CHICAGO — Despite a somewhat soggy field, about 60 players and coaches convened at Jackie Robinson West Park in Roseland Saturday to kick off the new baseball season with an all-day clinic.
Parents, athletes and coaches joined forces with with BaseballFactory — an independent company that helps train players and coaches — in the event sponsored by Dick's Sporting Goods at the team's home park, 10540 S. Morgan St. in Roseland.
As the skills clinic took place, the sounds of laughter and chatter among players in attendance could be heard from blocks away.
Carlin Henry, 8, grinned ear-to-ear as his small cleats slipped across fresh-cut grass while practicing a move for his favorite position, pitcher.
"I like the hitting and the catching," Henry said, glove in hand.
When asked if he's a good pitcher, he coyly looks up at his mother, Denise Wilson, and nods his head "yes" with a modest smile.
Parents who came to watch are hoping the new season will be a bright spot on a somewhat tarnished record since the team's Little League title championship was stripped in February after DNAinfo Chicago reported league officials, including JRW leader Bill Haley, plucked players from ineligible neighborhoods in a violation of Little League's rules.
Since then, Haley has made few public comments regarding the allegations, reiterating to DNAinfo Chicago on Saturday that there was still an "incredible amount of support" for the team despite the controversy.
Now, JRW will play in the Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken League — a move parents say has so far been positive.
"I must say, it's a bit more instructional and a lot better, it feels good," said Ernest Smith, whose 6-year-old son Michael Smith wants to grow up and become a professional baseball player. "I can already tell you right now it's a big difference from where he was at last year. They want the parents more involved, it's more camaraderie."
However, while many expressed satisifation with the new league and noted that coaches have been open and transparent about changes stemming from the league's switch, it seemed as if there was confusion among parents as to how the two leagues differed.
"I guess we're going with Babe Ruth, which is a different league, which I don't know too much about the difference in the league," said Joyce Steenes, who brought out her grandson Michael Steenes, 7, to play for the day. "To me it's the same ... to him, it's just old baseball."
Booker Hatcher, an assistant coach and manager for JRW and parent of players Zamaurion, 12, and Zahriah, 7, said playing with Jackie Robinson has been a tradition in his family for decades, and believes the long-term benefits of playing baseball with JRW far outweigh the small chance they could have advanced to the Little League World Series again — an outcome no longer available to Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken players.
"To be honest, to try and go to the [World] Series, 1985 was our last one, then we went last year, so that's a long time. ... That's a once-in-a-lifetime shot," Hatcher said. "So my belief is, just get the kids interested to stay in baseball. See what happened by going to the World Series last year is, it gave us a jolt, it gave a little spark back to the community. So I believe that everything happens for a reason, but I mean, just look at the kids having fun. That's what it's about."
Some parents, like Amon Hill, whose 12-year-old son Iyari Hill plays for JRW, said overall, he's been happy and hopeful in the team's new league affiliation so far. But deep down, he said, wishes the championship title had never been stripped — keeping the door open for his son to be able to play in the Little League World Series again.
"He definitely wants to progress, he wants to play college ball, and he's expressed wanting to play professional ball so I'm going to get him all the help that I can," Hill said. "At the end of the day, my personal feelings on that is that they shouldn't have taken the championship away from them, it wasn't their fault. But, if they don't go back, that'd be fine with me as long as my kid gets to play."
Still, parents appeared united in their belief that the coming summer would symbolize a new beginning for JRW's reputation and record.
Scott Smith, father of Cameron Smith, 7, and JRW coach to 7th and 8th graders, said the parents he's talked to are excited about the team's new affiliation with Babe Ruth and said at the end of the day, it's what is best for the players.
"I'm excited, really ready to build on our season from last year, especially going to Babe Ruth," Smith said. "We have coaches meetings, we sit down and strategize about what's best for the children, which is what's most important for us out here, and how we can continue to grow the league ... and really strengthen the baseball levels here in our community."
Wilson, the mother of aspiring pitcher Henry, said while her son is happy, she doesn't want the JRW scandal to define the team or put his passion for baseball at risk.
"It feels great, it's like a beginning, it's the beginning of a new season," she said. "It feels good knowing they'll have a fresh start where they'll be able to create their own path and be recognized for just their talents, and not have to deal with all the past stigma of what's behind Little League. I think changing over to Babe Ruth was a good move the organization made."
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