Just two innings away from falling one game short of the Little League World Series, Jackie Robinson West staged a dramatic rally heard ’round the South Side of Chicago.
Jackie Robinson West Little League qualified for the Williamsport, Pa., tournament by beating New Albany, Ind., 12-7 in the Great Lakes Region championship game Saturday. The comeback win, fueled by a seven-run fifth inning, sends the squad of 11- and 12-year-olds to the LLWS for the first time since 1983.
In six regional tournament games, the team outscored the opposition 61-19.
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However, this win was in serious doubt as New Albany jumped out to leads of 5-0 and 7-3. But Jackie Robinson West exploded for seven runs in the pivotal fifth inning, capped by a clutch grand slam by No. 9 hitter Cameron Bufford that gave West its first lead of the game.
"I was trying to get a base hit," Bufford said afterward. "But it went over the fence . . . I never thought I’d be here. When we’re down we don’t give up."
This year’s run to Williamsport reportedly inspired Gov. Pat Quinn to declare Saturday "Jackie Robinson West Little League Champions Day" throughout Illinois.
“With power and poise, this group of young ballplayers has outperformed opponents across the state, region and now they have their eyes, gloves and hearts set on a bigger field," Quinn said in a statement. “Like Jackie Robinson, they didn’t hang up their cleats in the face of adversity. Now this year for the first time since 1983, they will get to compete in the Little League World Series. This group of young ballplayers and their coaches have made all of Illinois proud. I wish them the best of luck as they represent our state on the worldwide stage.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he "could not be more proud" of the team that has taken the Windy City by storm.
"More important than making history on Saturday, the courage to persevere and hard work displayed by the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team and Coach Darold Butler, has once again reminded all of Chicago the very best of what we hope from and for our kids," Emanuel said in a statement. "I want the whole team and Coach Butler to know that Chicago is rooting for them, and as they take the field for the Little League World Series, they will be taking the best wishes of an entire city with them.”
The team reportedly struggled to fund the 11-day road trip to Indianapolis for regionals, initially searching out financial donations to assist with meals and expenses.
“For all the negative publicity we get in this city to have this going on . . . it is definitely something the city needs to know about,” said Butler of the LLWS run before Saturday. “You have 13 African-American players, volunteer coaches, and everybody throughout the league trying to do something positive for the city of Chicago.
"So this is huge. This gives our kids something to strive for, to set goals, and to accomplish. It gives them something to look forward to outside of the negativity."