Champion Little Leaguers visit with players, check out clubhouse and take the field
CHICAGO -- The Cubs celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in April with the rest of Major League Baseball, but Monday was Jackie Robinson West Day as the team saluted the Chicago-based U.S. champion Little League team.
Cubs players and coaches wore adult-sized versions of the Jackie Robinson West yellow camouflage-style jerseys during batting practice, all emblazoned with "West" on the front and the No. 42, which was Robinson's number.
"This jersey feels really good, to be honest," Cubs pitcher Wesley Wright said. "When I saw it, it made me feel like we are tied in with them, even though we're not blood related or family. We feel like we're a part of what they went through. We watched a lot of their games. I know most of the kids are White Sox fans, but they have a lot of support in the city from all over."
The Cubs may have won some of the players over by letting them into the clubhouse. Catcher John Baker first showed the players a video of the Cubs watching one of their games, then escorted the squad in. Players gave them bats, sunflower seeds, batting gloves, and more.
"They were picking up bats and players were giving them batting gloves and bats and I think a few of them got shoes and gloves," JRW coach Darold Butler said. "It's like an early Christmas. They're having a ball."
"They were surprised we were paying attention [to their games]," Baker said. "It was perfect."
Wright and fellow Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson were some of the Major Leaguers who made donations so the Little League players' families could travel to Williamsport, Pa., to watch the Little League World Series. The Jackie Robinson West team beat Nevada for the U.S. title, but lost to South Korea in the world championship game.
On Monday, they were champions at Wrigley Field.
"Whether you play baseball or not, these kids can be role models for their peers," Wright said. "They've shown incredible maturity for their age group. I've been really impressed with that."
Prior to the start of the game, the players and coaching staff paraded around the field on the warning track and gave high fives to fans and players who were warming up. All of the kids were wearing Cubs jerseys with their names on the back. They stood with the Cubs players during the national anthem, and led the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch.
"If the enthusiasm that those young men of Jackie Robinson West can be equaled by the young men in our clubhouse, we've got a good shot [at winning a World Series]," Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. "But I think we have a good shot because the talent pool is significantly better for us."
The Chicago Little League team has been an inspiration.
"I think these kids have earned this day and I'm glad we can be part of helping them celebrate what they worked so hard to accomplish," Wright said. "I hope they take it in what this really all means. A lot of kids like myself never got to be in a big league clubhouse and be on a big league field and be around big league players. I hope they soak this in and use it as motivation to keep going. One day, they might be on the other end of this."
The Cubs are doing their part to help the Little League program. The JRW jerseys and caps that the Cubs players and coaches wore during batting practice, along with two jerseys signed by the entire Little League team, will be up for auction through Cubs Charities at www.cubs.com/auction. Bids for jerseys will start at $100 and hats will start at $45. All proceeds will benefit Jackie Robinson West Little League.
Wright said many of the kids, who are from the South Side of Chicago, have seen plenty of negative headlines regarding African-American youth.
"For them, and other young people, to see that doing positive things and working hard and staying disciplined can be rewarded as well, and you can be known for doing good things as well, is important," Wright said. "I think these kids will realize in a couple years what an inspiration they were to a lot of people. It's our job to bring the spotlight to that type of thing."
Interest in the Jackie Robinson West program has increased since the Little League World Series ended. But Wright said African-American kids also are interested in basketball and football, and baseball needs to be more proactive.
"I think it'll take more than one team," Wright said about improving the number of African-American players. "It has to be a situation where, throughout the U.S., people start playing the game at a young age and stick with the game. I think a lot of kids play, and then get pulled away for different reasons. If you can keep kids playing from middle school to high school, it gives the game a chance to grow all over. The game is regionalized now, and most superstars come from a certain part of the country. This team is definitely a start."
Wright said the first time he was on a Major League field was after he was drafted in 2003. He went with some other Minor League players to Miami to see the Dodgers play the Marlins.
"[The JRW kids] are way ahead of us," Wright said. "Hopefully, they'll be better players than we are."
Butler said he doesn't think it's kicked in as to what impact the kids had.
"The things they accomplished, I don't think they'll truly understand [what they did]," Butler said.
However, it's back to reality on Tuesday. That's when school starts.
"I heard them talking, and they weren't talking too favorably about going back to school," Butler said of his players. "It is what it is. They're great students and they'll get back to it."
Just as they did in the Little League World Series.