Hail to the champs
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO, JON SEIDEL AND BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporters August 27, 2014 10:55PM
Cynthia Whitemon (on right) of Hyde Park was first in the line for the seats at the Pritzker Pavilion for the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team rally in Millennium Park on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 28, 2014 2:26AM
The boys from the South Side didn’t quite realize how hard Chicago had fallen for them.
The T-shirts and banners. The cheers and jubilation. The phones held aloft by Chicagoans trying to snap a picture of their city’s newest celebrities aboard a bright red trolley.
The endless, ecstatic fans who painted the town yellow from 105th Street all the way to Millennium Park — they all caught the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team off guard, the team admitted Wednesday.
In fact, the 10,000 adoring fans who greeted them at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion nearly rendered Coach Darold Butler speechless.
But pitcher Marquis Jackson later found the words when asked why he and his teammates had become such a phenomenon after winning the Little League World Series United States Championship.
“I think because we’re African-American boys from the South Side,” he said.
“The South Side is not just about bad things,” he said. “Something big can come from the South Side of Chicago. Period.”
Thousands of people clearly agreed, and they showed their love Wednesday for the Little League national champs whose unexpected success counterbalanced grim headlines highlighting the South Side’s reputation for crime and violence.
Some big names in baseball heaped praise on the team for their poise.
Kenny Williams, executive of the South Side’s other baseball team, thanked Jackie Robinson West for giving Chicago a ball club to cheer for. The White Sox exec called for the city to draw inspiration from their victories and sportsmanship.
Longtime White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson dubbed Jackie Robinson West “America’s team.”
And Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said his players spent a recent rain delay huddled around a clubhouse TV.
“We got a rain delay right during your [U.S.] championship game,” Epstein told the boys, “and our entire team was gathered around a TV set, hanging on every single pitch.”
Hundreds of others who did the same thing during Jackie Robinson West’s thrilling run filled the Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesday long before the players finished their victory parade. The fans killed time dancing in the stands and waving signs as a DJ bumped early ’90s hip-hop.
“They’re role models for children,” said George Daniels, a longtime Chicagoan who said he grew up in New York and saw the team’s namesake play at Ebbets Field. “To see the dignity that these young men show on the playing field — the sportsmanship, the coaching, the parents — that’s how you get it done.”
Gesturing to the crowd, Daniels said, “Look at these babies of all races and nationalities — everybody. This is Chicago.”
He added: “Think about it: They did it before the Cubs.”
Cynthia Slater, of the Bronzeville neighborhood, brought her grade school-age son Melvin to the rally in Millennium Park. She said the team’s accomplishments rank right up there with the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first, and only, black mayor.
That was in 1983 — the last year Jackie Robinson West went to the Little League World Series.
“When I was watching the game I didn’t really realize how big this was,” Slater said. “Just watching their mannerisms and how they handled themselves with their sportsmanship, they are going to write their own ticket if they stay on the right path.”
South of the Loop, fans lined up early to catch a glimpse of the team’s parade, which included a stop at U.S. Cellular Field to pick up the White Sox’s 2005 World Series trophy.
Ora Washington, 84, held a sign at 95th and Halsted made by her daughter, Naomi Yates. It spoke to the hope the team inspired in a community that has seen too much violence:
“Hey Mr. Gunman!!! Look what I can be!! If you put the guns down & don’t shoot me!! Let me live then you will see a national champion!! Lives in me!!”
Nearby, Laverna Dungey said she has been following the team for a year.
“I am so proud of them,” she said. “They deserve this.”
The party truly began Wednesday at Jackie Robinson Park, though. That’s where a sea of yellow T-shirts — and gushing politicians — greeted Chicago’s new heroes before they set off on their journey downtown.
Audrey Edwards-Chalupa said it was all “absolutely beautiful.”
“I love it when people get together and are happy about something,” she said. “All of us, not just one color or one race. I love it!”
But Edwards-Chalupa also proved that, even when it comes to Chicago’s championship baseball team, there’s always time to talk about next year.
Or even the year after that.
“I’ve got a grandson — he’s three,” Edwards-Chalupa said. “He has a great swing.
“I’m going to put him on the team.”