MORGAN PARK — Jackie Robinson West officials and the newly minted administrator overseeing the district they play in expanded the league's boundaries this year — overtaking sections of three sister leagues and allowing them to pick up all-star players who helped them win the U.S. title.
But fellow league presidents within District 4 did not give permission for Jackie Robinson West's boundaries to be expanded, and were unaware of the changes, sources told DNAinfo.com.
Little League International officials said the boundaries were shifted “to include the area to the west of South Cottage Grove Avenue and South Eberhart Avenue and to the north of 119th Street."
By redrawing the map, Jackie Robinson West officials laid claim to territory already used by chartered leagues within District 4 — a move that requires the OK by the president of each impacted league, according to Little League rules and veteran volunteers familiar with remapping district boundaries.
When it comes to league maps, the rules state: "A league’s boundaries must not overlap or encroach on another chartered Little League's boundaries."
News of Jackie Robinson West’s boundary expansion became public last week when Little League International issued a statement intended to clear the Jackie Robinson West league of violating residency rules after a formal complaint filed by a rival baseball league in south suburban Evergreen Park.
The official statement — which deemed the “matter closed” — noted, “In advance of the 2014 season, Jackie Robinson West Little League made the decision to expand its boundaries ... Working with the Illinois District 4 Administrator, the league submitted an approved, new boundary map to the Little League Regional Office, in effect for the 2014 season.”
The last time the six separate District 4 league presidents all signed off on changes to league boundary maps was prior to the 2013 season.
District 4 sources told DNAinfo.com that the map submitted to Little League International expanding Jackie Robinson West’s boundaries this year was turned in without the permission of the presidents of the other leagues — including the Roseland, Rosemoor and South Side leagues — that were affected by the changes.
District 4 Administrator Michael A. Kelley did not return several messages and emails seeking comment on the map changes that Little League International said he helped facilitate.
Jackie Robinson West president Bill Haley and manager Darold Butler also did not return calls seeking comment. And no league officials from the six leagues within District 4 responded to questions and interview requests related to changes made to Jackie Robinson West boundaries sent via email by DNAinfo.com Chicago.
‘Something is not right here’
After Evergreen Park Athletic Association vice president Chris Janes formally challenged the residency of some players on the Jackie Robinson West team, Haley said his league absolutely did not cheat, saying “We didn’t do anything that we don’t do every year.”
But a shift in District 4 leadership before the 2014 season did change the gatekeeper in charge of submitting league documentation and tournament qualifying affidavits to Little League International.
And the new district boss, Michael Kelley, had a long history with Jackie Robinson West.
Kelley, a Chicago firefighter, told ESPN Chicago that he has coached in the Jackie Robinson West league for 25 years and served as league vice president for 20 years before taking over as district administrator this year.
Kelley replaced Victor Alexander Sr., who resigned after serving five years in the volunteer post.
Alexander told DNAinfo.com that he resigned for work-related and “personal” reasons in 2013 — a year when he refused to sign off on affidavits certifying player residency for Jackie Robinson West and “several leagues” in the district because certain players did not have proper paperwork showing they lived within league boundaries.
“I had a rule: Paperwork had to be valid and submitted on time,” Alexander said. “It’s a stance I took and never backed away from.”
Previous administrations “let things happen that were at least questionable” and he worked to bring collaboration and cooperation back to the district and eliminate as much animosity as possible so kids could play baseball regardless of which league they play in, he said.
“Win or lose, we can at least we can be friends. We still live in the same neighborhoods. We’re part of the same community,” Alexander said. “I know my decision disappointed people, but I would not back down from what I believed in.”
Alexander said he helped adjust District 4 boundaries prior to the 2013 season when Jackie Robinson West fell one game short of qualifying for the Little League World Series.
District 4 sources said the process of adjusting league boundaries prior to the 2013 season was an extremely brutal negotiation — a battle over heavily populated areas and beautiful ball diamonds — ultimately smoothed over by Alexander, who urged league presidents to “be team players” and come to a compromise. And that was the last change league presidents approved, sources said.
Alexander said the Jackie Robinson West expansion described by Little League International “most definitely” encroached on other existing league boundaries.
“Even if the district administrator were to submit a revised boundary map for a league that encroached on another chartered league it has to be approved by that league,” Alexander said. “The verbiage in Little League’s rules is ‘the boundary is protected.’ No league, no district administrator can encroach on another without approval from the league president.”
Alexander said he has not been involved in District 4 decisions since resigning his post, but he’s certain about one thing: “If nobody agreed to it and [Jackie Robinson West’s] boundaries were expanded, my personal opinion is something is not right here."
Little League: Case closed
Little League International has offered minimal insight into how officials have conducted the investigation into the allegations raised by the Evergreen Park league.
In an email to a reporter, Little League International President and CEO Stephen Keener said he called a Friday morning meeting with top brass to again discuss the allegations levied against the U.S. champs.
“Speaking with Illinois District 4 officials over the last several days, we were able to once again confirm that not only was a new boundary map for Jackie Robinson West Little League drawn and submitted to the Regional Office through the appropriate process, but also the boundary maps for several other leagues in the District,” Keener wrote on Friday. “Also there were no protests or issues regarding the JRW team during its District 4 Tournament. That is where issues like this tend to rise most frequently.”
Then, Keener wrote that the case is closed.
Later Friday, follow-up questions sent to the Little League boss received this automated email response: “I'm away from my office for an extended period and have limited access to email. Have a safe and happy holiday season.” Other email and telephone requests seeking comment from Little League International officials also were not answered.
