BRIDGEPORT — Kenny Williams fell in love with the purity of baseball again while watching the Little League World Series.
"You know what we forget about sports is that they were created for enjoyment. Somewhere along the line we allow our sports to stress us out, even at the lowest levels," the White Sox executive vice president said.
"So to see these young men play and [see the] people at the viewing party I was at and see … the enthusiasm really brought back to me why we created these things we called sports anyway. These guys not only gave people a reprieve from their daily grind, but also a reprieve from what we've turned our sports into."
Over the weekend, a lot of people asked Williams if he saw any major league potential in any of the Jackie Robinson West players he shrugged off the question.
"The answer is yes, but I don't get specific," he said. "All I care about for them at this age is that they do your best on the field, in the classroom, at home, in your neighborhood. Conduct yourself in a way that you will be open to all the possibilities that life may present to you."
Williams still gets chills thinking about one particular Little League World Series moment. Trey Hondras, 13, smacked a homerun but apparently felt he showboated too much rounding the bases. So he apologized to Rhode Island Coach Dave Belisle, in a moment caught on the coach's microphone.
"That's what this experience is about. Talking about it now still gives me chills. That's leadership. That's a life lesson that young man and the rest of those young men will have for the rest of their lives.
"I have a lot of pride in these young men and it has less to do with what they accomplished on the field and more about how they handled themselves. Each one of them expressed some graciousness about the opportunity and expressed in a humble way their confidence, which is not always easy for boys to do."
Six players on the Jackie Robinson West squad also participate in the White Sox Amateur City Elite program, ACE for short, which aims to give rising inner-city baseball stars a shot at making it — but not how you might think.
"When we started this thing, one of the directives from Jerry Reinsdorf, and I was of exactly the same mindset, was that we couldn't care less if one of these players ever made it to the major leagues," Williams said.
"If they do, great. We encourage people to dream. But the reason we were doing it was to get kids off the streets and give them life skills in hope that if they do well enough in school they'll have an opportunity to go to college."
And White Sox youth programs director Kevin Coe, himself a former minor leaguer who has a son playing in the Jackie Robinson West league, said the biggest takeaway from the Little League World Series had nothing to do with Joshua Houston's knuckle curve, Brandon Green's stellar work behind the plate or shortstop Ed Howard's silky fielding skills.
"They spoke confidently, clearly and represented themselves and Chicago in a time when all you hear about our city is about crime and violence and poor education, that black kids don't play baseball, and here they are showing that everyone is not like what you read in the news. They carried themselves like first-class citizens. That's the biggest takeaway from all of this."
Most of the Jackie Robinson West boys — the best Little League team in America — live in poor neighborhoods that are plagued with violence and face obstacles that, let's face it, a lot of people don't expect them to overcome.
"That's something that I am personally familiar with," said Williams. "Not everyone is going to fall victim to their surroundings. There are challenges these kids face that are unfair they have to deal with, but their reality isn't going to change. They need support and guidance like every person does."
On Wednesday, when Chicago celebrates the best Little League team in America with a glorious homecoming parade, Williams says he wants the boys to feel that support, remember it and carry the lessons they've learned with them forever.
"Just as they vigorously have gone out there and practiced baseball skills, they have to put their minds to work that they're going to overcome whatever circumstances they face," he said. "Because really, you have only two choices in life: Fall victim to it or push forward.
"They already showed us their will to win and a never-give-up attitude. … And that's a tremendous thing to have that will carry them through a lot of things they'll face the rest of their lives."
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