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Dr. Drew Pinsky, not just a TV star, saves a high school football player's life

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3382506514_a5eda39e16In case you weren’t sure that celebrity doctor Drew Pinsky was a real-life physician, treating someone other than sex and celebrity rehabbers who sign a release to appear on television, here’s the story of how he saved a life at his son’s high school football game Halloween afternoon.

According to the Pasadena Star-News:

Allan came off the field after the injury and sat on the bench. He even exchanged words with a teammate before his condition worsened and medical professionals immediately responded.

“(Allan) complained of a headache, went to the side, collapsed, fell into a coma, stopped breathing and we were all there to attend to him, and he’s doing better as he left (the) field,” said Dr. Drew Pinsky, whose son Doug plays for the Panthers and assisted in the treatment of Allan.

The game was called with 3:29 to go and Chadwick declared the winner because it was up 31-19. Not that the score was on anyone’s mind that night. Here is more from a Nov. 1 statement put out by Polytechnic’s head of school, Debbie Reed:

On Saturday afternoon [Oct. 31] during a Varsity football game at the Chadwick School, sophomore Jackson Allan received a traumatic head injury which caused him to lose consciousness.

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Dr. Drew Pinsky, a Poly parent, was on the scene immediately and sustained Jackson until the EMTs arrived.  In addition, Dr. Roger Lewis, a Chadwick parent, assisted in providing care and helped to facilitate getting Jackson admitted for surgery quickly.

Jackson, accompanied by his father Les, was taken to the Harbor UCLA Medical Center, where he was met by his mother Rhonda.  Jackson underwent successful surgery to relieve pressure on the brain from internal bleeding.  Jackson’s family members, as well as Poly players, coaches, parents, friends, and administrators, were at the hospital.

We are especially grateful for the heroic efforts of Dr. Pinsky and prompt care and attention of Dr. Lewis, a faculty member and emergency room doctor at Harbor Medical.  Together with the emergency medical personnel, they made all the difference in Jackson’s progress.

Jackson will have a lengthy recovery, during which I know that he and his family will have the support of our community.   …

A time like this is most obviously a trial for Jackson and his family.  It also is a test for the entire Poly community, as we wrap our collective arms around this young man to let him know how much he means to us as we wish him well and pray for his full recovery.

A Facebook support group for Jackson Allan is here. His father wrote:

“Jackson had a good night and his mom and I are with him constantly. He is at UCLA Harbor and in the best possible hands. He had surgery which went as well as it could have. He remains stable but critical and the next few days are key. He is under very heavy sedation but still manages an occasional response to the loving and kind words that we are relaying to him. He is hearing your prayers. Thank you so much to everyone. We will update you as Jackson improves.”

Certainly much has been written lately about the head-injury risk even youth football players face, including research showing football representating the lions’ share of 400,000 concussions suffered by high school athletes nationwide.

Jackson Allan was fortunate enough to have a physician, who just happens to be one of the biggest celebrity physicians west of Sanjay Gupta, who acted quickly and smartly until further help arrived. Unfortunately, most youth football players who might suffer similar injuries don’t have that luxury.

Written by rkcookjr

November 1, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Muscle Shoals: Full of athletes, not musicians, seeking fame

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pronounced ‘leh-’nin-’grad ‘cow-’boys.

Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, although the singles coming out of there these days have a lot more to do with Wilson Sporting Goods than Wilson Pickett.

From the Natchez, Miss., Democrat:

Muscle Shoals has turned into a youth sports Mecca thanks to an aggressive mayor, city council and parks and recreation department and quality recreation facilities built in the past 12 years. …

And one of the reasons the city is able to put so much money into recreation and offer so many different programs is the amount of money they bring in from hosting tournaments at their main facility, the Muscle Shoals Sportsplex.

The Sportsplex is four 300-foot baseball fields in a wheel shape with a press box in the middle. In addition to baseball games played there in the summer, the fields are also used for flag football and soccer games during the fall and winter.

The Sportsplex was built in 1997 at a cost of $1.4 million using a half-cent sales tax the city uses for what they call capital projects. … [The] tax wasn’t originally for building recreation facilities, but for storm drainage projects.

They’re not swimming in open sewage in Muscle Shoals — it turned out the city of 12,000 had extra money after repairing its drains.

