Jackie Robinson West officials believe all the boys on the now-deposed U.S. Little League champions were eligible to play, an attorney advising the league said Thursday.
Little League International announced Wednesday that it was vacating all of the Jackie Robinson West squad’s wins from last year’s tournament, including from the Great Lakes regionals and U.S. championship, because some of its players lived outside its assigned boundaries.
“As far as we know, all the children met the residency requirements,” attorney Victor P. Henderson told reporters Thursday. But Henderson added that he is still in the process of discovery and left open the possibility that some players might have been unintentionally ineligible.
Bill Haley, the director of Jackie Robinson West Little League in Chicago, said the team had been cleared in December by the governing body.
“Clearly we have one more battle to face,” Haley said.
Official: Tell us — in writing — what we did wrong
That battle won’t be in a courtroom, Henderson said. Haley and other officials want to receive written notification of what rules were broken. So far, Henderson said, there has only been a phone call to one person in the local organization, and that came after the announcement was reported in the media.
The international youth baseball organization also suspended Jackie Robinson West’s manager, Darold Butler; ousted the local district administrator; and barred the program from tournament play.
“The boys did what they were supposed to do. Everyone did what they were supposed to do,” Butler said Wednesday night when asked about the cheating allegations, CNN affiliate WGN reported. “I’m still a proud coach.”
He appeared at Thursday’s news conference, as did several parents of players, but did not speak.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday that stripping the team of its title was too harsh.
“You have turned them into the perpetrators when they are the victims,” Emanuel told Little League International President Stephen Keener, according to his spokeswoman.
Keener said in announcing the decision that it was “heartbreaking” and “unfortunate,” but it had to be done for Little League to maintain its integrity.
A team from Las Vegas is now the 2014 U.S. champion.
Chicago South Side team earned raves
Named for the icon who broke baseball’s color barrier and consisting entirely of African-Americans, the Jackie Robinson West squad proved that, despite talk to the contrary, baseball was not dead among inner-city youths.
The team of mostly 12-year-olds from Chicago’s South Side earned raves after knocking out Sports Illustrated cover girl Mo’ne Davis’ Philadelphia team and rolling to the U.S. championship contest. It entered that game as an underdog to Las Vegas, which had beaten every team it faced — including crushing Chicago by a 13-2 score.
The title game was a much more even affair. The two squads swapped leads before Chicago jumped ahead for good with a three-run fifth inning en route to a 7-5 win.
In the World Series final the following day, Jackie Robinson West rallied late but couldn’t overcome the eventual champions from South Korea.
That loss didn’t halt the positive feelings about the team. Everyone from former Chicago White Sox great and baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod cheered their success.
A visit to the White House
The team was celebrated with a parade through their hometown and even a visit to the White House in November, where they met President Barack Obama, a Chicago resident.
At the time of the Washington visit, local Little League officials were already investigating allegations because of a tip from a neighboring district’s official and documentation. Little League International initially determined that all of Jackie Robinson West’s players were eligible.
In the middle of December, though, “Little League began to learn of multiple issues with boundary maps and operational process with multiple leagues in Illinois District 4,” Little League International officials said in a statement.
Several more meetings followed, including one on January 31 when several issues came up, including that “Jackie Robinson West Little League used a falsified boundary map for their 2014 tournament and that Jackie Robinson West Little League officials met with other leagues in District 4 to try to get the territory they wrongfully claimed was theirs for their 2014 tournament.”
“During our review, it became clear that both Jackie Robinson West officials and (the) District Administrator … signed documents to make players eligible who should not have been,” Keener said.
On Thursday, Henderson acknowledged that there were boundary changes but again said it was too early to know if anything untoward was done intentionally.