JRW and perception.

A lover of baseball since the age of 3, my affinity for the sport ratcheted up when I began tee ball, and it increased even more once I began my career on 85th and King Drive in South Side Little League’s “Minor League,” for baseball players in the age range of 7-9. After moving on to “Little League,” for 10-12 year-olds, and then “Senior League,” for 13-15 year-olds, I became a member of my high school’s varsity baseball team as a sophomore. “Traveling” baseball during the summer was basically a mandate in my household, so outside of Senior League play (by this time, for Hyde Park Kenwood Little League), another 30-40 games were on my schedule. I never noticed that as I had gotten older, the number of Black teammates I had decreased. It didn’t dawn on me that this was viewed as an epidemic of sorts by some scholars, historians, and journalists. Unfortunately, I ultimately figured this was the norm: If you’re Black and stick with baseball after the age of 12, Black teammates would be nearly as scarce as Nicki Minaj fans in a library on a Saturday afternoon. Oddly enough, it didn’t feel all that weird to look at my teammates and see nothing but White faces.

jrw

Jackie Robinson West Little League, 2014 US World Series Champions

While any team I played against was a rival, there was one particular adversary that really spoiled my milk as a kid: Jackie Robinson West Little League. We only played them in the district tournament, and usually it was in the championship game. Undoubtedly, “JRW” and South Side were the two best Little Leagues on the south side of Chicago, as evidenced by the fact that the two leagues played each other in both the 9-10 and 11-12 year-old tournament championship for five years straight. And while it was fun to play in the championship game, it wasn’t fun to lose. Every year. Sometimes, by an embarrassing margin. Simply put, Jackie Robinson West was always better than us, in just about every facet of the game of baseball.

It was a complete shock to learn that although South Side, JRW, and other all-Black Little Leagues like Rosemoor and Jesse Owens produced many talented baseball players, our community wasn’t seen as one that particularly cared about the sport. Some of that could be attributed to the ignorance of people who couldn’t fathom a group they perceived to be dim-witted and only interested in showing off their athletic prowess, to love a sport that has so often been called “a thinking man’s game.” We were “supposed” to play basketball or football, but not baseball. And if we did play baseball, we certainly didn’t take it seriously, because our future in athletics didn’t lie in that sport.

So holy hell, was I happy to see JRW playing in the 2014 Great Lakes championship game not even two weeks ago. I actually expected them to win, but just getting there was a huge accomplishment in its own. To see them come away victorious and do just a little to dispel the stereotypes that Blacks don’t care about baseball, all the way down to the youth, brought me immense joy.

Appearing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, would have been “enough” for me. Then again, if I were a member of JRW’s team, anything less than winning the entire tournament would have been a failure. Hitting. Pitching. Fielding. Throwing. Running. This JRW team had those five tools in their collective tool belt, and used them greatly as they won and won some more, beating Mo’ne Davis’ Taney (Philly, stand up) Little League team before beating a team from Las Vegas to be crowned United States champions. Sure, the task of beating South Korea in the Little League World Series title game, a team that had already won the Little League World Series twice before, was a tall one, but by this point I figured JRW was a force to be reckoned with. Despite the plentiful support from fellow Chicagoans, as well as a few prominent Black Major Leaguers, South Korea ended JRW’s dream run, beating them 8-4. Still, I’d like to believe the kids from JRW have acquired an absurd amount of juice because of their journey.

Who knows if what JRW accomplished will draw more Blacks to the sport. When Tiger was dominating golf in the late 90s and early 2000s, I assume that Black membership in golf increased, but probably not enough to be viewed as a revolutionary wave of new golfers. Venus and Serena Williams were not only good from the beginning of their respective tennis careers, but they brought much-needed flavor to a sport that had always been vanilla, figuratively and literally. Still, while one would probably not be able to argue that there wasn’t an increase in Black membership in tennis after the Williams’ rise to popularity, the average tennis camp would be predominantly White, I’m just assuming. Watch an NCAA tennis match and try to feign surprise when you see essentially an all-White squad, or one with no Blacks on it. Even when it comes to “counter-culture” sports such as skateboarding, black skater Stevie Williams’ success hasn’t exactly gotten many Blacks outside of his neighborhood and surrounding ones to follow his tracks to pro skating.