[T]he Sportsplex will usually host 10-15 tournaments per year, with two of them usually being large tournaments.

This year, Muscle Shoals hosted the Dixie Youth State Tournament as well as the Super NIT for the USSSA travel team league, which featured 120 teams in town over a weekend. The city will be hosting that particular tournament for the next five years.

One reason the city has been so successful hosting multiple tournaments is because of the aggressive way they bid on them as well as the fine facilities.

[T]he city estimated this year’s Dixie Youth State Tournament brought in between $2 and $3 million into the city.

And this, folks, is why cities of all sizes nationwide — even as poorer families are choking on school athletic cuts and pay-to-play for activities — are falling all over themselves to try to build new, spectacular youth sports facilities. It’s a way for small cities that can’t build a stadium to attract an NFL team to get a share of the sports booty out there for the taking. Natchez cares about Muscle Shoals — lusts after what it has — because voters in the city and surrounding county on Nov. 3 will vote in a nonbinding referendum whether it should build its own tax-supported field of economic dreams.

At least with youth sports facilities, unlike a 75,000-seat stadium, if you don’t attract high-level competition, at least the locals can use them, thus somewhat justifying their expense. Still, you can’t help but think that in a few years there are going to be stories about municipalities choking on the expenses.

If you want a preview of how that works, look at a lot of the big high school gyms built in Indiana when it was in its industrial glory, and when people cared enough about high school basketball to fill a 6,000- to 9,000-seat gym night after night. Now, even the residents of Anderson, Ind. — as a decimated former GM company town, it often has been Flint without Michael Moore — question why the school district continues to support the 9,000-seat Wigwam when it could have used the money to not close schools.

In Muscle Shoals, woe be to the city council if the youth tournaments stop coming, and the city ever floods.

Written by rkcookjr

October 25, 2009 at 4:26 pm

When youth sports die, they can take a school and city down with them

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I think we can all agree that organized youth sports are not 100 percent essential to the school or growing-up experience, in that plenty of people grew up to be productive, non-prison-occupying citizens without them. However, a major change in how a school or locality treats youth sports can be a symbol of that school or locality’s falling into the abyss.

Much has been written about the impact of the South-Western City School Board in Columbus, Ohio, dropping all extracurricular activities after voters failed to pass a tax levy, and how that has further drained the energy of the district. In May I went to Elkhart, Ind., to write about youth sports in America’s poster child for sudden employment, and I found the dividing line between whether someone thought themselves as out-of-work middle class or poor depended a lot on whether they could still scrape together a few nickels for youth sports. After all, if they didn’t have the money to spend anymore on something they believed benefited their children, they didn’t have money for the basics, either.

But today’s city and school on the edge of the economic abyss is Elk Grove, Calif., where the school system is looking at cutting out all freshman and junior varsity sports, and even some varsity programs, across nine high schools, thus filling about $1 million of a projected $42 million budget hole, and resulting in one-third of the athletic budget gone. The next meeting to discuss sports is scheduled for Oct. 19, with a decision expected in November. Unlike in some other districts that have cut sports but brought them back, Elk Grove doesn’t seem keen on having local boosters raise money to “buy back” teams on the chopping block.

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Elk Grove, a former dairy town, in 2006 was declared by the U.S. Census the fastest growing city in America, peaking at 136,000 residents. Average values that year were riding their highest, $458,000.

Now they’re at $227,000 — about a 50 percent drop in three years. Elk Grove was the first new megasuburb to realize its fast growth was a mirage, built on loans its residents couldn’t afford, particularly once they started losing their jobs. Instead of a suburban paradise, Elk Grove is watching presumed inner-city crime problems move in as squatters and renters take over what were once pristine McMansions.

While that is certainly more than enough to shake Elk Grove’s images among its own citizens, the final nail in their soon-to-be-repossessed coffin is the slicing of sports. Like in Elkhart, it’s the difference between down on your luck and down for the count. In Elk Grove, the varsity sports most likely to be cut are the likes of water polo, recently added sports that spoke to the town’s growth and affluence, and whose demise speaks to Elk Grove’s decline.

Not to say that the community is taking this change of status lightly. John Tuttle, the volunteer water polo coach at Elk Grove’s Franklin High, told the Elk Grove Citizen the only towel that should be thrown in is one that a player of his used.

