Youth sports in the suburbs: "it's big business"

How youth sports climate helped create the Jackie Robinson West situation

  • Members of the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League baseball team participate in a rally celebrating the team's U.S. Little League Championship Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Chicago.

    Members of the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League baseball team participate in a rally celebrating the team's U.S. Little League Championship Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, in Chicago.

  • Members of the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League team met with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama last November. The team was stripped of its national championship Wednesday over rules violations.

    Members of the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League team met with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama last November. The team was stripped of its national championship Wednesday over rules violations. Associated Press

  • JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.com Palatine High School Counselor Alonso Ramirez talks with Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates.

    JOE LEWNARD/jlewnard@dailyherald.com Palatine High School Counselor Alonso Ramirez talks with Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 Superintendent Dan Cates.

  • Peter Caliendo

    Peter Caliendo

  • A crowd cheers at a Chicago rally for the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League team last year. The team was stripped of its national championship Wednesday over rules violations.

    A crowd cheers at a Chicago rally for the Jackie Robinson West All Stars Little League team last year. The team was stripped of its national championship Wednesday over rules violations. Associated Press

 
 
Posted2/12/2015 5:30 AM

Suburban parents and coaches say the saga of Jackie Robinson West losing its Little League title is an example of the problems facing youth sports today, and it's driven by money, overly involved parents and coaches who face intense pressure to win.

The solution to the problems remains a matter of debate, but local youth sports coaches say the Jackie Robinson West story has started important conversations about what's best for a child -- and it's not winning at any cost.

 

"The moral of the story is ... be careful of the pressure you put on these kids, and the expectations you set for them," said Alonso Ramirez of Des Plaines, a former Jackie Robinson West team member who now coaches baseball at Palatine High School. "We're trying to create adults here, not professional athletes."

On Wednesday, Jackie Robinson West, the national champion Little League team from Chicago's South Side, was stripped of its titles because it violated player boundary rules. The investigation began when a suburban coach alleged the team violated the rules by poaching top players from nearby suburbs. The Little League organization determined that Jackie Robinson West not only changed its boundaries, but also that league officials went to surrounding leagues to persuade them to go along with it.

The all-black team went on to win the national championship, capturing the hearts of Chicago, the country and the media, who loved the Cinderella story. Players were even flown to Washington, D.C., to meet President Barack Obama.

Coaches say it's not unusual to see bent rules and spotty enforcement in youth sports, which they say needs to change. What is consistent, however, is a culture that's intensely focused on creating "superteams" and winning.

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"There's always been pressure to win. And parents have always wanted to win. But now, look at how many tournaments there are. How many national events there are. How many travel teams there are ... it's big business," said Peter Caliendo of Hoffman Estates, who trains baseball coaches with Caliendo Sports International.

George Grubb, who oversees the Mundelein Stampede travel softball program, says parents are changing the way the game is played.

"They are dictating the program," said Grubb,.

Parents often don't just let their kids play. A couple of weeks ago, a father pulled his daughter off a 12-year-old team when he was told he would not be able to coach her during games or hover over her during practices.

"Parents just can't sit back and relax and enjoy the game," Grubb said. "Why? A lot of these parents are concerned about scholarships and contracts."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The reality is, most of these players will not make it to the college level, either because of their skill level, burnout or the limited number of scholarships available.

Grubb said it was much different when he was growing up.

"We got on our bikes and we rode to our baseball game. My parents usually didn't even come to watch," he says with a laugh. "We sat down to dinner and my parents would ask, 'How was the game?' Things are different now."

Parents are often required to take their children to different towns or even different states to play sports.

West Dundee-based Tri-Cities Little League manager Tim Mahoney defended parents, saying the vast majority are good, reasonable people with their hearts in the right place.

"To paint it with a broad brush, and say it's systematic, no," said Mahoney, whose team lost to Jackie Robinson West in the state championship last year. "This is a reminder that we have to do better."

Ramirez says being on the Jackie Robinson West team in the late 1980s taught him good sportsmanship, accountability and the importance being a good student. The team helped him get a scholarship to college, something he could have never otherwise afforded, and eventually he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians.

"I was heartbroken to hear about this," he said. "It's a hard lesson to learn."

• Daily Herald staff writer Kim Mikus contributed to this report.

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