I do know that the media, both mainstream and underground, does a great job of demonizing and criminalizing young Black males in America, especially those who reside on the south side of Chicago aka the “inner city.” I do know that the JRW players owned this summer, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of us weren’t thinking of them just three weeks ago. I do know that there is at least one example to point to when a person questions whether young Blacks are interested in baseball anymore.

Baseball, a sport somehow still seen as our nation’s pastime, is ready for JRW. It should be, at least. And if it’s not, JRW or a team like it should just bust the damn door down, anyway.

Mayor Emanuel: No to schools, yes to a new arena for a (currently) terrible basketball program.

Demonstrators hold placards during a Chicago Teachers Union protest in ChicagoSomehow, we knew it would come to this, didn’t we, fellow Chicagoans? Those of us who were completely fed up and disenchanted with former Mayor Richard M. Daley felt that a vote for President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, would symbolize a complete change from the way the city was run under Daley. For 22 years, Daley oversaw a large metropolitan city and used his political power to manipulate the system so that his family and friends benefitted from it. Questioning his motives and policies were met with a patented Daley look of bewilderment, almost to suggest that you were completely out of line to wonder aloud why the city of Chicago is so rife with corruption, nepotism and a certain level of failure. So we voted for Emanuel, and we loved that the diminutive politician had already won a good number of us over by serving as the POTUS’s guard dog. Despite the fact that opponents of Emanuel like Gery Chico and Carol Moseley Braun had what I believe were much closer ties to the city, Emanuel picked up over 55% of the vote. When Chicago Public Schools teachers striked in mid-September, it wasn’t a good thing. Disregard that. It was one of the worst things that could happen to a weakening public school system with no viable resolution in sight. It’s true that Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, didn’t help the cause by letting Emanuel know while he was a mayoral candidate that if all demands weren’t met, the teachers would go on strike. She also didn’t aid matters when she resorted to insulting the mayor at a Labor Day rally in 2012. However, Mayor Emanuel is a scrappy little guy and made it clear that he and then-CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard weren’t going to make a bunch of blind concessions. Granted, asking for a 30% raise over 2 years when you’re an employee in a system that is over half a billion dollars in the red won’t endear you to many folks, even scholastic-loving parents. Yet, some were up in arms when teachers simply wanted better job security, health benefits and resources, as well as a new standard for evaluating students devoid of using standardized tests. I believe most of the public were on the teachers’ side, and I’m sure many felt that Karen Lewis destroyed Emanuel and Brizard (who later quit) on her way to a solid victory. As if the teacher’s strike wasn’t awful and embarrassing enough, then came the issue of the possibility of dozens of schools closing. I wrote in late-February about the potential closings and was incensed at the number of schools offered to be sacrificed to the elitist, capitalist gods. Well, instead of 129, “only” 49 schools have been closed. It’s been written that the closings were the largest in US history. 40,000 students were displaced and hundreds, if not thousands of teachers and staff members lost their jobs primarily due to mismanagement of the Chicago Public School system. Now, CPS has had issues before Mayor Emanuel took office, and I don’t mean to imply that he did nothing but exacerbate them, but he didn’t really do much to ameliorate them, either. Regardless of Emanuel’s efforts while there were dozens of schools on the chopping block, the fact that the closings happened during his term are not flattering. Decades from now, when thinking of Emanuel, two of the things that will stick out to me most are the teachers’ strike and school closings. Period. So, not long after the school closings were made official and people and families had to deal with not having a say in how their lives would be forever altered, it was reported that Mayor Emanuel wants new facilities for DePaul University’s basketball program. At the McCormick Place, of all places. The men’s program has a great history, but has been a complete joke over the last five seasons. An overall record of 47-121 (with a paltry seven conference wins over the last five seasons) means that you should probably be more focused on getting better over having better facilities, although top-notch facilities do make some difference when it comes to athletics. The women’s program has been much better, posting a record of 117-52 over the same period of time. There have even been tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 berth as well for the Lady Blue Demons. The guys hoop squad has been lucky to win a handful of games in the large and tough Big East conference. It’s true that the university, located in the rather plush Lincoln Park neighborhood, could use a new basketball arena for its program. The men’s and women’s teams have to play in Allstate Arena, in Rosemont, Illinois, which