“Putting sport aside, I find this unacceptable and disturbing,” he said. “Teaching our kids about responsibility, accountability, and the fact that you have to work for what you want should be a high priority – and we are staring right at a real life situation that could easily accomplish this. Tossing it aside as too difficult and potentially inequitable suits leaders we can’t afford to be in charge in these tough economic times. “

Unfortunately for Tuttle and others like him, tossing things aside is the rule when your city suddenly becomes a basket case. Maybe some of the citizens of Elk Grove will respond by starting private programs to make up for the athletic loss. But with no sign of an economic turnaround, Elk Grove is going to be hard-pressed to keep any symbol of its former glory — especially sports.

God and cheerleader at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High II: Goodbye to the Good Book

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I’d say the Catoosa County, Ga., school board’s decision tonight (Oct. 13) to uphold its superintendent’s ban on football cheerleaders quoting Bible verses on banners is evidence that prayer doesn’t work, except that there could have been people praying the ban was upheld.

From the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Press:

Catoosa County’s Christian community turned out in force tonight in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., to call for lifting a ban on Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders’ Bible-verse banners, but school board members said they’re sticking to the decision.

“We adopted a resolution on October 1 acknowledging that (schools Superintendent Denia) Reese had taken the correct action, and that resolution stands,” Board of Education Chairman Don Dycus said.

Mr. Dycus spoke after board members met in executive session with attorney Renzo Wiggins.

Four people addressed the board about the ban during the public comments section of the evening meeting’s agenda, and the executive session and announcement followed immediately.

n140892811343_2526This verse makes more sense regarding the cheerleaders’ struggles than it does the football team, especially when you add the next verse: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life… .” By the way girls that’s 2 Timothy, not just Timothy.

Quick background in case you missed yesterday’s post: the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High football cheerleaders wrote Bible verses on the banner that players ran through as their introduction to the field at games. A parent, divinely inspired by a law class she took through fundamentalist Liberty University, complained to the superintendent that the Bible verses had to go because they violated separation of church and state and could be “divisive” to the community, the first time in recorded history someone used their Liberty University education to separate church and state. The superintendent grudgingly agreed, and ordered the Bible be stricken from the banners.

Really, this was an amazing case of public school authorities balancing freedom of religion with freedom from religion. The superintendent said cheerleaders could pray and quote the Bible all they wanted outside the stadium, and she was sympathetic to it as a Christian. But she and the board also balanced, well, if not the needs and desire of nonreligious students, the needs and desire of not getting their asses sued off while property taxes plummeted.

The meeting itself, with only four people speaking, doesn’t sound like it was a crazy quilt of crazy religious. You get the sense everyone kind of knew this was where things were heading. Interesting, because a Facebook support site for the cheerleaders, run by 2004 LFO High class president Brad Scott, notes that a similar effort to take down the Bible-verse banners was beaten back five years ago.

I sent an email to Scott earlier today to get his thoughts on things, particularly whether he or anyone else would try to launch a legal challenge to the board to get the Bible signs back. I haven’t heard back. It wouldn’t surprise if Scott did so, if nothing else but for the attention. A local newspaper article from fall 2003 notes that Scott was already active in Republican politics and someday wanted to be a U.S. Senator. As a high school senior, Scott was Catoosa County chair of Johnny Isakson’s U.S. Senator re-election campaign. He’s already had one unsuccessful run for state office. Scott, if he can find some partners, just could be the kind of guy to take his 15,000-member Facebook support group as a sign from God he should go to court and fight this.

I’ll let you know what he says, if he says anything.

Gun-toting soccer mom found shot dead (with update confirming husband killed her)

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Meleanie Hain became a gun-rights lightning rod when she sued the Lebanon County, Pa., sheriff for revoking her gun permit after other parents complained when she toted a holstered 9mm Glock 26 to her 5-year-old daughter’s soccer game.

Certainly Hain will become one again as news comes out that last night (Oct. 7) she and her husband were found shot to death in their home, which police entered after a two-hour standoff. Police are not yet calling it a murder-suicide, but neighbors told the Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News that they heard her children yell, “Daddy shot Mommy!” From the News:

Lebanon police Chief Daniel Wright was guarded with information as detectives began the preliminary stages of the investigation late Wednesday night. He acknowledged that the Hains were both found dead and had suffered gunshot wounds inside their 1 ½-story brick home in a quiet neighborhood in Lebanon’s southside. He would not provide any additional details, other than to say that police do not feel any other people were involved.

