Merlene Davis: The Little League World Series made me proud

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 25, 2014 

In between friends calling me with updates on the latest events in Ferguson, Mo., I was watching the Little League World Series tournament last week.

Admittedly, my attention was drawn first to Mo'ne Davis because she is a girl performing well in a boy's sport. She pitched a shutout in her Philadelphia team's first appearance and even got a hit and an RBI.

She made the cover of Sports Illustrated, too.

But things went downhill for the star and her team from there. Still, reports say someone bought one of Mo'ne's signed baseballs for $300 on ebay.

It was only after watching Mo'ne that I discovered an all-black team from the violence-riddled South Side of Chicago had earned a berth in the tournament. I was beginning to believe the hype that that part of Chicago only produces thugs, drug dealers and disposable black youth.

I didn't know whom to root for when Philadelphia and Chicago met in the loser's bracket. The stories of both teams were inspiring.

Chicago's Jackie Robinson West team won and later beat the Las Vegas team that had crushed them earlier to become the Little League World Series U.S. Champions. Unfortunately, Chicago lost to South Korea for the world title.

My friends couldn't believe that I would prefer watching Little League games over the pain, anger and frustration on display in Ferguson during a 24-hour news cycle. I almost had to have my blackness authenticated.

But I know black children can do so much better than what has been shown by test scores, suspensions or criminal records.

I know they are smart enough to invent things and solve problems and cure ills. I also know something happens to kill all that before many become teenagers.

So to watch 11- and 12-year-old black kids working together as a team was heartwarming. One parent of a Chicago player said the team's success will grab the attention of other black youth and "it will bring communities together. Baseball isn't a sport you can play alone."

While Kenneth T. Smith of Lexington embraces that concept, he's not convinced it will happen any time soon with our inner-city youth. Smith, 68, was the Little League coach for my older son about 14 years ago.

In Lexington, he said, inner-city youth, like the ones who play for Chicago, don't have the wherewithal financially to play the game. Registration now is upwards of $100, not including equipment or uniforms sometimes, he said.

When Smith managed Western Little League in Meadowthorpe Park, registration was only $25 and Smith supplied all the equipment.

"Now," he said, "bats are $200 to $300. Most of the kids come from one-parent families. They can't afford that."

Also, he said, the teams play in the suburbs which are not easily reached by youth without parents providing transportation.

"In the big cities," Smith said, "you have a lot of the professional players coming back and helping out."

That's true.

In 2006, Major League Baseball started the first of four Urban Youth Academies to get more black youth interested in the sport. The latest one, P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy, just opened on Friday.

It is a "state-of-the-art baseball and softball training facility that will provide free, year-round instruction and educational and vocational programs to Greater Cincinnati youth ages 7 to 18."

The Chicago White Sox started its own program called Amateur City Elite in 2007. Six players on the Jackie Robinson West team attend that program, which has produced 11 players drafted by professional baseball teams.

Plus, the Chicago team itself is a part of the Little League Urban Initiative, which has supported teams in urban areas since 1999.

Even with that help, the support of parents cannot be discounted, Smith said. If the parent is not vested in a child's participation, then success will be difficult.

"We need to get our parents to work with their children and make sacrifices for these children," Smith said. "I've been doing this since 1976, and it is getting worse."

In addition to money, another sacrifice will be time, he said. It takes time to get players to practice, time to get them to games, time to teach them how to catch or hit a ball. And most teams require parents to work concessions during the games.

He has given up on baseball, but Smith still coaches Martin Luther King Youth Football for 7- to 12-year-olds in Winburn. That sport, he said, draws more players because of its faster pace. Basketball is the same way.

"We have to get our parents more aware," Smith said. "There is more out there than what they are showing their kids. It is killing our youth."

That's why I watched those games.

Baseball isn't a guarantee that a player will turn out just fine, not take a wayward path. It didn't save my son. But it does give some youth, those Chicago youth in particular, a reason to feel good about themselves when educators and experts focus only on the negatives in their environments.

When they lost, they cried together. When they won, they cheered together. They were a part of something bigger.

When Mo'ne pitched unsuccessfully against Las Vegas on Wednesday, ESPN recorded its biggest audience ever for a Little League game. The audience was larger than every MLB telecast on that network for more than seven years. I was one of 5 million viewers who had tuned in.

Then, on Thursday, when Chicago and Philadelphia met in the loser's bracket, ESPN earned its second largest audience for a Little League game. I was one of 3.8 million that night.

We saw a girl and an all-black baseball team reaching heights they weren't supposed to achieve. I needed to be reminded of that and so did America.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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