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MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Chicago kids bring smiles, joy despite loss

Chicago kids bring smiles, joy despite loss

CHICAGO -- No tears.

Not a single one.

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At least not of the variety that washed down the face of Josh Houston on Sunday, after he allowed a home run that might have sunk his team. And certainly not of those from the real-life losses that have been an epidemic in too many Chicago neighborhoods from gang-related crimes.

When South Korea's Jun Hyeok Yun fielded a grounder from Jackie Robinson West's Ed Howard and flipped the ball to second for the final out, a wild, improbable and triumphant three-week ride for Chicago's Little League champions had ended.

The United States champions lost to a team from Seoul by an 8-4 score on Sunday in Williamsport, Pa., in the Little League World Series Championship game. But if you thought these kids were defeated, you didn't see Marquis Jackson bounce out of the dugout with a smile on his face to congratulate the champs. Teammates like Brandon Green, Jaheim Benton and the irrepressible D.J. Butler -- the 4-foot-9, 77-pound center fielder known as "the voice of reason" -- weren't far behind.

Scoreboards always show winners and losers. But it's up to the people who play the games to determine whether the outcomes define them, and these kids were too smart to dwell on one game that got away.

That's life, or at least we say that all the time. But it's really just sports, and you learn that early in too many inner-city neighborhoods.

As proud as Chicagoans were of these 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds in victory -- after all, they had rallied from four runs down late in the regional final in Indianapolis and then won four elimination games before huge crowds at Lamade Stadium to claim the U.S. title -- it was just as satisfying to see how they carried themselves when the magic finally shifted to the other dugout.

While the kids from Seoul planted flags on the mound and posed before the championship banner, the ones representing the soul of Chicago hugged and congratulated each other in front of the first-base dugout. They would have been the first team comprised exclusively of African-Americans to win a Little League championship, and surely there's a movie treatment already in the works about their journey.

The kids and their coaches are headed home to a parade on Wednesday, and you shouldn't be surprised to see the city take a break from the daily busyness of business to celebrate along with these relentlessly positive ballplayers and their families.

Baseball parades are hardly everyday events in Chicago. The one for the 2005 White Sox marked the first championship for one of Chicago's Major League teams since 1917. The thirst for success never goes away, and the kids from Jackie Robinson West were showered with civic support as it played deeper and deeper into the Little League World Series.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn both attended a watch party on Saturday at the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center on 119th Street, between the neighborhoods of Morgan Park and West Pullman, which was built by the Salvation Army through a $1 million donation from the White Sox. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler donated $15,000 to the JRW Little League and sent along signed jerseys. Colorado Rockies closer LaTroy Hawkins and players from the Cubs and White Sox made donations so some parents and family members could make the trip to central Pennsylvania to cheer their little men along.

Television ratings from the weekend won't become available until Monday, but it's possible that the American final on Saturday and Sunday's championship game may have been the most watched baseball games in Chicago this season. The Jackie Robinson West opener against a team from Lynwood, Wash., on Aug. 15 drew a 2.4 rating.

There's a universal appeal to watching Little League Baseball, which was nicely summed up by Michael Byung-Ju Kim, the father of one of the South Korean players. He called it "the innocence of youth combined with the thrill of sport,'' and that's about right.

For all of us, real life comes along quickly after Little League. It will for these kids, too. But you can't help but wonder where they're going from here.

While Chicago has long been considered a breeding ground for basketball stars, with Michael Jordan providing the inspiration and playgrounds offering the opportunity, this has been a decade of major progress on the baseball front.

All you have to do to see it is look at Curtis Granderson Field on the Illinois-Chicago campus, the sparkling new stadium that is surrounded by youth fields -- all the result of the Mets' star giving back to his alma mater -- or, a little more subtly, the Amateur City Elite program that was dreamed up by White Sox area scout Nathan Durst and funded by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

It creates an opportunity for 100-plus kids from neighborhoods like those that that feed the Jackie Robinson West Little League team to get year-round coaching and the chance to play travel baseball and experience the showcase circuit. It sends a dozen or more of its alums off to play college baseball every year, and two of those guys went all the way to the College World Series this summer. Diminutive outfielder Ro Coleman played as a freshman on Vanderbilt's championship team, while Corey Ray helped Louisville advance to Omaha.

For dreamers like Durst and Kenny Fullman, the Chicago police officer who coaches baseball at Harlan Community Academy High School and like many others has worked tirelessly in the ACE program, it has to be a validation to watch Chicago kids -- their kids -- go toe to toe against the best teams in the world.

About half of the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars have participated in ACE, including slugger Trey Hondras; Howard, the slick-fielding shortstop whom Hall of Famer Barry Larkin nicknamed "Silk;'' Houston, who came through a big hit in Saturday's rally; and Jackson, the ebullient all-around player who always seemed to be in the middle of the action.

Fullman sees education as a big part of his program, saying there are "kids in this program [who] have never been out of their neighborhoods, unless we took them somewhere.''

They're going places now, that's for sure.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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