THE LOOP — Thousands packed Millennium Park Wednesday for a rally that capped a day of celebration for Jackie Robinson West, the team of South Side youngsters that won the Little League World Series United States championship.
The kids got the big league treatment at Wednesday's rally, where Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson served as emcee. Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams also offered his congratulations during a speech.
"It's been a while since we've had something to celebrate," Williams joked, referring to Chicago's two professional baseball teams. "Sorry about that."
But Williams also got serious, saying Jackie Robinson West's success highlights a number of organizations trying to combat Chicago street violence so often shown to the rest of the country. He said the team provides an alternative to violence.
"Pick up a ball, a glove, a book, a paint stick. ... Put down the guns," Williams said to a cheering crowd.
Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein also spoke, saying he would be looking for the team's players in the 2023 MLB draft.
Bill Haley, who runs the Jackie Robinson West league and is the son of its founder, William Haley, thanked the city for embracing the team of young stars.
"Thank you, Chicago, for pulling together to turn 13 young boys who could let us know not what we have that separates us, or not what we have that divides us, thank you for embracing these boys who show us what we have in common," Haley said.
"We have a lot of momentum going Chicago," Haley continued. "Let's keep this momentum going. ... Let's make this city great again."
After Harrelson announced each player's name, star leadoff hitter Pierce Jones took the microphone to say a few words.
"We just want to say thank you for all the support," Jones said. "We love you."
Wednesday morning, hundreds of fans turned out on the South Side to salute the kids of Jackie Robinson West and kick off a parade honoring the U.S. champions.
"This means history to us," said Counciwilla Gray, 68, of Englewood, one of the many fans to turn out at Jackie Robinson Park, 10540 S. Morgan St., for a pre-parade rally. "They have evaporated the violence for this moment. They've given Chicago what they've needed."
"I love them. My eyes welled up with tears when they won that championship," Gray said. "I still don't have the words. I just love them."
After returning home to a heroes' welcome at Midway Airport, the U.S. champions celebrated their historic run in the Little League World Series with a parade through the streets of Chicago Wednesday and then the rally at Millennium Park.
Quinn Ford reports from the Millennium Park rally:
Long before the Downtown rally kicked off, upward of 1,000 people were already at the Pritzker Pavilion. Acts like the Jesse White Tumblers and South Shore Drill Team entertained the crowd as they waited for the young champs to arrive.
Marion Bruce, of Chatham, is the aunt of Jackie Robinson West player DJ Butler, whose dad, Darold Butler, is the team's coach. Bruce, who managed to score front-row seats for the rally with her 4-year-old daughter Amiya, said she's been amazed by the city's reaction to the team.
"It's been incredible," she said. "I never expected them to make it as far as they did."
Larry Lawson, 64, of Ashburn, said he grew up in Morgan Park and can remember the last time the organization made it to the Little League World Series in 1983, but Lawson said that run paled in comparison to what the team has done for the city this time.
"It's overwhelming to see my neighborhood team win the United States championship," Lawson said. "I feel like I felt when Obama won the presidency. I wanted to come out and thank these young men. "
Lawson said he thinks their success will spur other children in Chicago to get involved in sports and other positive activities.
"I think it's going to bring about a change in all the kids of this city," Lawson said.
The team capped a historic run by beating Las Vegas, a team they had lost to earlier in the tournament, to win become the U.S. champions before falling to South Korea in the championship game Sunday.
The team arrived a Millennium Park around 11:30 a.m. after a parade through the South Side. In Englewood, scores of fans lined Halsted Street to cheer on the team's trolleys as they passed by.
Lifelong Englewood resident Larry Parker, 57, said he got up at 7 a.m. to start preparing for the parade.
"I couldn't wait to wake up this morning. I am so proud of these little guys for what they accomplished on the field and off," Parker said. "By winning on the field this team also scored big off the field by uniting a city divided by race and income."
Yolanda Fields, 42, brought her two teen daughters to the parade.
"I wanted my girls to see that not all black boys are bad. There are so many teenagers doing positive things like these Little Leaguers but don't always get the attention they deserve," Fields said. "These young men are future all-stars, and when they go pro, I will be able to say I saw them way back then when they were shorties."
At the pre-parade rally, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) thanked God for being able to "salute these champions."
"These young men have been a beacon to us all and the nation," said Austin, one of a slew of politicians to speak at the pre-parade rally, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Gov. Pat Quinn, who declared Wednesday "Jackie Robinson West Championship Day."
Madigan said the players are not only Chicago's baseball team, but "the nation's baseball team."
"I'm a baseball fan. I've been a baseball fan my whole life, but it's hard to be a baseball fan in Chicago," Madigan said. "But this year I had a team to believe in. I had a team to follow, Jackie Robinson West, and they are winners."
Chance the Rapper, a South Side native, also made a surprise appearance during the pep rally to congratulate the team.
Darold Butler thanked all the fans for supporting the team.
"We were kind of in a bubble. No TV, no cable, but the kids got to watch a clip of the watch party and it was bananas," he said. "After seeing that, the coaching staff knew. 'Let's go ahead and win this whole thing for the city of Chicago. Let's go up and make them proud. Let's go out and do this.'"
Timesha Wharton, cousin of Jackie Robinson West third baseman Cameron Bufford, called the turnout for the rally at Jackie Robinson Park "unbelievable."
"There's so many important people out here, sometimes you have to give them a reason to come out. There's so many people and so much positivity," said Wharton, who sat in the front row at every watch party for the team's tournament run.
Wharton said she ran into Cameron and the team before the rally.
"They were really shocked when they got here. They didn't recognize their celebrity [status] they had achieved until they got here."
Added South Side resident Alan Balladolid, 55: "It's wonderful. It's phenomenal. This is big. All young people should be watching them and taking advice because this is something that can be done."
Contributing: Wendell Hutson
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