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Chicago's Little League champions return to home turf responsible for their success

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CHICAGO - The ballpark gleams, exactly as the home of the Little League World Series national championship team should.

Free of graffiti and absent so much as a kid's initials carved in the grandstand benches, Jackie Robinson Park is outfitted with a digital scoreboard and mechanical pitching machines. It sits in a tidy neighbourhood of brick one-story homes and manicured lawns on Chicago's South Side.

While the words "South Side" are often shorthand beyond Chicago for gangs, shootings and poverty, the people who live here see a more nuanced picture.

"These are middle-class families," said Jamieson Clay, a relative of Joshua Houston, the pitching and hitting hero of U.S. championship game. "Ninety per cent of the boys have both a mother and a father at home with them and the fathers are playing a pretty active role in their sons' lives."

The beloved Jackie Robinson West All Stars, Chicago's first all-black team to claim the national title, autographed T-shirts and posters at the ballpark Wednesday before boarding trolley buses for a parade in their honour. They're only beginning to realize the impact they've had on the city.

"I didn't know it was going to be like this," outfielder Darion Radcliff said as he posed for photos. "I feel like a celebrity."

In the days to come, he and the other players will be held up as models for how to keep vulnerable kids out of trouble. Radio host Matt McGill said to the crowd at Wednesday's pre-parade rally, "Look at those kids. You can be a star without a gun in your holster, without a gun in your waistband."

And before thousands at Millennium Park downtown, Chicago White Sox executive vice-president Ken Williams urged kids to "pick up a ball or a glove or a book, a paint stick, a science project (and) put down the guns."

Adrian Newell, 59, said at the downtown rally, "You never hear anything positive about little black boys and these (13) boys did so well, behaved so well, you are just so proud of these kids."

But some people close to the team chafe at the kids being portrayed as another example of sports rescuing people from dire circumstances.

"This is not some fairy tale about ducking bullets," said Bill Haley, director of Jackie Robinson West, which his father founded in 1971. "The story is we are the national champions."

Williams suggested the team might change the perception of Chicago's youth.

"I had someone pass me by the other day who said, 'Those boys are so well behaved.' I said, 'Yeah, we teach that. The other stuff you see reported, the perception of what's happening in Chicago? That ain't us. These young men gave you a glimpse into who we really are.'"

The team united Chicago, which remains one of the nation's most segregated cities. Last weekend's televised games were the most-watched telecasts in Chicago, with 623,900 viewers Saturday and 810,500 on Sunday — including at Wrigley Field where the Cubs watched during a rain delay and cheered like 12-year-olds themselves.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel organized all-city watch parties. Fans lined up Tuesday to buy 7,000 team T-shirts at a local sporting goods store and on Wednesday — just as they did in 2013 when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup — fans lined the streets to cheer.

They'll even be able to live stereotypical post-sports championship dream: The Rev. Jesse Jackson announced Wednesday that his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition will be flying the boys to Disney World.

The team is built around a core of longtime baseball families, Clay said. Joshua Houston has older brothers who play high school and college baseball. His father is the team's pitching coach.

Of the Jackie Robinson West players who attend Chicago public schools, most attend magnet and charter schools, which indicates their parents made the effort to enrol them in special programs. One boy has two parents who are both Chicago police sergeants, while a second boy has a dad who is a Chicago police officer. Coach Darold Butler is a Union Pacific railroad engineer.

"The values of dignity, winning with grace, losing with grace, we can't take credit for that," Butler said. "Those come from their parents."

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