Back in Chicago, District 4 sources told DNAinfo.com that the information provided by Little League International regarding new maps filed on behalf of Jackie Robinson and “several other leagues” in 2014 has raised serious questions about who gave the OK — and affixed signatures — to revised boundary maps that encroached on territory claimed by other charter leagues as required by Little League rules.
In an email, Little League International did shed light on how Jackie Robinson West established their roster’s residency without naming names to protect player privacy.
The eligibility of 11 players on the roster was established using a parent or guardian’s residency information. “School attendance information” was used to verify residency of two players under a 2014 change to Little League’s rules, according to a statement from Little League International.
Little League International’s statement made no mention of parents using residency waivers to certify their kids as eligible for tournament play.
Under Little League rules at least one parent or guardian must prove residency by presenting three of the following forms of proof: driver’s license, voter’s registration, school records, welfare/child care records, federal records, state records, local (municipal records), support payment records, homeowner or tenant records, utility bills, financial records, insurance documents, medical records, military records, Internet/cable/satellite records, vehicle records or employment records.
Last week, DNAinfo.com reported that several sets of parents of Jackie Robinson West players have valid driver’s licenses and active voting records that state they both live — and in some cases voted in the Nov. 4 election — in suburban Dolton, Lansing, Lynwood and South Holland.
Parent Tammy King, who voted in suburban Lynwood along with her husband Ed King last month, told DNAinfo.com that she lived in the league territory but declined to say where. Her driver’s license is registered to a house owned by her parents near 88th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in Chicago.
Before Jackie Robinson West extended its boundaries this year, that address was located in territory belonging to a separate league — the South Side Little League, according to a District 4 map obtained by DNAinfo.com.
The home address of Christopher Green and Dr. Venisa Beasley-Green, whose son was on the title team, also was located within South Side Little League’s district — just blocks from the league’s Tuley Park field — before Jackie Robinson West changed its boundaries.
Another player’s Facebook page and the White Sox ACE traveling team roster both list his hometown as Dolton. The player, Joshua Houston, attends a Chicago charter school near 115th and Prairie Avenue, according to published reports.
That school is located in the heart of the Roseland neighborhood and was within the Roseland Little League boundary before Jackie Robinson West changed its map before the championship season.
"Two black eyes on Little League"
In October, Chris Janes, of the Evergreen Park Little League, sent a letter to Little League International asking officials to investigate whether Jackie Robinson West engaged in “manipulating, bending and blatantly breaking the rules for the sole purpose of winning at all costs.”
Janes and fellow Evergreen Park league board members said news reports during and after the World Series that quoted suburban officials celebrating various players as hometown heroes exposed some of Jackie Robinson West players as suburbanites and confirmed what some Evergreen Park Little League volunteers had suspected for years — preteen blue-chip players were being recruited to join the team.
“Due to their success this year — and getting on TV — all of the information [about the players] became so readily available,” Janes said earlier this month. “All you had to do was Google any one of the players' names and their hometowns outside of Chicago pop up. … It was all just there.”
On Monday, Janes said, "I can't fathom any little league wanting to change their boundary like that in a day and age when each league is doing the best they can to stay afloat," Janes said.
"This lends credence that Jackie Robinson West has done an awesome job of gaming the system in terms of playing residency and player eligibility," Janes said. "It seems one more step in what seems to be a series of steps that have been taken to bend and manipulate the rules and do everything they can to get the players that they want."
Janes said he was "surprised that Jackie Robinson West would go to those lengths — and I'm deeply surprised that Little League would allow this to occur. "
"In my mind this is two black eyes on Little League's face," he said.
Janes said his league — a Jackie Robinson West rival — and every other charter member of the youth baseball league deserves to have the case reopened by Little League International. He said after DNAinfo reported his concerns last week, he had "numerous Little League officials reach out to me and every one expressed the same concern: How is this being allowed to happen?" Janes said.
"Quite frankly, it's befuddling that we started this in late August and the response has always been nonchalant and very nonspecific without trying to connect the dots. Honestly, I feel deceived. ... You can't help but think there's some homecooking going on here," Janes said.
One of those league officials who contacted Janes is Kevin Ricketts, a coach on the New Albany, Ind., team Jackie Robinson West beat with late-inning heroics to qualify for the World Series in Williamsport.
"Nothing Little League could do would make us whole again. Nothing gives us Williamsport. There's no next year in Little League baseball. But if Jackie Robinson West changed its map without other presidents signing off on it ... it smells like cheating," Ricketts said. "If it's true they did it to get specific kids on their team, that's not in the spirit of Little League. ... And it's sad if they did that. "
Ricketts said if JRW created an illegal boundary map to strengthen their lineup, "In my opinion, Jackie Robinson West should have their title stripped."
"Little League should take action and not bury their head in the sand."
"Our choices have consequences"
Several people contacted by DNAinfo.com said they were unwilling to answer questions because they did not want to tarnish the amazing accomplishment of a special group of kids who became America’s sweethearts.
But Alexander, the former District 4 boss, said that the accusations did not reflect or take away from the on-the-field play of kids on the Jackie Robinson West team.
“Kids have no say into what adults do or not do. They come out, get trained to play the game and have an opportunity to go out on the field and execute,” he said.
“Adults make decisions and adults should follow the rules. … But people don’t follow the rules in many areas, not just Little League. I don’t encourage or condone that. ... If winning is the most important thing then you’re doing it for the wrong reason … at this level anyway. These are not professionals. These are kids.”
If the accusations against Jackie Robinson West and District 4 leaders are true, Alexander says it’ll be a harsh life lesson for everyone involved.
“Kids are learning that in the real world and real society people don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. That’s the reality whether it’s in Little League baseball or corporate America,” he said. “We have choices that we make and our choices have consequences. Some good. Some bad.”
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