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The stripping of a Chicago Little League team of its national title on Wednesday exposed an unsavory aspect of the famed World Series for kids: the suspicion that teams sometimes bend, or break, the rules to get there.
The latest case, in which the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago's South Side was found to have fudged district boundaries to get better players, has also shed light on the age-old honor system that Little League International depends on to keep the tournament honest. This "checks and balances" often leaves it to unpaid coaches and officials to police each other.
That quaint notion, rooted in Little League's origins as a community-based, volunteer organization, can get strained by the high-stakes publicity of the Little League World Series, which is broadcast on national television from the group's headquarters in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, observers say.
The 2014 tournament's star, pitcher Mo'ne Davis, ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jackie Robinson West, the first all-black team to win the national title, also became media darlings, feted at the White House and paraded through Chicago.
But fame and accountability are often at odds.
"You have these two values operating under the same roof," said Charles Euchner, author of "Little League, Big Dreams: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball's Most Improbable Champions," which chronicled the 2005 tournament. "Little League International promotes both of them, but in cases like this, they pull each other apart."
While reporting his book, Euchner said he found many teams — and entire leagues — created with the singular goal of putting together a squad that could reach the tournament.
“The bottom line here is the coaches and managers are regularly assembling teams like college or pro teams, with the idea that, 'We want to go all the way to Williamsport,'" Euchner said. "The fact that the Jackie Robinson group would pull in some ringer from outside the district should come as no surprise.”
In a statement announcing Jackie Robinson West's disqualification, Little League International outlined a slow-moving investigation that began soon after the 2014 tournament ended. The probe was triggered by allegations from a neighboring league and grew to include interviews with officials from several nearby leagues and questions raised by a local news website.
Last month, Little League International found evidence that the team's district had expanded its boundaries to include territory that belonged to other districts, and falsified a boundary map submitted for the 2014 tournament.
JRW's wins were invalidated. Their manager was suspended. Their district administrator was removed from his position. And a team from Las Vegas was granted their title.
"I feel bad for the Jackie Robinson boys, those are good kids, but you've got to play by the rules in Little League," said Rick Laspaluto, coach of the Mountain Ridge Little League team in Nevada, which was awarded the national crown.
It was the third time in the tournament's 68-year history that a team's wins were vacated. The first was in 1992, when a team from the Philippines was caught using players who violated age and residency rules. The second was in 2001, when a team from the Bronx, New York relied on a pitcher who was too old.
"This is a heartbreaking decision," Little League International president Stephen Keener said in a statement Wednesday morning. "What these players accomplished on the field and the memories and lessons they have learned during the Little League World Series tournament is something the kids can be proud of, but it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome."
But Jackie Robinson West is not taking its disqualification quietly. Parents and players joined Jesse Jackson at a news conference Wednesday to protest the move as racially motivated, and challenged Little League International to investigate all 16 teams who reached the tournament. "It is amazing to me that whenever African Americans exceed expectations, there is always going to be a fault found in whatever it is they do," said Venisa Green, whose son, Brandon, played on the championship team.
Little League International did not respond to those charges. But Keener's earlier statement attempted to explain why the investigation took nearly six months to complete.
"Little League relies heavily on the commitment of principled volunteers to serve as a system of checks and balances in preparation of and throughout the Little League International Tournament Play," Keener said. "Unfortunately, no allegations against Jackie Robinson West Little League were made until well after the tournament ended, contributing to the difficulty of resolving these many complex issues."
Mark Kreidler, a sports talk radio host in Sacramento and former coach who wrote a book, "Six Good Innings: How One Small Town Became a Little League Giant," about powerhouse teams from Toms River, New Jersey, said documentation requirements for the tournament were "extremely thorough." But he was never sure how closely those documents were examined.
And Kreidler said he didn't think the charges of racism were valid. "Little League has way too much invested in its own future and contracts with ESPN and all that to ignore any suggestion that any team is cheating," he said.
The problem, the author Euchner said, is that there's not much Little League International can do to avoid such scandals, short of setting up an investigative arm. “At a certain point, when you turn this into an investigative/legal operation, it kind of takes the innocence away. It takes away the kind of purity if it. Which I guess is gone anyway."
Meanwhile, the suburban coach who first raised questions about Jackie Robinson West said Wednesday that he has received death threats, according to NBC Chicago.