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Chicago rallies around Little League runner-ups

Jackie Robinson West falls to South Korea in championship game

Chicago rallies around Little League runner-ups

CHICAGO -- It was about three hours before the first pitch of Sunday's Little League World Series championship between South Korea and Jackie Robinson West, and White Sox director of youth baseball initiatives Kevin Coe sounded relaxed and content during a phone call from Williamsport, Pa.

Coe had no reason to be truly nervous, as he wasn't coaching either of these teams and he didn't have a son or a daughter in competition as South Korea pulled out an 8-4 victory. But in reality, Coe and the White Sox had six kids making history, six players who also take part in the White Sox innovative Amateur City Elite traveling baseball program.

ACE participants Marquis Jackson, Ed Howard, Cameron Bufford, Brandon Green, Joshua Houston and Trey Hondras made significant contributions on a team that quite possibly produced the city's greatest baseball impact at any level since the last time Chicago had a World Series winner, in 2005.

"I look at this as a White Sox team," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf as part of a recent interview on 120 Sports, referring to the six ACE players on Jackie Robinson West.

Reinsdorf of course acknowledged in that same interview the overall excitement for the Jackie Robinson name and because they hale from Chicago, along with the ACE connection. This group of composed young men coming from a Washington Heights area on the South Side belonged to the entire city.

People filled up a South Side watch party Sunday at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, where Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn once again were among those in attendance. In downtown Chicago, outside the venerable and elegant Chicago Theater -- where famous performers such as Bob Newhart and John Mellencamp have played previously to raucous crowds -- a watch party filled the streets, with fans hanging on every leaping catch in center or key hit from JRW. Parts of State St. were closed off to accommodate the crowd.

Stars had been born, even if the unassuming stars and their families didn't have a full comprehension of how big and important they had become.

"They are going to be shocked," said Coe, who arrived in Williamsport on Saturday. "Maybe years down the line, they will understand the magnitude. There are pictures online that will help them relive it, along with social media and technology.

"This one, they don't understand the fanfare and support of not just Chicago but political support and corporate support. What's funny about it, the parents that have been [in Williamsport] since Day 1, they don't have a clue how much the city is backing their kids and people who have never watched baseball are watching and hoping for them to win.

"I've told them it's similar to when the Bulls won, and they were like, 'No way,'" Coe said. "I said, 'Wait until you get back to see.' Winning cures everything."

Mayor Emanuel already announced that a parade will honor these champions Wednesday in Chicago, beginning on the South Side and ending in Millennium Park. Judging by the reaction on State Street Sunday, it simply will be a continued show of appreciation as part of this ongoing celebration.

This amazing run by JRW not only gives inner-city baseball a boost, but does the same for an entire city: South to North, East to West.

"Believe it or not, they are role models," said Kyle Kelly, a 45-year-old railroad worker from Englewood, who was joined by his wife and friends to watch JRW on Sunday. "Them little guys, everybody will know every last one of those teammates' names when they get home.

"Chicago needed something positive. These kids gave us something positive and it brought the city together. For other kids, they can look up to them and see what they accomplished, and they can set their goals to be high as well. I'm so proud of these kids. I can't wait for them to come home."

JRW departed Pennsylvania as champions even in defeat. Trailing South Korea by an 8-1 margin in their final at-bats, they scored three runs and put the tying run on deck before the final ground ball to second.

As Coe's early morning ease suggested, this game against South Korea was more icing on the cake than a necessity to prove excellence. Jackie Robinson West had won the U.S. title on Saturday, and in the process, the team had won over a whole city not to mention the baseball world.

There's also an extra sense of pride emanating from U.S. Cellular Field over their six special Little League heroes.

"Hopefully the exposure the kids have gotten encourages other kids from the inner city and really the city of Chicago to find a place to play baseball," Coe said. "Not just Jackie Robinson but all other leagues. Kids can find opportunities to occupy their time and parents can embrace such an activity."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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