District Attorney David Arnold, who was at the scene, refused to comment.

Several neighbors said they heard or saw the couple’s children run from the house screaming, “Daddy shot Mommy!” shortly before the 911 Center was called at 6:20 p.m.

The children, 2- and 6-year-old girls and a 10-year-old boy, were in the care of a neighbor and were unhurt, said Wright.

The Philadephia Inquirer provides some background on Hain’s personality and lawsuit:

Meleanie Hain and her gun-toting ways came to national attention last year, when she filed a federal lawsuit against Lebanon County and Sheriff Mike DeLeo for revoking her gun permit.

He did so after parents complained about her wearing the Glock at her 5-year-old daughter’s Sept. 11, 2008, game.

The suit sought more than $1 million for violating her civil and constitutional rights. A hearing in the case was postponed in May.

Because of sheriff’s comments, “people think I’m still an idiot,” said Hain – a vegetarian and self-styled Krishna “pseudo-devotee” – about the suit last year.

DeLeo, an NRA member, said he revoked the permit out of concern for the safety of children.

Nevertheless, a judge reluctantly restored her permit last October.

Her husband, who works in law enforcement and taught her to shoot [note: Hain worked as a parole officer in Reading, Pa.], was avoiding the publicity last year, out of fear of losing his job, Meleanie Hain told the Inquirer in December.

Other reports say neighbors and friends noticed recently that the Hains were having marital problems.

If it’s true she was shot by her husband, Meleanie Hain’s death would be ironic if it weren’t so damn tragic, especially with small children involved — small children who appear to have witnessed her being shot.

It will be interesting to find out if Meleanie Hain, who was known to carry a gun everywhere, not just to the soccer field, tried to use it before she was shot.  Was the one time she was caught without a gun the one time when she really needed it?

I predict Hain’s death will be picked over by those who support gun control, and those who do not. And like with abortion, no one will change their opinion. Certainly not in Tennessee, where you’re allowed by law — except if overruled by local government — to bring your gun to any youth sports event held in any park.

OCT. 9 UPDATE: Lebanon police confirm that Scott Hain shot his wife — and why she never had a chance to pull a gun on him. From the Lebanon Daily News:

The man, who police only identified as a mutual friend of the Hains, was engaged in a webcam video call with Meleanie Hain while she was in the kitchen Wednesday evening about 6 p.m. The call had been going on for several minutes and the man had turned his head from the screen for a moment when he heard a gunshot and a scream, said police.

When the man turned to look at the camera, police said he observed Scott Hain walk into view and fire several times in the direction of where he last observed Meleanie. He saw nothing else and the connection eventually terminated, police said.

After making repeated attempts to contact anyone inside the Hain household [a police team] entered the South Second Ave. home shortly after 8 p.m. where they found Meleanie Hain, 31, in the kitchen and Scott Hain, 33, dead of a bullet wound to the head in the upstairs bedroom.

The Hains’ three children made it out of the house unharmed.

Also found in the house were several handguns, a shotgun, two rifles and several hundred rounds of ammunition, said police.

Written by rkcookjr

October 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Update on the Stinson trial: Are the jurors watching "The Biggest Loser"?

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player-thumbOn Thursday, the jury is scheduled to start deliberating the case of David Jason Stinson, on trial in Louisville on reckless homicide and wanton endangerment charges in the August 2008 death of one of his players. 15-year-old Max Gilpin, who died three days after overheating at one of Stinson’s Pleasure Ridge Park High School practices. I would say, as said numerous times before the trial, that the chances of convicting Stinson are slim. Not that it has anything to do with the trial, but those thoughts intensified after watching a recent episode of a weight-loss show that featured people getting yelled at and collapsing of heat stroke.

You can go to the site of Stinson’s hometown Louisville Courier-Journal for the best blow-by-blow coverage, including video archives and live testimony. In my never-earned-a-JD legal opinion, the prosecution’s presentation created plenty of reasonable doubt, with discussion about how Gilpin had a viral infection the day of the fateful practice that had already elevated his body temperature, as well as discussion about his use of Adderall and creatine, which can accelerate dehydration.

