By Ryan Baker-
(CBS) I can see it about 10 years from now. Sports Illustrated’s “Where Are They Now?” spread on the stars of the 2014 Little League World Series. Mo’ne Davis will grace the cover of SI once again, this time wearing a WNBA jersey (assuming that both the WNBA and SI will still exist in 2024, of course).
If so, there will almost certainly be a feature on the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars. I hope when I’m reading it I’m not shaking my head saying, “It’s a shame what happened to a few of those boys.” It’s sad to say, but odds are that the magical ride that the national champions from the South Side have been on for the past month won’t only be the highlight of their baseball careers, but also perhaps their lives.
When all of the praise and pats on the backs have stopped, life will once again start throwing curveballs at these kids. Homelessness was waiting for Jaheim Benton when he returned from Williamsport. Although funeral home owner Spencer Leak stepped up to pay Benton’s family’s rent for a year, the underlying message being sent is that if you’re a star player, people will take care of me.
But what about when you can’t play anymore? Then what? Who’s going to hook them up then? Unfortunately, I’ve seen countless athletes at every level become crippled emotionally and financially by our culture of sports hero worship. These kids are too young to fully comprehend the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished, but they certainly are enjoying the accolades they’re being showered with — and probably from the girls when they get back to school. To be clear, what they did at the Little League World Series — and more importantly how they did it — is bigger than baseball. For two weeks they wiped away the blood-stained headlines of shootings and killings on the South Side and inspired a community and entire city to believe that it can and will do better. The class, character and competency that JRW competed with brought grown men to tears, many of whom haven’t cried in years in order to survive on the unrelenting streets of the inner city.
While the JRW boys deserve all of the attention they’re getting, I can’t help but cringe at how they’re being slightly taken advantage of by publicity-seeking politicians and PR-hungry sports teams. Once the parades, rallies and celebrations have stopped, the families, friends and newfound fans of JRW will have to do their best coaching job — to not only encourage them to excel on the baseball field, but to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become better men.
We owe it to them after all the joy and inspiration they brought us.
Ryan Baker is CBS 2 Chicago’s lead sports anchor. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanBakerSports.