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–>What’s left to believe in?

If we can’t believe in the inspirational story of a group of black kids overcoming huge odds, what’s left?

Jackie Robinson West, carrying the name of an American hero, has been stripped of the 2014 U.S. championship because it cheated, according to Little League International. The team is accused of using players from outside its assigned geographic area.

Its manager, Darold Butler, has been suspended.

Damn.

If you can’t shake the sick feeling in your stomach, you’re not alone. There have been few stories that have captured the country’s imagination the way JRW did last summer. It made us feel good. A group of 11- to 13-year-old African Americans who played with heart and spirit. Kids who looked like miniature versions of big-league ballplayers with their smooth swings and reflective sunglasses. Kids who represented Chicago so well with their poise and sportsmanship.

Whatever deep racial divisions there might be in the United States, most people, regardless of skin color, could agree that this was awesome. We all believed. We believed in something more than a baseball team. We ached for the possibility of more.

But, no. Adults were involved. And when adults get involved, bad things have a bad habit of following. Little League International says that JRW expanded its boundaries in order to have a larger pool of players from which to choose. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Wednesday that JRW All-Star officials asked neighboring leagues to lie about a backdated boundary map it had used to build the team’s roster.

The shame is that Butler and his coaching staff did a great job with these kids, and not just with the baseball part. They played hard but fair. They were unfailingly polite. They seemed to understand that they stood for so much more than their South Side neighborhoods.

If the allegations are true, what was that parade through the streets of Chicago for, and what were we celebrating at the rally in Millennium Park that day in August?

What does the team’s trip to the White House mean?

Go ahead and say that no one can take away what these kids accomplished in Williamsport, Pa., but you’ll be wrong. Little League International just did. And those games and those children are tainted because of the actions of adults.

Maybe JRW would have won the U.S. title without players from outside its territory. But maybe it wouldn’t have – and that “maybe’’ is the only one that matters.

It pains me to write this. It pains me to write this with the anger and disappointment normally reserved for professional athletes and coaches.

But what’s left to believe in?

The great home-run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire was a lie.

Lance Armstrong was a fraud.

We can’t even trust NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who seemed to be the epitome of trustworthiness until he started telling stories.

Perhaps all of us wanted this a little too much.

There will be accusations of racism against Little League International. There surely will be some JRW supporters who will say that this action never would have been taken against a white team. But this isn’t about skin color. This is about adults behaving badly. We need to keep our eye on that particular ball.

These kids got used, and that stinks.

This is not the time for denials and protests. This is an opportunity for the adults involved, whether coaches or parents, to tell the children the truth. It will be painful for the grownups, but the kids will learn a valuable lesson: Adults don’t always do the right thing, but some of them admit to their failings.

If the adults don’t step up, it will be one disgrace poured on top of another.

It’s easy to say that everybody’s to blame, including the adults from other baseball leagues who reported Jackie Robinson West’s transgressions to the authorities. Attacking the whistleblowers for being petty and small might feel good, but no matter what their motives were, the cheating by JRW speaks for itself.

Likewise, you might feel the need to lash out at Little League International for not dealing with this earlier, before the kids became a terrific national story. But the administrators strike me as a much smaller version of the befuddled NCAA, which doesn’t have enough resources to keep up with all the cheaters in college sports. This is hardly the FBI’s investigative arm.

And one more thing: “Everybody cheats’’ is never a valid rationalization, but especially when you get caught.

It didn’t take an oversized heart to fall in love with this story. Too bad the story wasn’t entirely true.