Then there was the county coroner saying he never performed an autopsy because he didn’t see any “malfeasance,” with the coroner and investigators saying this was the first homicide case they could remember where an autopsy hadn’t been performed. (The official ruling is that Gilpin died of septic shock.) Also, the lead investigator said he never talked to any medical professionals. Meanwhile, players testified that while Stinson ran a tough practice in 94-degree heat-index conditions, he did allow water breaks and didn’t time the end-of-practice wind sprints that immediately preceded Gilpin’s collapse — that is, he allowed players to run them at their own pace, an unusual move when a coach is having players run gassers.

To me, these creates plenty of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, which is based on the assertion that Stinson denied his players water breaks in the heat, and thus created the conditions for Gilpin’s death. Not enough reasonable doubt for the judge to uphold a motion by the defense to dismiss the case. But I would be shocked if Stinson got sent to jail.

The case is getting a lot of attention because it’s the first time, that anyone knows of, a coach has been charged for the practice- or game-related death of player. It also has many coaches and organizations, legitimately, looking over their policies about heat safety, medical disclosures and emergency treatment. But it also has coaches at every level fearing whether pushing players to their physical limits is a criminal act.

You don’t have to be a hard-ass to do that — it’s what coaches, such as myself, often do. Sometimes you have players run a little extra to get their attention. You have them do it to get in shape. You have them do it because you want to know how far your players can go, and you want to show them how far they can go if they push themselves. Do some coaches go overboard with it? Oh, yeah. Was Stinson being kind of a dick saying, before Gilpin collapsed, he wasn’t going to stop having the players run until somebody quit? Oh, yeah. But being a dick by its ownself isn’t a crime.

I was thinking of Stinson when I watched Tuesday night’s premiere of the NBC weight-loss reality show, “The Biggest Loser.” Now its eighth season, regular watchers know what’s coming: morbidly obese people pushed beyond what they believe is their physical limits in the name of losing weight and getting healthy. The show’s trainers, particuarly Jillian Michaels, have built brand names out of being tough-as-nails, no-excuses coaches to the show’s contestants.

Two moments in the show had me wondering whether the jurors watched the show, and what they thought. The first came when one of the contestants collapsed near the end of a mile walk/run, which the contestants were told to do before they had even met their trainers. Contestant Tracey Yukich collapsed about 100 yards short of the finish line, saying her legs had turned to jelly. A medic arrived, but instead of treating her right away, he and the other contestants dragged her to the finish for the purported reason that she would have been so disappointed had she not made it. After she “finished,” Yukich’s eyes started rolling to the back of her head, and she was unresponsive. A helicopter had to be called to the scene, and Yukich had to spent the rest of the week in the hospital.

The cause of her problems, which were not mentioned on the show: heat stroke. In many ways, Yukich’s situation was a lot like the way Gilpin’s collapse was described. And like at that practice, Yukich wasn’t whisked off right away — at first there seemed to be some confusion and disbelief that prevented a rush to treatment. And this was on a show packed with medical staff, not a high school football team that may or may not have a trainer present.

You can fault “The Biggest Loser” producers for possibly being the ones who wanted to see Yukich cross the finish line. After all, in a show predicated upon the conceit that even the fattest among us can push ourselves physically, nothing would send America back to Ding Dongs as watching a contestant die before reaching the end of a workout. While I know the producers have a storyline to push, I also know that nothing would get the show canceled faster than someone dying, period. But as to the argument that Stinson and the other coaches didn’t react quickly enough — well, it appears few ever do, even when they have the training to do so.

The second moment on “The Biggest Loser” that had me thinking of Stinson was the relationship between trainer Jillian Michaels and 476-pound Shay Sorrells, the heaviest contestant ever. Michaels has built a lucrative brand off of being a hard-ass, and she was screaming at Sorrells when she quit in the middle of a workout. Now Sorrells is a troubled soul who was in foster care most of her childhood because of a heroin-addicted mother, and at 476 pounds she was being put through a workout that would have a lot of fit people heaving. But Michaels was yelling, calling her a quitter, saying it was time to stop being the victim. There was no mercy.

Funny thing is, the tough-as-nails approach appeared to work. After Michaels ignored Sorrells while she had a good cry outside, Sorrells came back in and finished the workout.

