Stripping Jackie Robinson West of title was right thing to do

Stripping Jackie Robinson West of title was right thing to do

Update, 2/12/15: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to persuade Little League President Stephen Keener to reverse his decision. Part of Emanuel's argument: "Every home run was real. Every great catch was real." Emanuel also added that only the adults should be punished if only the adults committed violations.

But as I explained in my original post below, this is a deeply flawed argument. Yes, every home run was real. Yes, every great catch was real. And that's precisely the reason why the decision was right: some of those home runs and great catches were made by illegal players. The violation by the adults is the reason the team hit more home runs and made more great catches throughout the entire tournament. You cannot separate the actions of the adults from the actions of the players in this case.


"It's not the kids' fault."

That's the prevailing sentiment in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday morning's Little League announcement that Jackie Robinson West's 2014 national championship would be stripped due to boundary violations regarding some of its players.

Rev. Jessie Jackson, Sr. said, "The children did nothing wrong."

President Barack Obama said, "Some dirty dealing by some adults doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men."

[Sidebar: anyone notice Obama skipping discussion about what to do about the "dirty dealing by some adults"?]

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis said, "I do not respect the decision of Little League International because the officials have not respected the ethical and emotional well-being of the children involved in this matter. The young men of Jackie Robinson West brought their talent, skills, smarts and hearts to the playing field and captivated a nation by securing a national championship for themselves and our city."

[Sidebar: what exactly is the "ethical well-being of children"?]

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel said, "These remarkable boys brought our entire city together."

Mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia said he was "sad to see the young athletes of Jackie Robinson West punished so harshly. The kids played their hearts out and did nothing wrong. I support the Jackie Robinson West players and their families at this difficult time."

[Sidebar: did somebody die?]

Should the players be punished for what the adults did? Actually, the answer is definitely yes—once you get past the emotional aspect of this news and stop giving a knee-jerk reaction. Let me explain why.

Why the title was properly stripped

I'm from Chicago and I am apparently in the very small minority who think Little League did the right thing to strip JRW of its title if the team did in fact cheat regarding boundaries.

You see, Little League is different from travel baseball in that Little League rules specifically state that players on a team must reside within the defined boundaries for that team. I personally think the rule is dumb, but no one asked me. I think the rationale for the rule is to prevent recruiting ringers away from other nearby Little League teams. In any event, the bottom line is that the rules are rules. In fact, this is the number one rule of Little League. Nothing else matters in Little League if you don't meet that residency rule!

So here we have a team that falsified a boundary map (read: intentionally cheated) in order to get certain players. We do not know who or how many, but you can safely assume that these certain players are pretty darn good. After all, you're not going to cheat so you can add some average or below-average players to your team.

Now, if you add some ringers to your team, that fundamentally upgrades your team's ability. Even one player can make a big difference. That's why—even in baseball—you often hear stats of how a team has such-and-such losing record without so-and-so player compared to such-and-such winning record with that same player. And if you add multiple impact players, well, you can imagine the exponential improvement to your team.

This is really common sense when you think about it: the team with more talent generally is more successful than the team with less talent (unless the head coach is an idiot). So why has everyone lost common sense as it relates to JRW losing its title?

Yes, Karen Lewis...of course JRW "captivated the nation"—because it had a lot of superior talent. Would it have captivated the nation if it had less talent? Probably not because it probably would have lost earlier in the Little League tournament.

Please tell me: did you hear of Jackie Robinson West prior to this past summer? Probably not, unless you lived in that area. The team, remember, has been playing since at least 1983 (the last time JRW played in the Little League World Series). They played in 2013 too—did they captivate the nation then? No? How about 2012? No? How about 2011? No? How about...well, you get the picture.

The reason the 2014 Jackie Robinson West team "achieved their accomplishments" is precisely because of the boundary cheating. In other words, despite what Obama said ("doesn't take anything away from the accomplishments"), it has a direct effect on their accomplishments. And it therefore makes complete sense to strip their title because none of us knows how the team would have fared without the illegal players. Or more to the point, their accomplishments were achieved illegally.

The easiest way to demonstrate this point is by way of an analogy: what if Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Madison Bumgarner joined your college baseball team? It would be illegal, of course, but assume that no one else notices. Is your team instantly better? Will these new additions impact your team's performance on the field and add more wins? Does your chance of winning the College World Series shoot up? And if your team does win the College World Series, were your team's "accomplishments" honest?

Penalty too harsh?

Recall Chuy Garcia said the team was "punished so harshly."

Jessie Jackson similarly argued that it's not like JRW cheated with age requirements, which he said involves "deceit and treachery," especially if you have to manipulate birth certificates. But Jackson shoots himself in the foot because in age requirement cheating, the children also did nothing wrong. After all, it is adults who doctor birth certificates, not the children, right? But in Jackson's mind, cheating with doctored birth certificates is "deceitful" while cheating with doctored boundary maps is fine and the penalty is "very harsh."

Frank Jackson, the father of one of the JRW players, was interviewed on WGN News at noon and he said he was "very upset." Understandable. But then he admitted, "I wasn't familiar with all the kids." When specifically asked if it was his understanding that the kids were classmates and from the neighborhood, Jackson answered, "I'm not for sure about that right there. I don't really know about that part right there."

So if there is doubt whether the team really was cheating, why would he be "very upset"?

Well, when asked if he was angry with the coach/manager if they were in on making this (boundary-rigging) happen, Jackson replied, "I'm not really angry with him. I'm not really angry with him. I'm just kind of upset how it went. I'm not really upset with the coach or nothing like that."

Wait, what?

Jesse Jackson said something ridiculously similar when asked if he thought only the coaches were responsible or whether the parents were also in on it. He said, "They played by the rules."


Apparently, when it comes to holding on to championships, common sense goes out the door.

Looking for racism

More than one person has injected the issue of racism in this brouhaha.

Rev. Michael Phleger of St. Sabina church, a person with the right heart but the wrong mind, put his foot in his mouth thusly:

Why is it that every time African-American children rise ahead, somebody has to question it.

"Every time"? Seriously?

Venisa Green, mother of one of the JRW players, said that "50 years ago, we couldn’t even play on the baseball field. And 50 years later, our boys not only played, they won, in front of the United States of America.  This angers me, as we work hard, my husband and I, to keep Brandon out of the prison pipeline."

So if parents do NOT keep their kids out of the prison pipeline, then it'd be ok to strip the title?

Mrs. Green would have a point—if it were not for the aforementioned fact that the boundaries violations lie at the heart of whether JRW can actually win "in front of the United States of America" without those ringers.

Did anyone squawk about how harsh the penalty was when all seven of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France titles were stripped after he was found to have cheated? Remember, he too had captivated the nation. Yet people almost universally said he deserved the punishment. And, note to Rev. Phleger: Armstrong is white.

Please, let's not go looking for a race issue without proof that it existed as the motivation behind the decision.

The bottom line

Yes, Rahm, the JRW team "brought the entire city together." But that's completely irrelevant to whether the title should have been stripped. So if the team did NOT bring the entire city together, then it would have been ok to strip their title?

In this case, you cannot separate the kids from the adults. What the adults did directly affected the product on the field and what the kids could accomplish in the tournament.

Why do Chicagoans have a double standard now? Just because Chicago loves itself some serious homerism?

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