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Bernstein: A Little League Story Too Good To Be True

By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) We shouldn't be surprised that Chicago's Jackie Robinson West cheated to win the Little League national title, because this happens relatively often.

It's the third time since 1992, in fact, with the kids from the South Side now joining Zamboanga from the Philippines and the Rolando Paulino team from the Bronx in the historical ignominy of disqualifications and vacated wins.

Greedy adults seeking success will always use talented kids as proxies and will bend rules in their efforts. Competition overseen by Little League International would seem a tougher place to risk it, considering its particular emphasis on geographical margins – indeed the very thing that sets this organization apart from others in youth baseball, but here we go again.

The real issue with this story lies with our misplaced desire to make the outcomes of sporting events into something they aren't, and in this specific case spinning a fictional, cinematic narrative to make people feel good. Those lamenting the shame of this unfortunate turn in the story need to ask themselves why it mattered so much to them from the beginning.

I've never been comfortable with the overblown television coverage of the Little League World Series in the first place, with every achievement counterbalanced by another poor kid's anguish, the grim-faced coaches aping the demeanor of big leaguers and the microphones shoved in the faces of children. ESPN and our eyes on it have turned it all grotesque.

The network has further incentivized cheating by whipping it up into such spectacle, making it more likely a coach will literally push boundaries and league officials will want to look the other way. Both happened here, as JRW manager Darold Butler has been suspended and the complicit Michael Kelly was removed as Little League's administrator for the district.

It grew too large. The whole idea of the plucky band of inner-city kids coming together to lift the hearts of a community ravaged by gang violence took on a life of its own, with too few willing to ask whether any of it was true on either level – whether the kids were actually from that community or imported from the suburbs or what youth baseball had at all to do with stopping hopeless young men from shooting each other over drugs and money.

Both lies were easy, and easy to intertwine, that they were both really representing that place and somehow redeeming all its troubles by winning games. Out came the politicians, eager to glom onto the latest shiny, happy thing. In poured the money from those eager to co-brand: Dick's Sporting Goods sold T-shirts worth $164,000 to the JRW program, and the Chicago White Sox gave them $20,000 directly. Whether that money gets refunded, now, is unclear.

And if you feel bad for the kids manipulated by grown-ups, feel bad for all of them, not just the JRW players used as pawns. This team outscored opponents 55-6 in the sectionals, and their ridiculous 43-2 slaughter of Evergreen Park helped motivate the whistle-blowing, the dogged reporting by DNAInfo.com and the secondary investigation. There are hundreds of disappointed kids in JRW's fraudulent wake.

This wasn't ever what some thought it was or what too many desperately wanted it to be.

Children playing baseball is a good thing, better when that's all it is because that's good enough.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score's "Boers and Bernstein Show" in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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