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I’m not going to argue whether Michaels was right in yelling at Sorrells as a means of inspiration. But millions of people, perhaps including Stinson jury members, watch “The Biggest Loser.” Even if they were never yelled at by a football coach, they’re familiar with trainers and coaches who push, cajole, and, yes, yell, as a means of inspiration and drawing out the best in somebody. “The Biggest Loser” is as mainstream as it gets.

Knowing that, it’s hard for me to believe that jurors are going to look at Stinson’s contact and see anything unusual. Does that mean everything he did was all right? Probably not. In the end, Max Gilpin’s death is going to go down as a tragedy that was more about the unique circumstances of a child’s health doing a certain activity on a certain day than it is a referendum on whether coaches should tone it down. If nothing else, Stinson’s trial is causing coaches to re-examine what they do; I know I will. But it won’t send Stinson to prison.

You suck (at finding a job), ref!

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This is how bad the economy has gotten. It’s driven otherwise sane people who usually try to avoid getting yelled at by strangers to become youth league referees. From the Canadian Press:

Administrators around the country are reporting an increase in the number of people interested in officiating, especially in areas hit hard by the recession. The job typically won’t make ends meet but it can help: A particularly active referee can earn more than US$10,000 in a year.

Barry Mano, president of the National Association of Sports Officials, has long noticed an inverse relationship between the economy and sports officiating. When more people have free time and are looking for work, it’s easier to find officials.

High school sports organizations in the Rust Belt are reporting a significant uptick. Michigan had just over 13,000 officials last school year, up 1,000 from five years previous. The situation is similar in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Hank Zaborniak of the Ohio High School Athletic Association says it’s easy to tell which parts of the state are struggling economically. Those are the places with plenty of officials.

“When the steel mills closed down in Youngstown and the manufacturing drops off, we’ll see a spike,” Zaborniak said. “We’ll see more folks from that area of the state enter officiating, and often times it’s because of the additional income, just to help offset what they might have lost.”

2054636125_c12f6d6ab0“You’re fucking blind! And unemployed!”

If I lost my job, I would have to think long and hard about whether getting screamed at by parents and wanna-be Belichicks would be something I would want to do. I’m not sure I love my family that much.

Written by rkcookjr

August 24, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Posted in Sports, U.S.

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How one urban youth baseball league succeeds

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On the morning of the day he leaves to watch his son’s all-star team play in a Little League tournament game, Bill Haley is doing two things at the Jackie Robinson West field on the south side of Chicago. One is keeping watch while a crew films a commercial for Harris Bank. “You’d think they were making Star Wars,” Haley says. The other is talking to me on the phone about how a normal thing for him and his league — African-American kids playing baseball — seems so unusual to most everyone else.

“I can understand why it’s news, but I don’t think it’s news,” Haley said.

In this previous piece on Jackie Robinson West, I talked about the long-term decline in the percentage of African-Americans in Major League Baseball, from about 30 percent in the late 1970s to around 10 percent now. I talked about how that has become a symbol of many blacks’ overall disengagement from the game, compared with earlier generations. And how an all-black team making the Little League World Series in 1983, as Jackie Robinson West did, is not big news, but that team making the LLWS this year could be a very big deal, given Major League Baseball’s greater sensitivity and awareness to its dwindling African-American base.

object022Jackie Robinson West’s second straight appearance in the Great Lakes Region final in Indianapolis, the last stop before South Williamsport, Pa., is a very big deal to Haley, but not for the reasons listed above. It’s a big deal because it’s his league — and his 12-year-old son, Adam — playing a big series. Black has nothing to do with it. For that matter, Jackie Robinson West’s playoff road is gravy to the real goal of the league, the stated goal of most local leagues — “give kids something to do, and provide an outlet for the adults.”

What makes Jackie Robinson West succeed as a league is the same as what makes any league succeed, no matter the players’ race, ethnicity or income status.

“It’s a combination of factors,” said Haley, a dispatcher for the Chicago Transit Authority. “Our league has a strong tradition. The coaches were once players. It’s taken hold in the community. You pull kids from a limited area, so there’s a sense of community to start out with. Being state champions (the league has won two Illinois championships in a row) is incidental to what we’re trying to do.”

