U.S. Little League champs lose title for using ineligible players

Updated 10:36 PM EST, Wed February 11, 2015
01:22 - Source: CNN
U.S. Little League champs stripped of title

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(CNN) —  

They made America feel good, those kids from Chicago’s South Side who beat the odds and beat all contenders en route to the U.S. Little League championship.

But now those feelings, like the championship, are no more.

A team from Las Vegas is now the 2014 U.S. champion.

The international youth baseball organization also suspended Jackie Robinson West’s manager, ousted the local district administrator and barred the program from tournament play.

Reflecting on what he called “a heartbreaking decision,” Little League International President Stephen Keener said the Chicago team’s players can still be proud of what they accomplished last year.

“But it is unfortunate that the actions of adults have led to this outcome,” Keener added. “… As painful as this is, we feel it a necessary decision to maintain the integrity of the Little League program. No team can be allowed to attempt to strengthen its team by putting players on their roster that live outside their boundaries.”

Brandon Green, a player on the Jackie Robinson West team, said the players weren’t involved in anything that should cause the squad to be stripped of its title.

“We know that we’re champions, our parents know that we’re champions … and Chicago knows we’re champions,” he said at a news conference.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Keener and the two spoke for 10 minutes, a spokeswoman for the mayor, Kelley Quinn, said. Emanuel told the Little League official that the players didn’t deserve to be punished. The organization should have sanctioned the adults, he said.

“You have turned them into the perpetrators when they are the victims,” Emanuel told him, according to his spokeswoman. “You know what they have done for Chicago, and let’s face it, you know what they’ve done for your tournament.”

Named for the icon who broke baseball’s color barrier and consisting entirely of African-Americans, the Jackie Robinson West squad proved that, despite talk to the contrary, baseball was not dead among inner-city youths.

The team of mostly 12-year-olds from Chicago’s South Side earned raves after knocking out Sports Illustrated cover girl Mo’ne Davis’ Philadelphia team and rolling to the U.S. championship contest. It entered that game as an underdog to Las Vegas, which had beaten every team it faced – including crushing Chicago by a 13-2 score.

The title game was a much more even affair. The two squads swapped leads before Chicago jumped ahead for good with a three-run fifth inning en route to a 7-5 win.

In the World Series final the following day, Jackie Robinson West rallied late but couldn’t overcome the eventual champions from South Korea.

That loss didn’t halt the positive feelings about the team. Everyone from former Chicago White Sox great and baseball Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod cheered their success.

At the time of the Washington visit, local Little League officials were already investigating allegations because of a tip from a neighboring district’s official and documentation. Little League International initially determined that all of Jackie Robinson West’s players were eligible.

In the middle of December, though, “Little League began to learn of multiple issues with boundary maps and operational process with multiple leagues in Illinois District 4,” Little League International officials said in a statement.

Several more meetings followed, including one on January 31 when several issues came up, including that “Jackie Robinson West Little League used a falsified boundary map for their 2014 tournament and that Jackie Robinson West Little League officials met with other leagues in District 4 to try to get the territory they wrongfully claimed was theirs for their 2014 tournament.”

“During our review, it became clear that both Jackie Robinson West officials and (the) District Administrator … signed documents to make players eligible who should not have been,” Keener said.

CNN’s Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.