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USA TODAY reporter Aamer Madhani / Jack Gruber / USA TODAY

CHICAGO - For a city that has had few opportunities to enjoy meaningful late summer baseball in recent years, the boys of Jackie Robinson West have given us something to cheer about.

JRW, which is representing the Great Lakes region at this year's Little League World Series, beat a team from Lynnwood, Wash., 12-2 on Thursday in South Williamsport, Pa. But the result was beside the point.

Even before Thursday's game, the kids of Jackie Robinson West cemented their place as Windy City heroes.

The Little League World Series, for the uninitiated, is the dream stage for young ballplayers around the country and around the world. The games also help pump up ratings for ESPN during the dog days of August with the eyeballs of young Little Leaguers.

As a kid -- a light-hitting, decent fielding 70-pound second baseman -- I watched on television with awe when a kid about my age from Trumbull, Conn., named Chris Drury led his team over Taiwan. Drury went on to a long and storied hockey career in which he won a Stanley Cup and was twice an Olympic silver medalist.

But the boys of Chicago's Jackie Robinson are even more remarkable.

Unlike that Trumbull team - and practically every American team in the Little League World Series over the last four decades - Chicago's Jackie Robinson roster is entirely African-American. Many of the kids come from impoverished corners of the city plagued by gun violence.

That's no small thing for a sport that has had trouble attracting the interest of African-American kids. Major League Baseball has seen its share of black ballplayers decline precipitously. In the mid-1980s, African-Americans made up about 18% of MLB rosters; they now account for just over 8%.

This team captured the city's heart last week with a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over New Albany, Ind. The thrilling triumph punched its ticket to Williamsport, the first time the Windy City has been represented in the Little League World Series in 31 years.

After that win, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel started hatching plans with the Chicago White Sox for a watch party at Jackie Robinson's home field. "They have touched a chord, because this is a true story of the kids of the city of Chicago," Emanuel told me before Thursday's game. "Too often, the media, only focuses on the bad, and that's giving our kids a horrible sense of themselves. And it's not true."

Jackie Robinson West's story has resonated throughout the city. Ahead of Thursday's game, a downtown sporting goods story was doing brisk sales of Jackie Robinson West T-shirts. People with no connection to the team donated money to help defray the team's travel costs. And MLB players-including LaTroy Hawkins and brothers B.J and Justin Upton -- were so moved by the team's story that they pitched in thousands of dollars to help fly parents to Pennsylvania.

Roynal Coleman, who played on the last Chicago team that went to Williamsport in 1983, knows how significant that gesture is: His single-parent mother couldn't afford to make it to Williamsport. "It's hard to explain how important it's going to be those kids, how much confidence it's going to give them to see their parents there," Coleman said.

The team's coach, Darold Butler, is proud of his 13 players. But he told me the biggest heroes are the parents, many of whom have stretched themselves to get their kids to practices and games and give them the gift of baseball.

"Win or lose, these parents helped give these kids something that will stick with them for the rest of their lives," Butler said.

For the rest of us, Jackie Robinson West has given us something to smile about.

Thanks, boys.

Madhani is a Chicago-based reporter for USA TODAY.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Voices: Boys of summer bring excitement to Chicago

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