Hundreds of supporters came out Saturday to welcome some not-so-little leaguers back to Chicago’s South Side as world champions.
A Clear Ridge Little League team beat a team from Melbourne, Australia, on Aug. 6 to win the Little World Series Senior Division — for players 13 to 16 years old — capping a 16-0 regular season with a 5-0 run in the tournament in Bangor, Maine.
The victory also closed a decade with Clear Ridge teams for most of the 16 players on the roster from Garfield Ridge who have been playing in the South Side league since tee ball, said 16-year-old Zach Verta, the starting pitcher in Clear Ridge’s 7-2 finals win.
“I’ve played with a couple of these guys since I was 7 years old,” Verta said after stepping down from the stage at a rally near the ballfields at Hale Park that included a brief encomium from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a big-screen video board highlight video, a confetti shower and daytime fireworks display. “It was great just having fun, playing with our friends.”
The Clear Ridge lineup included players who are on the baseball teams at rival high schools in the Catholic League during the spring. Verta, a St. Laurence High School sophomore, said his older brother joined a similar band of former Clear Ridge house-league rivals that pulled together for a run to Bangor three summers ago, only to be swept out of the tournament. But the trip was an inspiration for this year’s team.
“These guys played their Catholic League summer games in the morning and came back to play for Clear Ridge at night,” said Verta’s dad and the team’s coach, Ray Verta. “It was the camaraderie they had that made them successful. You take any one of these kids off this team, they would not have been as successful.”
The Senior League tournament draws far less attention than Little League’s showcase series for players 13 and under — the age bracket in which Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West squad competed in the scandal-tainted 2014 tournament. Some of the parents at the rally, remembering the fanfare the JRW team received for its second-place finish, called out, “When do we get to go to the White House?”
The 2014 tournament marked some of the highest ratings for ESPN’s coverage of the Little League World Series, thanks in large part to the all-black Jackie Robinson team’s Cinderella storyline, but the team ended up being stripped of its runner-up title — after its celebratory trip to the White House — over residency rules violations.
Clear Ridge, competing as the U.S. Central region champions, made a dominant run through the tournament, outscoring opponents 44-11 over five games.
The final was a rematch for Clear Ridge, which beat Melbourne 13-8 in the second game of the tournament. The South Siders’ only loss came in the double-elimination district tournament, a defeat that Rich Verta said only reminded them of the stakes.
“You got to see them between games and when we were traveling for all this,” the coach said. “They are just a good bunch of kids. And we saw at an international level how good they are as ballplayers.”