Jackie Robinson West: Lessons must be learned

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Jackie Robinson West
Jackie Robinson West players celebrate after winning the LLWS. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

Last summer, I wrote a piece singing the praises of the Jackie Robinson West Little League. In light of the news that the team violated Little League rules by creating an all-star team, they have been stripped of their title, and rightly so.

Nobody — certainly not I — will criticize the young players on the team. Baseball needs them, and thousands more just like them, in order to prosper in the years and decades to come. There’s a reason why impoverished kids from the Dominican and other places around the world take up playing baseball, and it’s not because of the history of the game as embodied by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and yes, even Jackie Robinson. They do it for the money.

Money is the lifeblood of baseball at the major league level, and in countless minor leagues and independent leagues, too. The riches and fame that are showered upon the game’s stars are why many kids from places with dirt roads and no indoor plumbing learn how to swing a bat and run the bases. What other options are available to them?

But here in this country, baseball struggles to get by. The sandlots are filled with kids playing football, or soccer, more than the game you and I love. Kids can play baseball on Xbox in the comfort of their own homes, so why go out and get sweaty and dirty trying to hit a curveball? And is there anything more boring than playing catch?

The Jackie Robinson West team — and Little League baseball in general — is fighting the good fight to get kids interested in actually playing the game. We can get the best athletes from all over the world to come to these shores and play our game, but we need to have our kids playing the game, too, so they’ll take an interest in following the game after their playing years (which I would say is from the ages of seven until about 13-14, for most kids) are over.

The kids on the Jackie Robinson West team — and all of the other Little League teams in this country — represent the future of this game. I haven’t met any of the players on the team, but I promise you they all have friends who want nothing to do with baseball. And that hurts the future of the game, maybe not on the field and maybe not right away. But in 10 to 12 years, they won’t just decide to tune into the game. They’ll be lost to other sports, or other interests, and baseball won’t get through to them, no matter what goes on in the game itself.

The grownups who broke the rules and wrongly expanded the team’s boundaries to include the very best players have let the kids of Jackie Robinson West down. But the kids’ experiences with baseball — both on the field and off — will remain with them for the rest of their lives, even if the title they won has now been vacated.

Baseball is a great game, and the best one of all to follow, in my opinion. But the game needs an infusion of interest with every new generation. Having star players on the field in big league games helps drive that interest, no doubt about it. But nothing cultivates a lifelong interest in the game more than putting on a glove and taking the field.

To the players of Jackie Robinson West, and every other place where the game of baseball is played, I say this: Keep on going. If you already love the game, play it for as long as you can, and not because you want riches or fame. Play it for love. And if you don’t love the game now, stay with it until you do. It will all kick in some day, and then you’ll understand things like when to use a hit-and-run or why a double play is such a beautiful thing to watch.

When you’re done playing the game, there will still be plenty of time to follow the millionaire athletes who do from afar. But by learning the game now — and learning to respect its rules — you’ll help to ensure the game’s survival. And that’s what baseball really needs the most.

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