The key, Haley said, is not the children. “It’s the adults. Baseball is a family game. It starts with just a dad playing catch with his kids. You’ve got a dad who hits pop flies on a Sunday. That’s where the connection comes in.

“That’s how it started for me.”

No surprise, because Haley’s father, Joseph, founded the Jackie Robinson West league in 1971. There was some sociological significance to that as well. In 1960, the Washington Heights neighborhood on Chicago’s south side was 88 percent white. Thanks to a decade of blockbusting, white flight and black emigration from other parts of the city and the South (Joseph Haley was from Louisiana), by 1970 the neighborhood was 75 percent black. (My suburb, Oak Lawn, had its big population boom in the 1960s thanks to white people fleeing Washington Heights and other south side areas that, as Chicago residents still diplomatically put it, were “changing.”) By putting the league together, Joseph Haley, who died four years ago, created a center for the mass of new arrivals in Washington Heights, not only a place to play baseball, but also a place for adults to meet and greet.

Like many neighborhoods and suburbs on Chicago’s south side, a lot of the people who now live in Washington Heights are people who grew up in Washington Heights. (My Oak Lawn is that way — my wife and I moved all over the country and ended up a mile from her childhood home. Like south siders say, they always come back.) Washington Heights is nearly 100 percent black. However, not all urban neighborhoods are created unequal. Washington Heights is a stable, working- to middle-class area where the likes of a Bill Haley are around and available.

It’s not just that there are fathers around. It’s that whole families and neighbors are invested in the league and its success. Washington Heights is not unique in Chicago — there are baseball leagues in neighborhoods on all sides of the area served by Jackie Robinson West. For any youth league of any kind in any area to survive and thrive, you need adults who are invested (hopefully in a productive way) in their children’s lives. You also need people who respect the league and its traditions. That’s easier to do when you have people like Haley, who played, and then coached (so does his brother). Haley’s 16-year-old daughter, once a Jackie Robinson West cheerleader, helps to coach the newest generation. The league has annual reunions of past players.

That’s not to say Washington Heights and all the kids at Jackie Robinson West are all about baseball. “What people don’t realize is the tremendous amount of energy and time that goes into basketball,” Haley said. “I can’t tell you how many kids we lose to basketball.” That’s become particularly acute since a few years back, thanks to the success of a recent graduate of the nearby high school, Simeon — the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose.

However, “we’re not in competition with basketball,” Haley said. The success of the older kids does help generate excitement in baseball, to be sure. “We’ve got a whole park of 7- to 10-year-olds watching these guys like they’re Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Milton Bradley.”

Some might read Haley’s naming of those three players as a way of holding up black role models in baseball (with Lee and Bradley among the relatively rare African-Americans in the majors). I tend to think of it as Haley not being a true south sider by rooting for the stinkin’ Cubs. Hey, if we want to talk African-American baseball role models, how about 2005 World Series MVP Jermaine Dye, or DeWayne Wise, who made the greatest catch ever to save a perfect game? Oh, did I mention I’m a White Sox fan by marriage?

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But I digress.

Speaking of major leaguers, Haley isn’t sure about the various MLB initiatives to goose African-American participation and big-league representation.

The success of “our league is simple. The commitment of the adults in the community. They believe this is important for the kids to have. Without that, if it’s not organically grown, [a league or initiative] is just a good idea. Time well tell whether they have any success. Though I’m always concerned when the forces behind something like this is not at the ground level.”

In its first game in Indianapolis Thursday night, Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West beat Columbus, Ind.’s Bartholomew County 4-2 in the Architecture Bowl. It has round-robin play this week before the championship round. If Jackie Robinson West keeps winning, you’re likely to hear more about how something so ordinary to Haley seems so extraordinary to others. The goal is no more high-minded than having a good baseball league that kids enjoy and parents support.

By the way, Harris Bank wasn’t filming a commercial at Jackie Robinson West as some sort of statement. It just liked the field.

Written by rkcookjr

August 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Rapid City's Little League success has another South Dakota city seething

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In most things South Dakota, Sioux Falls is king. It’s the biggest city in the state and one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States, thanks to your credit card payments. It’s in the politically dominant East River, as in the part of South Dakota east of the Missouri River. But when it comes to baseball, Sioux Falls is constantly in the shadow of smaller, more hickish, West River Rapid City.

