The story of the Little League World Series champions from Jackie Robinson West in Chicago has spread around the media in recent days. The team was stripped of their title after reports surfaced that their team was essentially a super team in the eyes of the rules. Opinions vary on the situation, and some have taken drastic measures to voice their displeasure with the events, but one might resonate a bit louder than others.
Pittsburgh Pirates star fielder Andrew McCutchen took the controversy as a chance to offer some insight into the world of baseball before the big contracts and name recognition. It’s a world most of the kids on these little league teams experience and the struggles that come with it. From Players Tribune:
When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized? Now, you have to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to be noticed in showcase tournaments in big cities. My parents loved me, but they had to work hard to put food on the table, and there wasn’t much left over. They didn’t have the option of skipping a shift to take me to a tournament over the weekend. The hard choices started when I was very young. “Do you want that video game system for Christmas, or do you want a new baseball bat?”
A lot of talented kids my age probably picked the Playstation, and that was it. It was over for them. I always chose the new bat or glove. But all the scraping and saving in the world wasn’t going to be enough for my family to send me an hour north to Lakeland every weekend to play against the best competition. That’s the challenge for families today. It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.
McCutchen’s piece tells the story of his journey to the MLB, but also highlights a lot of the debate surrounding the game today. Baseball is a chore to keep up as a kid, especially compared to football, soccer, or basketball. Teams can’t afford to supply equipment to every kid free of charge the way football and basketball teams do. This puts the burden on parents and the kids themselves. Despite what happened, the kids at Jackie Robinson West were given an opportunity that many couldn’t afford, albeit through underhanded means. McCutchen seems to blame the system more than anything:
Fixing that problem is complicated, but when I was a kid, I looked at baseball players growing up in Latin America with a lot of envy. If you’re a talented kid in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, a team can come along and say, “We’re going to sign you for $50,000 and take you into our organization and develop you, feed you, take care of your travel.” To me, as a 14-year-old kid whose family was struggling, that would have meant everything to me. I would have taken that deal in a second.
That kind of system would make the game a lot more attractive to kids from low-income families. For all the backlash around the Jackie Robinson West team “cheating,” most people are ignoring the truth of how these 12-year-old kids make it out of their towns and onto a national stage. Individuals step in and fill that financial gap. Hopefully those people are trustworthy and have their hearts in the right place. I was fortunate in that respect. Other kids might not be. When you talk to players around Major League Baseball, almost every single one of them has a story about a person who stepped in and took care of their expenses. You hear it all the time: “If it wasn’t for this guy, I wouldn’t be in the league.”
I don’t think it’s correct to call this the “right” opinion or that it clears the air around what happened to JRW and their championship. It highlights a lot of issues that need highlighting, but it doesn’t discount that the parents broke the rules. It does offer a glimpse into why it might’ve happened and how little league is much more than how it was portrayed in the Bat-Dad episode of South Park.
McCutchen’s entire piece is well worth the read, especially if you’re interested in baseball. It’s an honest look at the lifestyle before the big leagues and a differing opinion than what you might read in a forum.