After months of getting nowhere, the Jackie Robinson West Little League team is headed to court to try to force the disclosure of information used in the investigation that stripped the team of its national title.
Victor Henderson, an attorney hired by JRW to investigate what happened to the team, said Wednesday that Little League officials refused to provide that information, so he has filed a court action against the league seeking only the disclosure of this information — not money or any other punitive damages.
The team was stripped of its national title by Little League International — the youth sport’s governing body — in February after officials determined that JRW coaches violated boundary rules by fielding boys from outside a sanctioned area.
Players wearing their signature yellow jerseys sat behind Henderson as he spoke from a podium at the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center in the Roseland neighborhood on the city’s far South Side.
One key bit of information the lawsuit seeks to discover is whether any of the information provided to the league about where players lived was obtained by illegally running the license plates of JRW parents.
In an emailed statement, Brian McClintock, spokesman for Little League International, wrote: “As we have not had the opportunity to review the petition, it would be inappropriate to comment on it specifically.”
McClintock insisted that all matters of eligibility are taken seriously.
“All 152 teams participating in the 16 Little League Baseball Regional Tournaments in 2014 underwent the same eligibility verification process,” he said, noting that the process takes place before each level of play at the Little League International Tournament, not before every game, as Henderson asserted Wednesday.
“Ultimately, the Little League Charter/Tournament Committee found that Jackie Robinson West League violated Little League regulations by falsifying portions of its Tournament Eligibility Affidavit, and used past-precedent in determining the disciplinary action . . . Little League is rooted in fair play, and we appreciate that during the public announcement counsel acknowledged that Jackie Robinson West made mistakes.”
The lawsuit was a measure of last resort for Henderson after a Freedom of Information Request seeking information about the license plate searches from the Illinois State Police was denied. Henderson challenged the denial with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, which backed the state police decision.
Henderson, who waved a Little League rulebook during the news conference, also said that by the time the complaint was made about where certain JRW players lived, the window to make such complaints had closed.
He said that according to the rules, at such a high level of national play, the onus to review each team’s paperwork was no longer on volunteers but on paid Little League staffers. “That’s their responsibility,” Henderson said.
“We don’t know if they reviewed the paperwork. Little League wouldn’t tell us,” said Henderson, who admitted it appeared boundary mistakes were made by JRW. When asked if those mistakes were made intentionally, Henderson said, “No.”
“If we made some mistakes, we’re willing to recognize the mistakes we made. But we wanted to be treated fairly,” said Henderson, who called on the Little League to also recognize mistakes.
Giving up the title willingly would not be out of the question, said Henderson, who boiled the entire controversy down to a life lesson for the players.
JRW became the darlings of Chicago and a national feel-good story when the group of black youths and coaches from the South Side exhibited class and good sportsmanship while advancing to the international championship, where they lost to South Korea last August.
The team received a hero’s welcome upon returning home. Media crowded their gate at O’Hare Airport when they landed. They were feted by President Barack Obama, professional athletes and celebrities alike. And the city held a parade to honor them.
“The goal has always been to get the championship reinstated. We feel it was wrongly stripped from them,” said Glenn M. Harston II, who, along with Michael Peery — a former spokesman for the Rev. Jesse Jackson — is handling media relations for the team.