Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (9) hugs a member of the Jackie Robinson West Little League 2014 Champions prior to the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. / Matt Marton, USA TODAY Sports
CHICAGO - For the 13 boys of Jackie Robinson West here on the city's South Side, the magical ride that led the all-African American team to the cusp of winning the Little League World Series is over.
But the sense of inspiration and good feeling that they brought this city doesn't appear to be dissipating, even as Chicago's Boys of Summer head back to school and autumn nears.
The team lost the Little League championship game to South Korea 8-4. But their legacy to Chicago and the rest of the United States lives on.
Earlier this week, DICK's Sporting Goods presented the team with a $164,000 check, the whopping sum that the retailer netted as part of a T-shirt fundraiser that will benefit their league. In past years, the T-shirt fundraising program-in which the company partners with U.S. teams that advance to the World Series at South Williamsport, Pa.-has led to 150 to 300 T-shirts being sold in that team's local market.
Jackie Robinson West sold 11,500.
"The response to Jackie Robinson West was really tremendous, staggering," said Dave Natale, director of sports and event marketing for DICK'S.
Indeed, the boys of Jackie Robinson, who are all 11 to 13, have been embraced like big league champs since returning home.
The city hosted a parade for their homecoming last week that started at their home ballpark on the South Side and culminated with a rally at the downtown Millennium Park that drew 10,000 people. Mayor Rahm Emanuel even put on a fireworks show in their honor. On Thursday, the mayor announced Jackie Robinson's field is one of three in the city that would receive $6.5 million in upgrades.
Both of the Chicago's Major League ball clubs feted the youth team, whose namesake was the Hall of Fame great that broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.
At U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox and near the South Side neighborhoods where most of the team comes from, the players got to run the bases last weekend. The White Sox also invited the boys to stand with the players for the singing of the National Anthem before they took on the Detroit Tigers.
On the North Side, the Chicago Cubs players wore specially made Jackie Robinson warm up jerseys before a game earlier this week and welcomed the kids into their clubhouse. Jackie Robinson also took the field during the 7th inning of the Cubs contest against the Milwaukee Brewers to sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
In a sport that has seen African-American participation decline precipitously - black players made up about 18% of MLB rosters in the mid-1980s and now account for just over 8%. Jackie Robinson's run has resonated particularly with big league ballplayers. Several MLB players donated thousands of dollars to help cover travel costs so the parents of the players could watch their sons compete in South Williamsport.
Theo Epstein, the Cubs president, recalled how his entire team gathered around televisions in the clubhouse during a rain delay of their own game as Jackie Robinson defeated Nevada to win the U.S. championship and earn a spot in the world championship game against South Korea.
"When [Jackie Robinson] turned that double play to end it, they were celebrating like they had just won the World Series," Epstein said of his team. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908.
Twelve of the team's 13 players come from the city's South Side, and many on the team come from neighborhoods that have high levels of poverty and see a disproportionate amount of the city's gun violence.
Days after the team returned to Chicago, dozens of residents and business owners offered to help the family of one of the players, Jaheim Benton, after local new outlets reported that his family had lost their apartment after his mother's hours as a home health aide were cut.
The operators of one South Side business, Leak & Sons Funeral Home, pledged to cover rent for the Benton family for a year as they try to get back on their feet. Spencer Leak Jr. downplayed his family's generosity and community support. "Communities are supposed to help each other out," he said.
Because of his funeral home's location, Leak has seen an inordinate amount of funerals for victims of gun violence and knows the scourge it has been on his community. But for South Siders like him, he said Jackie Robinson's run offered a respite from the litany of bad news that have worn out neighborhoods like his.
"I haven't felt this good about anything in a long time," Leak said. "It's just been an honor and blessing to see these boys represent the South Side."
Charles Aldridge, 22, a South Side resident who played for Jackie Robinson a decade ago, said that this year's team have become nothing short of role models for Chicago.
Aldridge, who graduated in May from Alcorn State University with an accounting degree and is now an intern with the White Sox, said his hope is that the Jackie Robinson kids take away a sense of possibility from their experience.
But he knows first-hand that staying positive when you come from neighborhoods like the one he grew up in can sometimes be difficult. Earlier this summer, he found himself caught in gunfire near his home, which is not far from where Jackie Robinson plays.
"It's not easy growing up where they're from," Aldridge said. "My hope is they take away that anything is possible. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. As long as you have that dedication to hard work and remain humble, it'll get you to places you never even thought of."
Read the original story: Little Leaguers still knocking it out of the park