These kids have great families, great support. Their parents trusted us.”
So the hustle onto the field, the can-do attitude even when they were down by seven in the sixth inning of the final game, the postgame embracing of the players who just handed them defeat — all of that, Butler said, is a tribute to the parents.
“These kids are who they are because of the families they come from,” he said.
“Without good parents, this wouldn’t be possible because no matter what you do or say as a coach, at the end of the day, the kids are still their kids,” he said. “Fortunately for us, the parents back us up.”
When you start with good families, “You don’t get a lot of grief or drama,” he said.
Butler’s stepfather, Abe Wilson, also credits the coaching. He said he has been following the team throughout the season.
“These kids haven’t changed a bit,” he said. “They’re good kids who work hard and work together.”
Wilson said kids look to adults to learn how to react to different situations.
“These guys modeled great spirit, they never got mad. They stay calm and positive all the time,” he said.
Being on a team is counter to just about everything popular these days. We are a society built on me-isms, from egocentric technology — e.g. iPhones and iPads — to personalized everything — children’s books, license plates, even Coke cans.
Despite the message that everything is all about you, teamwork still is a vital part of getting things done. And no matter how awesome an individual may be, there’s something organically rewarding about melding talents and moving cohesively toward a goal. And if you get there, sharing the spotlight with those who weathered the journey is the ultimate high.
Despite the glory, Butler tries to keep perspective.
“Sports is a small part of these kids’ lives,” Butler said. “The life lessons they get from being on a team are important because that’s how it’s going to be in the real world. When they get jobs, when they have their own families, just in life, they have to know how to work with others.”
Working as a team teaches them that, he said.
It is from sharing, forgiving, striving and helping one another that we gain humility, empathy, confidence and maturity. We learn that we are important, essential even, but not greater than the whole. And we understand that the whole is better because of our ability to recognize and accept this.
Butler is a lesson in resilience himself. His team just missed making it to the Little League World Series last year. He was disappointed but, more important, he said he knew exactly what he had to do the following season.
“Losing last year taught me the blueprint for what it takes to get there this year,” he said.
And now, falling one game short of winning the world title, he said, “I know what we have to do next year.”
That determination spills over onto the team. The team was down through most of the final game against South Korea on Sunday. But the players didn’t let that get into their heads, he said.
Even when the kids were down 8-1 in the bottom of the sixth, he said, they never gave up.
“They never felt defeated. They’re super-competitive,” Butler said. “They came back into the dugout and said, ‘OK, we need eight runs, Let’s go.’ ”
Butler said, “I was proud they showed fight. And I think everyone who was watching appreciated that.”
And there were a lot of people watching. Weekend television ratings were through the roof.
“I’m just glad we were able to make the city proud,” he said.
“We had no idea there was so much interest,” he said. “When we got off the plane at Midway, the whole airport cheered. It was unreal. The kids were so excited. It was great to see.”
A side effect of all this glory, he said, is that attitude is infectious.
“It’s motivating the younger guys, the 10- and 11-year-olds,” he said. “They want that same experience. So I know they’re going to work really hard.”