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After Embarrassing Snub, It's Time for Payton and Brooks to Play Ball

By Mark Konkol | April 29, 2013 3:41pm | Updated on April 30, 2013 12:45pm

Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it. — Proverbs 22:6

A high school baseball game should never be canceled due to fear and prejudice.

But that’s what apparently happened Saturday when a handful of parents with kids who play ball for Walter Payton College Prep refused to let their kids travel to Roseland for a game under the lights against Gwendolyn Brooks.

Payton’s coach William Wittleder told the Sun-Times that several parents said they refused to send their kids “down there.”

One parent, a former South Sider, said the neighborhood “isn’t what it used to be.”

If you’re from Chicago — the most segregated city in America — I don’t have to tell you what that means. You’ve heard it before.

But in another way that parent was right.

A few years ago, Gwendolyn Brooks wasn’t one of the top five high schools in the city. It didn’t have the city’s best high school baseball stadium — a $1.3 million ball diamond with manicured infield grass, lighted scoreboard, concession stands, bleachers and, of course, lights that are rated for Triple A professional baseball.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who still coaches first base for Brooks even though his kid hasn’t played there for two years, helps cut and fertilize the grass there and makes sure the irrigation system keeps the infield green.

Beale was there Saturday night. Parents had the barbecue grills going. The concession stand was open. The weather was near perfect.

“We worked on the field all day,” he said. “Everyone was excited to play that first night game of the year and to have the rug pulled out from under it was disheartening.”

Coach Wittleder came to Roseland to apologize because some parents worried that their kids would be in harm's way.

Wittleder told the Sun-Times that the parents’ decision was “embarrassing,” “heartbreaking” and “totally against what I believe in.”

It was brave of Wittleder to speak the truth even though there will probably be consequences.

If you know anything about Chicago politics you know that someone has to take the blame for this one. Expect the fall guy to be Wittleder, a teacher at Wells High School.

Already, CPS has a new take on the reason Wittleder couldn’t field a team to play Brooks Friday night.

Payton Principal Tim Devine, whose father is former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine, blamed the media for unfair reporting and said the game was canceled because of poor leadership, not “racist tendencies.”

A CPS spokeswoman said the Payton team didn’t have a bus and some of the players had been benched for missing practice.

Even if most of that is true — and I’m not saying it is — it doesn’t matter.

Those parents did us a favor. They reminded us what we don’t want to admit: Our city remains as divided as it always has been.

Black against white. Rich against poor.

North Side vs. South Side. “Us” against “them.”

It’s time we stop making excuses and pretending it’s not true.

Beale put it this way: “We all know what it is.”

“We had a couple of shortsighted parents listening to the news, not doing research and shooting from the hip,” Beale said. “From our standpoint down here, we love our kids just as much as they love theirs. Why would they think we would put their kids in harm's way? They made a decision based on perception, not reality.”

Perception. Prejudice. It’s all the same.

What happened was embarrassing for our city.

But there’s no one to blame — and no excuses.

We live in a flawed city that needs to see itself so we can become better. That’s what happened.

Now, there’s only one thing to do — play ball!

Payton vs. Brooks — setting all other longtime Chicago conflicts aside — under the lights in Roseland. And, the word came down late in the day: The game is back on for Saturday.

I can picture it now: Mayor Rahm Emanuel up on the pitcher’s mound with his four-and-a-half-finger grip on a baseball. He’ll reel back to throw out the first pitch. And when it bounces into the catcher’s mitt we’ll know that things aren’t the same “down there.”

Fear and prejudice will never cancel a baseball game again.

And the kids will play.

EPILOGUE: Monday Evening Update

Later Monday, I buzzed over to Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep to catch a few innings of Brooks taking on conference rival Morgan Park on Brooks' beautiful home field.

Mayor  Emanuel was there.

Maybe you saw him. He was the guy in the suit.

I asked Rahm why he came.

“The mayor worked hard today, he needed a good game,” he said, walking away quickly so I had to chase him to ask for his take on the controversy that obviously had brought him there.  

“I wanted to come out here and show my support,” the mayor said.

He stood to cheer when Brooks scored a run in the 3rd inning, visited players in both dugouts and shook hands with parents cheering on Morgan Park.

The kids in the stands seemed happy to see him. Joshua Smith, 18, shook the mayor's hand and told him that he'd be attending Western Illinois University to play football. 

"You're going to study," the mayor told him. Smith laughed and agreed. 

The kids huddled around the mayor for a photo. I snapped a few pictures.

In one shot, a young lady in a tan shirt mugged a ducky grin and held her hands up high, with her fingers bent in the shape of a V.

It stirred an interesting debate on Facebook.

Personally, I think the woman is offering a peace sign. Some Facebook commenters thought otherwise.

Peter Bella offered this insight, “One hand is a peace sign. Two hands is a gang sign.”

When other commenters challenged his opinion, Bella bragged that his “30 years on CPD” qualified him as the expert on deciphering the meaning of the woman's gesture.

Jonah Stahone Winniki suggested we collectively, “Ask that girl throwing gang signs if that neighborhood is safe for yuppie kids to come play baseball in?”

What RJ Sloke wrote summed it up for me, “Before you judge the black community, maybe you should get to know them.”

Overall, it was a ridiculous back-and-forth.

I’m not taking sides. That wouldn't do anyone any good. 

I just thought the debate was worth noting — a chance for the people in our flawed city to see themselves and, maybe, how other people see them — and work toward becoming better.