In the week since the news broke that Jackie Robinson West will have all its titles, including the United States Championship, stripped I have felt conflicted. I have not known where to place my emotions. Should I be angry with the parents and coaches who bent the rules to give their team an advantage? Should I be sad for the players who played with everything they have inside themselves and nearly won it all, just to see it all taken away? Should I feel empathy for the players and teams Jackie Robinson West beat while they used players that should not have been on the team in the first place? Should I be happy the cheaters were caught? Should I feel bad that such a great story has been tainted?
I tried to figure out which emotion I should feel, but I have decided I should just feel everything. Sports take people through every kind of emotion, so why should this story be any different? Ultimately, I have come to see how this situation can be for the better. As a society, situations like this make us step back and examine the pressures we place on kids who are on the field to play a game. Did the Jackie Robinson West players what to make it to Williamsport and win a championship? Absolutely. This is true of every team that started out playing in the local tournaments. However, I believe every kid played because they love baseball. They are not out there to be on television, or to catch the eye of a scout or coach, they play because they love the game. Adults some time lose sight of this fact, and I have no doubt while Jackie Robinson West was caught bending the rules until they broke, they were not the only team to do so. The success the adults craved is in some ways what led to their downfall.
Dwelling on the actions of the adults who to mentored and guided the players will not lead anywhere productive. People will do anything to achieve a goal if they believe in it strongly enough. Unfortunately it seems those in charge of leading Jackie Robinson West went too far in trying to help thee players achieve their goals.
In seeking to gain an understanding of the situation and to sort out my emotions, I read a piece written by Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates in The Players Tribune about how baseball is increasingly difficult for people from lower income families. Players need exposure to be “found”, but exposure costs money. The evolution of amateur baseball has made it where players play outside their immediate communities at younger and younger ages. Players start to play regionally, and for families without disposable income this shuts the door on gaining exposure to professional scouts and college recruiters. This change in baseball puts player on teams like Jackie Robinson West at a distinct disadvantage. Traveling to play in tournament means having enough money to have weekends off, having a car to drive to the games, food and possibly hotels can quickly increase the costs of playing baseball to unrealistic levels. This does not even cover the necessities such as having quality coaches, a field to practice on, and proper equipment. In poor communities, a single team may have to rely on the generosity of the entire community to have an opportunity to make a better life. Imagine if your biggest fear was not failing when you had the opportunity to change your life, but rather never getting that opportunity.
I do not pretend to know the individual situations of the players on Jackie Robinson West. What I do know is that on nearly every team, in every sport there is at least one person who is using the sport of their choice as a means for changing their life. A player can use sports to stay off the streets and out of trouble, thus enabling them to finish high school. They can use sports to gain the partial scholarship that they need to make going to college a reality. Success in sports does not always mean success on the field; success is what a person can make out of their efforts and where they lead them. Does it matter if despite all the controversy, none of the Jackie Robinson West players ever makes it to the major leagues? What if an extra player is seen by a high school coach and gets the mentoring of someone who will encourage them to be successful in the classroom? What about a college recruiter looking up a player in a few years and offering them the chance at a college education in exchange for their playing baseball at a small college in the middle of nowhere? What if a player gets signed to a professional contract and is able to provide for their family and lift them out of poverty, but never makes it to the majors? Are these not successes which come from playing a sport?
It is a fair argument to say the misdeeds of the adults surrounding Jackie Robinson West took away the opportunity from another team, from another player. I do not have an argument against that, but what I can hope for is the outcome from the controversy will result in more players from all backgrounds getting an opportunity to shine. Sports, especially baseball, will prove on the field who has it and who does not. Baseball combs through thousands of players every year looking for just a few who can rise to the top and play in the majors. If you cannot hit a curveball, I am sorry but you had your chance, but you had your chance. It is a shame that so many people never get their opportunity due to circumstances that are often beyond their control.
Little League reminds us all why we love baseball and the pure joy we all had when we played as kids. Unfortunately, the desire to win is locking many people out, who given the opportunity could be great. Players like Andrew McCutchen and those on Jackie Robinson West are proof that given the chance there are those out there who can do amazing things through baseball. However, they are also a reminder to the walls the sport has created in its zeal to find the next hot prospect or the next super star. These walls, which shut out so many, must be torn down. If not, too many players will never have the opportunity to find their own success, and this would be the greatest tragedy of all.