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Little League World Series scandal still stings Jackie Robinson West

Bill Haley, director of the Jackie Robinson West Little League, addressed the media during a press conference on Feb. 12, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

The Little League World Series run of Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West was the Cinderella story, then the Shakespearean drama, of three summers ago. And it’s a tale that’s being written — in the pages of lawsuit filings.

Monday, nearly three years to the day after JRW lost to a team from South Korea in the 2014 Little League World Series, a half-dozen lawyers gathered in the dim gloaming of a Daley Center Courtroom, for only the latest hearing in a string of litigation that began when the South Side kids were stripped of their U.S. championship in a wrenching cheating scandal. Sunday, a team of pre-teens from Lufkin, Texas, lost to Japan in the 2017 LLWS.

The rise and fall of the JRW team, an all African-American squad that made it to the Williamsport from the streets of the far South Side— and, it turned out, farther-flung neighborhoods— captivated the nation for a golden summer, only to crash to earth that February.

Nearly 1.7 million people watched the Little League World Series that August — the highest ratings for a LLWS since at least 2008, and 300,000 more viewers than in 2016, according to data from Nielsen.What seemed like a sure-fire screenplay about the heartwarming tale of a plucky band of African-American kids from the South Side of Chicago, became fable about cynical, cheating adults.

After Little League officials announced JRW was retroactively disqualified for having ineligible players on its roster, the finger-pointing began almost immediately. JRW sued Little League, then dropped their case. JRW parents split with longtime league patrons Bill and Anne Haley, then sued them, Little League, ESPN and the rival coach who turned them in for cheating.

The Little League litigation will drag on for at least another month, as the judge Monday delayed his ruling on whether the case can proceed. The parties will return to court Oct. 30.

First, a some more background. Jackie Robinson West’s dream season came to an end in August 2014, with an 8-4 loss to South Korea in the Little League World Series. But Evergreen Park coach Chris Janes, whose team was crushed in an early round game against JRW, had gone to Little League with questions about whether players on the JRW roster all lived within the South Side boundaries set by league officials.

Initially, Little League officials cleared JRW, and the team finished the tournament and returned to Chicago to a heroes’ welcome. They visited the White House to hobnob with fellow South Sider Barack Obama, and went to San Francisco for a Major League World Series game.

Months later, Little League officials said, the league confirmed that JRW’s longtime director, Bill Haley, had submitted a phony map of player addresses, then another fudged map with re-drawn boundaries, and finally just tried to persuade rival teams to retroactively cede territory to JRW. In the end, Little League ruled that only five of the 13 players on the JRW roster were eligible.

Five months after JRW’s jubilant victory parade through Chicago — which followed a route longer than the one after the White Sox 2005 championship season — the team’s U.S. title was handed to a runner-up from Las Vegas.

ESPN broke the story, and commentator Stephen A. Smith blasted the adults he blamed for the scandal, calling for a JRW coach’s picture to be posted on-screen “like a mug shot.”

Haley and the JRW parents sued Little League, claiming the league knew about the allegations of ineligible players, but failed to enforce its own rules.

Janes sued Little League as well, claiming he endured death threats after Little League initially cleared JRW of breaking the rules.

JRW, suspended by Little League after the club refused to cut ties with Haley and the coach, dropped out of Little League, playing in the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth organization in 2015. JRW sued Little League and ESPN, but the case was thrown out. The club rejoined Little League in 2016, after parents split with the Haleys — and filed a lawsuit against them, Little League, Janes and Evergreen Park and broadcaster Smith.

The parents’ lawsuit is still pending, though ESPN and Smith have been dismissed from the case. ESPN attorneys and a spokesman for the sports network did not respond to questions from the Chicago Sun-Times.

James Karamanis, attorney for the parents, said last week that the players — all between the ages of 10 to 13 during their title run — were humiliated because of the Haleys’ doctored maps and because Little League and ESPN officials milked the feel-good story for ratings.

“I don’t know where to apportion blame amongst the defendants, but I know that the kids were the victims, that it was handled incorrectly and they were damaged by it,” Karamanis said. “I know that even today, when they’re in games, the other teams referred to them as cheaters, and they still feel the effects, even today.”

Meanwhile, a team from Japan beat Little Leaguers from Ludlum, Texas, 12-2 to win the 2017 Little League World Series on Sunday.