SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.–The Jackie Robinson West Little League team from Chicago hits everything that's thrown at them, including spiders.
It's tough to keep the players interested in those one-on-one ESPN interviews, so, apparently, the production crew throws rubber spiders at them to get their surprise on tape. The kids from Chicago weren't exempt.
"When I saw it, I hit it, I smacked it," leadoff hitter Pierce Jones said last week, before his team mercy ruled Lynnwood, Wash., in its first game of the World Series.
Catcher Brandon Green was the last player to take his turn and got the worst of the prank since ESPN presumed, and rightly, that the kids would tell each other what went on in the room.
"They had an RC spider," Green said. They were like, 'all right now, now you can leave.' Then they had a RC car just rolling out with a giant spider."
In a world without Mo'ne Davis, this Chicago team would be the story of this World Series. They put a lot of runs on the board and they play aggressive. They're almost certain to have a baserunner thrown out in tonight's game against Davis's Taney Little League of Philadelphia.
"You know, I'm glad that game was nationally televised," manager Darold Butler said when asked about first baseman Trey Hondras getting thrown out at third after running through Butler's stop sign, as his team beat Rhode Island 8-7 Monday night to stay alive. "I don't want to throw a 12-year-old under the bus, but you watch the tape, you'll see what happened."
Fast and fun, Jackie Rob West hasn't been to the Little League World Series since 1983. But most storyline-ready angle on this team is that all 13 players are black.
"Since we're black, they think everybody wants to play basketball," says Hondras, the "talks to girls before games" kid. "We think different."
The league is in its 43rd year; its boundaries run, north to south, from 69th to 119th Streets and from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in the east to Western Avenue in the west, encompassing the South Side neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Morgan Park. "It's a basketball crazy part of town," Ed Haley, a league director, says. "You've got Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis."
Jackie Rob West's challenge then, says Haley, is working to get kids playing baseball from tee-ball on, when they're about four or five years old. The league is in a stable, residential neighborhood and has a lot of parents that played themselves and "want to bring their kids back and have the same experience."
South Side baseball has a lot of crossover play, with league teams from Jackie Rob West playing those around their eight-team district The teams share umpires and sometimes facilities.
The league's All-Stars team is expected to win states in Illinois, having taken it four of the last seven years. At last year's World Series, Jackie Rob West made it to the Great Lakes regional final before losing to a team from Grosse Pointe, Michigan that pitched 6'3" submariner Chad Lorkowski. That one game on TV forced the league to close tee-ball enrollment last year. This year, with World Series viewing parties at their home park and local news crews showing up in Williamsport, Haley is already getting calls and emails from parents trying to register their kids for next year.
Little League plays for the players and three coaches to travel to Pennsylvania; the families have to find their own way. To help defray the costs, five MLB players have kicked in $20,000, with LaTroy Hawkins "the ringleader," Haley said. The Upton brothers, Torii Hunter and Cubs reliever Wesley Wright were the other benefactors to make sure no Jackie Rob West parent would be unable to make the trip.
"These guys have been gone from home since July 31," Haley said. "They look up and see their parents in the stands, it helps."
Jackie Rob West takes on Taney tonight, and with a win, a date with the Las Vegas team that beat them in a mercy-rule shortened game last Sunday. And then, perhaps, they'll play for the whole shebang against whoever comes out of the international bracket. How are their chances? I asked Hondras, one of the team's more talkative and less modest guys, what his team's strengths are. "Offense and defense," he said.
Josh Brokaw writes from Hughesville, Pa. Find his stuff @jdbrokaw, where he feels compelled to tweet sometimes.