As another Rapid City team makes its way to the Central Region finals of the Little League national tournament (this time it’s Harney, which beat Rapid City’s Canyon Lake, the team that in 2008 became South Dakota’s first representative in the Little League World Series), Sioux Falls has had it with those Black Hills bucketheads stealing all the attention. If Rapid City’s 12-year-olds are on ESPN, the rest of the nation might think they’re better, smarter and cuter than the ones in Sioux Falls!

So for some, the Sioux Falls Empire Baseball Association, the existing, independent league, wasn’t good enough.  A few coaches petitioned to start a Little League-affiliated circuit in Sioux Falls (to be fair, so did parents and coaches in other South Dakota cities). Matt Richardson, an assistant coach who is one of the people behind the effort, made no bones about not wanting to play second fiddle to those mouth-breathers across the state: “We are the largest city in South Dakota. We only think it’s fair that we have Little League baseball, because we have just as good, if not better, talent in Sioux Falls than Rapid City has.”

Alas, it’s not so simple to start a Little League circuit. Getting affiliation with the national organization is the easy part. Winning over the hearts and minds of the locals, and field time from the local park district, is hard. The Sioux Falls Park Board is still having the new Little League jump through hoops to show what it makes it so different that it should get precious diamond space at the possible expense of Empire baseball. In February, a few months after the effort started, things were already so bad the local Argus-Leader ran a can’t-we-all-just-get-along editorial.

While Sioux City stews (Stioux City?), Harney is basking in the glory of putting Rapid City on the map, again, by representing how well the state produces and exploits ball-tossing, stick-wielding 11- and 12-year-olds. Suck it, Sioux City!

Written by rkcookjr

August 3, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Race and baseball: the gravity-defying Little League dynasty of Jackie Robinson West

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If the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago makes it through the upcoming Great Lakes Region finals to the Little League World Series, it’s going to be the biggest story out of South Williamsport, Pa. Much bigger than the team’s previous LLWS appearance in 1983.

That’s because Jackie Robinson West is a team, and a league, comprised of a certain kind of person you don’t see in the major leagues as much as you used to. Look at the picture below and see if you can guess what kind of person that is.

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In 1983, African-American representation was off its peak of the near 30 percent in the late 1970s, but it was still a lot higher than the 8.2 percent rate in 2007, the lowest since 1959, when Pumpsie Green’s debut with the Boston Red Sox integrated every major-league team.

That rate is up above 10 percent now, but baseball is in full throttle pushing programs to fight the decline of African-American representation. It has an Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., to give top inner-city players travel-ball-type exposure, runs an RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program to encourage urban kids to play ball and presents an annual Civil Rights Game (Chicago White Sox vs. Cincinnati was this year’s), all in an attempt to make the sport more relevant to a community that once embraced the sport so tightly, so much so that Jackie Robinson intergrating the majors in 1947 is as much or more a civil rights touchstone as an historic baseball event.

One place where inner city baseball has never died, and where these MLB programs aren’t necessary, is the Jackie Robinson West league, headquartered on the south side of Chicago. Founded by Joseph Haley in 1971, the league boasts about 500 players, ages 8-16. Its 11- and 12-year-olds (the pool for the Little League World Series) has been Illinois state champions two years running. The league has its own stadium. It alumni include major leaguers such as Emil Brown, Marcel Wynne and the late Kirby Puckett. It gets high-ranking guests at its annual parade.

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Such as U.S. Senators/future presidents.

Theories abound as to why the decline in black players: more sport options, lack of fathers’ influence in largely single-parent communities, lack of money, and from Gary Sheffield, Latinos (whose representation rates have gone up at the same rate blacks’ have gone down) being “easier to control” than black players such as himself.

So how does the Jackie Robinson West league do it? I’ve made contact with Bill Haley, son of the league’s founder (who died at age 71 in 2005), to ask that very question. For instance, Haley, in an email to me, mentioned he has “some opinions on why [MLB inner-city baseball] initiatives have limited success and impact.” We’re going to try to talk early this week, before Jackie Robinson West opens Great Lakes Region play against Bartholomew County (Ind.) in Indianapolis. When we do, I’ll let you know the Jackie Robinson West secret.

Written by rkcookjr

August 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

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