U.S. Little League champs lose title for using ineligible players

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They made America feel good, those kids from Chicago’s South Side who beat the odds and beat all contenders en route to the U.S. Little League championship. But now those feelings, like the championship, are no more.

Little League International announced Wednesday that it is 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. Mountain Ridge Little League, out of Las Vegas, officially becomes the 2014 U.S. champ in its place.

The international youth baseball organization also suspended Jackie Robinson West’s manager, ousted the local district administrator and barred the program from tournament play.

Reflecting on what he called “a heartbreaking decision,” Little League International President Stephen Keener said the Chicago team’s players can still be proud of what they accomplished last year.

“But it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome,” Keener added. “… As painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.”

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 youth.

The Illinois team 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. Mayor Rahm Emanuel credited “their positive attitude and success on the field (for rallying) people from every neighborhood.”

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 thanks to 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,” the international organization 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.