CHICAGO — On Sunday, Jackie Robinson West kicked off its first season playing “real baseball” on the South Side — instead of Little League baseball, that is.
Before White Sox mascot Southpaw threw out the first pitch at the season opener, JRW’s leader Bill Haley introduced officials from Babe Ruth/ Cal Ripken — the national youth baseball organization the league joined after severing ties with Little League International in the wake of a cheating scandal that stripped JRW of the 2014 World Series U.S. Title.
“Real baseball,” as folks around the ballpark call it, refers to the different set of rules by which games are played in the Babe Ruth/ Cal Ripken system, most notably with longer distances between bases and the ability for kids to take leadoffs the same way big leaguers do.
“We’re happy to have Jackie Robinson West back playing youth baseball. The kids are having a lot of fun. We’re going to keep moving forward,” Haley said.
“The phrase that kids use is, ‘Coach Bill, we’re playing real baseball now. It’s a faster-paced game, and the kids feel like they’re playing just like the players they see on TV.”
In the context of the fallout from the JRW cheating scandal, “real baseball” also doubles as a thinly veiled dig at Little League International.
In February, Little League stripped the U.S. title from JRW after confirming allegations first reported by DNAinfo Chicago that league officials, including Haley, secretly changed the league's boundary map and put all-star players who lived outside league boundaries — some kids lived in the far south suburbs — on the tournament team in violation of residency rules.
Part of JRW’s punishment landed the league on probation and called for Haley and his mother, Anne Haley, to step down as league treasurer and president, respectively.
Rather than comply with the punishment, Haley severed ties with Little League and joined Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken.
On Sunday, Babe Ruth assistant Ohio Valley commissioner Tom Wright said switching national affiliations “opens a lot of doors” for Jackie Robinson West, including the opportunity to play a wider range of talent in Illinois and Indiana.
“They run a nice program over here. Our organization allows kids to play the kind of baseball they want to play,” Wright said. “Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken is growing in this area. We picked up four leagues. You’re going to see more and more independent [leagues] join us because they want a more progressive organization.”
Wright said the cheating controversy that led to JRW’s split from Little League to join the Babe Ruth organization won’t affect the South Side league.
Indeed, Babe Ruth’s organizational structure, which allows leagues to share boundaries and includes state commissioners who oversee boundaries and tournament eligibility, offers flexibility and more oversight than Little League, Wright said.
Haley didn’t want to talk about Jackie Robinson West’s split from Little League, which still hasn’t been confirmed by the Pennsylvania-based youth baseball league.
One uncertainty regarding the severed relationship is the donations — more than $200,000 — that JRW received while playing under the Little League banner.
According to the Little League charter agreement signed by JRW leaders, all funds and property acquired by a league “in the name of Little League” shall be “devoted solely and exclusively to Little League purposes.”
Little League International spokesman Brian McClintock has declined to answer questions about whether Little League has the right to take control of money donated to JRW and property owned by the league, which has had a charter since 1971.
“The language in the charter agreement signed by the league president and the league vice president, treasurer, or secretary speaks for itself,” McClintock wrote in an email last month.
Wright, who has been a state and regional Babe Ruth official for 20 years, said he’s not sure how JRW would be affected if Little League goes after cash and equipment.
“We can’t help what Little League does,” Wright said. “I’ve never seen Little League do that, and I’ve been around a long time. I think it would be uncharted territory.”
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