is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Chicago. Allstate Arena isn’t downtrodden, but no one will ever mistake it for a state-of-the-art basketball facility. Also, playing home games in the city would make it much easier for Chicagoans to see the Blue Demons play, and it’s safe to say that selling recruits on playing in Chicago instead of Rosemont would be a huge advantage. Chicago is home to some of the country’s finest high school basketball players, and it’s a shame that so many boys and girls not only pass on DePaul, but other in-state schools as well. DePaul’s contract with Allstate Arena expires after the 2015 season, and they clearly want a new home. As big of a college sports fan as I am, I am not a fan of DePaul athletics. I have nothing against the school or its athletic program, but I’m just not a fan, in spite of my Chicago roots. These feelings, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with my disdain for Mayor Emanuel’s proposal. This proposal isn’t new, but now that there are actual specifics, the plan is much easier to criticize. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, just what in the entire hell are you thinking? One large obstacle among many Chicagoans is what we would have to pony up to help build the new arena. $33 million in taxpayer money (out of the total cost of $173 million) isn’t much, really. And, oh yeah, Chicago isn’t in a world of debt right now, with systems failing all around and a lack of discourse that would ordinarily be used to help build them back up. Just focus on Emanuel’s $1.1 billion “Enhance Chicago” tourism and trade infrastructure revitalization effort, and all will be well. Yes, construction of the arena would create jobs, but the last time I checked, building an arena is not an eternal process. Nearly 4,000 permanent jobs as a result of the new arena would bring down Chicago’s unemployment rate of almost 11%, another boost to the city, but how exactly would a new arena do much to improve the “city’s quality of life,” Rahm? Would gang members suddenly call a truce in the spirit of DePaul’s new basketball home? Would the CPS high school graduation rate drastically increase because of the new facilities? Am I wrong when I express concern over how more tourists would stop gentrification, racism, classism, sexism and homophobia in the city? Dammit, we’re talking about a private school with a basketball program that is collectively less-than-stellar. Say what you will about the women’s program, but unless you’re talking about UConn, Tennessee or Baylor, there aren’t a lot of women’s basketball programs that are cashcows. So while DePaul’s women’s team is certainly at the least a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big East, they’re simply not the main attraction when it comes to DePaul basketball. Unfortunately, the onus to bring in the cash will almost always fall on the terrible men’s program, which in most male-dominated sports circles, is otherwise known as “the basketball program.” How will that happen when not even 3,000 people showed up per game for the men’s squad last season?! Of course, neighborhood residents aren’t too fond of the idea of using public taxpayer money to benefit a private (and Catholic) institution, and they’re right to at least question. Hell, there are people who don’t live anywhere near the 2nd Ward who can’t believe this could happen. Others and myself understand that the new arena would be used for more than just DePaul basketball, which somewhat softens the blow. Even though the United Center offered their services, rent-free, it wouldn’t be the smartest idea for a basketball program that has problems filling up Allstate Arena to try and do the same in the 22,000-seat UC. We would love it if Emanuel’s claims that the facilities would make Chicago second to none when it comes to tourism and hosting large events come to fruition, we really would. It’s just…we’re Chicagoans, and we know just how fucked up this city’s political arena can be. I wouldn’t put Emanuel in the same sentence as Daley just yet, but this plan stinks somethin’ serious. I fully anticipate that DePaul’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will be calling the McCormick Place home in the near future, and I also anticipate Chicago taxpayers coughing up hard-earned loot to help fund its construction and being peeved about it. To my understanding, not many Chicagoans have been enthused of late over DePaul basketball and I doubt that mentality will change anytime soon. No matter, because Chicago politicians do whatever the hell they please in the name of making our city “better.” Thanks for your concerns, Rahm. P.S. I am completely aware that there have been other stadiums and arenas built using public funds, and that it is something that will never cease to exist. The intent of this post was not to compare or really even single Chicago out as the lone city in America in which shady political dealings sometimes occur. I wanted to point out that Mayor Emanuel did not take the friendliest stance with CPS (and also shunned the entire hell out of the Cubs’ brass when they wanted renovations to the ever-craptastic Wrigley Field), but seems to be very enthused about reallocating already-diminished funds to help build a new basketball arena and convention center which in my opinion, are unnecessary. And for DePaul, a private Catholic institution, at that. Huh…

Lame sensationalism and its relationship with gun and gang violence in Chicago.

