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Chicago holds parade for Jackie Robinson West

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CHICAGO -- Jackie Robinson West's run in the Little League World Series culminated Wednesday with a nearly four-hour parade that weaved through roughly 100 blocks of Chicago.

Fans flocked to the team's home field in the Morgan Park neighborhood before the South Side's storied squad embarked on trolleys to U.S. Cellular Field and then Millennium Park downtown.

Family, friends and fans -- including politicians and representatives from Major League Baseball -- gathered for what some said rivaled professional sports championship parades.

"This is the way Chicago celebrates a championship," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

White Sox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson moderated the event, which featured speeches from Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, and Kenny Williams, the White Sox executive vice president.

Foes became friends through Jackie Robinson West's "common bond," as Harrelson referenced -- a testament to the unity that these 13 pre-teens embodied during their 25-day run to a U.S. championship.

"I never thought I'd get introduced by Hawk," Epstein told the crowd with a chuckle.

JRW isn't the first Illinois squad to surge through the Little League World Series, in fact it's the fourth in state history to reach the title game. Yet its story enthralled American audiences at new heights, yielding a 71 percent increase in television ratings during the U.S. championship.

Team leader Marquis Jackson rooted the unprecedented draw in the most frank manner.

"I think because we're African-American boys from the South Side," Jackson said. "There's so many people from the South Side, [and] it's just not about bad things. Something good can come from the South Side of Chicago. Period."

Morgan Park is a blue-collar neighborhood brimming with fresh-cut grass, brick houses, renowned rib restaurants and a state-of-the-art baseball facility.

Yet the grander South Side has made national news this summer for all the wrong reasons -- violence and murder have dominated headlines.

As of Tuesday, Chicago had endured 261 homicides, according to the Cook County Medical Examiners Office -- a majority of those on the South and West Sides.

It was the elephant in the room Wednesday, yet Williams tackled it head-on.

"People who are gathering and rallying," he told the crowd of 10,000, "are sending a message to put down the guns.

"Pick up a ball, a glove, a book, a paint stick, a science project. Put down the guns. We have cease fires going on over the Middle East. Nobody has said, 'Let's call for a cease fire in our communities.'"

Jackie Robinson West's rise has made the players role models in the White Sox and Cubs clubhouses. The latter featured the game during a three-hour rain delay on Saturday.

JRW's run to become the first all-African-American team to win a Little League World Series Championship was cut short by an 8-4 loss on Sunday to South Korea. Yet it grinned in defeat and crafted extravagant and congratulatory handshakes with their opposition.

"This team exemplifies what can happen when a strong community provides its children with support and opportunities to become positively engaged and achieve their dreams," Emanuel said.

All 13 hoisted their hands when asked if they wanted to someday play in the big leagues. Six of them -- Jackson, Ed Howard, Cameron Bufford, Brandon Green, Joshua Houston and Trey Hondras -- already are receiving first-hand guidance through the White Sox Amateur City Elite program.

ACE, in its eighth year, gathers 100-plus inner-city youth into a program to develop skills that might not be afforded the travel-team culture prevalent in youth baseball. It focuses as much on academics as athletics.

"This is my first year playing with them," Hondras said. "I had heard a lot of good things about it."

The team's pit stop at U.S. Cellular Field was welcomed by White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and select coaches and players. The White Sox then let the team bring the 2005 World Series trophy to the ceremony at Millennium Park.

"Hopefully, at least in the Chicago area and Illinois, maybe this pushes kids into our game instead of something else," said team captain Paul Konerko.

The White Sox will welcome JRW for a game this Saturday against the Tigers, and the Cubs will do the same during their next homestand, a six-game set starting on Monday.

JRW was founded in 1971 by Joe and Anna Haley, whose son, Bill Haley, is the current director. Bill said his parents' idea was not to win championships, but to make a significant impact on the lives of children through dedicated volunteers and parents.

"What these young boys have done the last six weeks shows that the core values that the league started with way back in 1971 still hold true," Haley said.

Epstein echoed: "People ask me all the time: 'How do we get kids playing baseball again? There aren't enough kids playing baseball. How do we get kids in the city playing baseball?' Well we just need to go to school on everything that Jackie Robinson West stands for and start duplicating that all around our city -- and every big city in the country."

Daniel Kramer is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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