UIC cheers national Little League champs

Jackie Robinson West team at Curtis Granderson Field

Jackie Robinson West, the Little League team that captured the U.S. title, played four times in June at Curtis Granderson Stadium, home of the Flames and city youth sports organizations. — Photo: Jackie Robinson West

By now, the whole city — even the country — is behind Jackie Robinson West, the South Side Little League team that captured the U.S. championship title and battled for the world crown.

But the team has no bigger fans than UIC Athletics, Flames baseball and Curtis Granderson, UIC grad and Major League player.

The team of 11- and 12-year-old baseball talents played four times this summer at Granderson Stadium, new home to the UIC Flames and Chicago youth sports organizations.

“Jackie Robinson West values its relationship with UIC and Curtis Granderson a great deal,” said Bill Haley, director of the team. “The partnership gives our kids the opportunity to play on a first-class facility in a university environment.

“In addition, Curtis is a unique role model who we want our kids to emulate.”

Watching the team crowned national champs was a thrill for UIC head baseball coach Mike Dee.

“To see a team like Jackie Robinson West, which has been a great program for a long time, make it to and win the national championships is unbelievable,” Dee said. “It was exciting for me to watch, just like it was for so many people in the city, especially because I know them.”

Granderson, an outfielder for the New York Mets who donated $5 million for the stadium, has pledged his support for creating partnerships with youth baseball organizations through his Grand Kids Foundation.

“One of the primary reasons we’re reaching out to youth programs is to help foster the quality of youth baseball in urban environments and increase the number of African-American participants,” Dee said.

More youth baseball teams are expected to play at Granderson Stadium next summer, Dee said.

“We had quite a few games this summer but we held the number down so we could use it as a dress rehearsal, so to speak,” he said. “We were very happy with what we were able to schedule out there and in 2015, we will be able to significantly increase the number of teams and athletes on our campus.

“We’re reaching out to about 40 different organizations and 17,000 youth players in Illinois.”

Jackie Robinson West players at Curtis Granderson Field

“Jackie Robinson West values its relationship with UIC and Curtis Granderson,” says team director Bill Haley. — Photo: Jackie Robinson West

Haley — a friend of Dee’s — was on hand for the groundbreaking of the stadium in October 2013 and its official opening in April.

“This is a combination of a first-class facility and a way to bring young people to a university campus. I think that’s a home run,” Haley said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Dee credits Jackie Robinson West’s leadership for the team’s success — Haley and his father, William, have directed the league since the 1970s.

“There’s been consistent, strong leadership for a long time and I think that stability has a large part to play, and they had a collection of really talented kids,” Dee said.

Granderson showed his own support for the team on social media, sharing photos of Mets players watching the team compete in the World Series and offering his congratulations. He wore the team’s yellow jersey before the Mets-Dodgers game Aug.23.

Granderson hopes the team spurs discussions about black youth and baseball.

“The cool thing is the way people talk about it,” Granderson said in an Aug. 14 New York Times article. “Like, ‘Wow, there is an all-black team out there; I didn’t know there was an all-black team playing.’

“The fact that people don’t realize that there is a black team means that people are under the assumption that black kids aren’t playing baseball. Hopefully this could be something that sheds light both in the African-American community and the non-African-American community.”

So could we see Jackie Robinson West players wearing Flames uniforms in a few years?

“There are certainly some very good players,” Dee said. “I was very impressed with the way the kids handled themselves and served as great representatives of the city of Chicago.”

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