If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, or are a frequent viewer of Chicago newscasts, chances are you happen to be aware of many of the shootings that have taken place in Chicago so far in 2012, especially those that have occurred during the summer. Initial reports usually tell us that Person A shot Person B in a general location. Slowly, we get more details, including a more definite location, motive, weapon used and learn more about the perpetrator and victim. The amount of attention each shooting attracts generally depends on where the shooting took place, and who the perp and victim were. In fact, this method used by news outlets doesn’t apply to only gun violence. The “mob attacks” that seemed to plague some of the more affluent areas of the city this summer and last, happen with regularity in less affluent areas. A man who randomly attacks innocent people in Lincoln Park leads to these outlets doing seemingly everything in their power to put a stop to it. It’s not right, but it certainly is reality.

Like too many cities, large and small, Chicago has a problem with crime, especially criminal acts involving guns. As in other large cities, the shootings are disproportionately concentrated in the most disadvantageous neighborhoods. I believe it is safe to say that most acts of gun violence in the city involve gang members, be they acts of retaliation, initiation, or just senseless displays of aggression. According to the Chicago Police Department, not only does the city have the country’s largest gang population, but 75-80% of the city’s homicides are gang-related. There are an estimated 100,000 gang members in Chicago, compared to about 9,500 men and women (out of over 12,000) who are not just CPD employees, but police officers. Essentially, each police officer is responsible for 10.5 gang members. Take into account that obviously, officers have to worry about everyone outside of the gang spectrum who is up to no good, and it’s not very difficult to understand why police Supt. Garry McCarthy decided to hire close to another 500 Chicago police officers this year.

So how does the media often respond to a story of yet another shooting in Chicago? Sensationalism! Media types compare the environment here to one that can be found in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan. Or, we get an article with the headline, “Wild West In Chicago”. Also, you can’t forget the cries of hopelessness and pushing of statistics that indicate that you’re more likely to get killed in Chicago than in Kabul…except those findings are skewed and in reality, bunk.

Allow me to acknowledge that sensationalism is not a device used by only the media when they desperately want to land more viewers, listeners and readers. Annoying Chicago rap artists who have subscribed to it along with glorification have recklessly labeled Chicago “Chiraq”. Even more annoying Chicago rap artists have decided that “Killanoise” is a more apt name for our state than Illinois. I’ve read ignorant  tweets that paint Chicago as some sort of kill-or-be-killed, post-apocalyptic city where each citizen owns a bevy of firearms and Kevlar vests. These tweets are usually so blatantly false that I can only deduce that the original poster put it out there to gain followers.

Every once in a while, it takes a snazzy headline to get more people to pay attention. My main qualm is when the headline gets in the way of the actual story. Instead of sitting down and figuring out how we can at least curb gang violence in Chicago, we as a collective lose our minds at the notion that a large metropolitan city in America could be comparable to a war zone in any way. So desperate to get a laugh, we would rather spread the ignorance around rather than come up with viable solutions to the problem of wayward youth in Chicago. While I don’t agree that there is power in prayer or that it accomplishes much, if anything at all, I wouldn’t tell anyone who chooses to pray for the victims or even suspects not to do so. However, all of your “Pray 4 Chicago” posts and that general sentiment won’t do a damn thing to stop any of the violence that happens here. In my personal experiences, I have never heard of prayer stopping a bullet or leading a bullet into a brick wall instead of a 7 year-old girl, like Heaven Sutton, or 16 year-old boy, like Blair Holt.

I mentor when I have time and have actually had the privilege to sit in on a focus group or two, and still feel I don’t do nearly enough. I once overheard after a meeting, “Kids in Chicago read these stories and think this shit is a movie”. It’s somewhat hard to see the severity in a situation when at almost every turn, it is being glorified by those you feel you relate to (rappers) and sensationalized by those who convey to you that they’re just doing their jobs; that they’re simply conduits of information (media).

The youth in Chicago need us to lead by example, and making light of the situation or at times resorting to a bit of fear-mongering won’t help matters at all. Chicago is not the world’s deadliest city, people. Ridiculous headlines don’t do much for the city’s image, either. I’m sure that the stories of violence here have deterred more than a few visits and vacations. We give credence to the exaggerations with every retweet, repost, and endorsement of a particular conviction that our city is wild and out of control. Enough. Anyone who doesn’ t live under a rock knows that there are parts of this city with problems involving gang and gun violence. Now that many of us are in the know, it’s time to start looking for ways to completely eradicate these issues.