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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 middle-class 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 the U.S. final win. "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 U.S. title, autographed T-shirts and posters at their 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," said outfielder Darion Radcliff as he posed for photos. "I feel like a celebrity."

In the days to come, he and the other players will assume their new roles in the city as models for how to keep vulnerable kids out of trouble. At the rally Wednesday, radio host Matt McGill said to the crowd, "Look at those kids. You can be a star without a gun in your holster, without a gun in your waistband."

Some people close to the team chafe at the story being portrayed as another example of sports rescuing young men from dire circumstances.

"This is not some fairytale about ducking bullets," said Bill Haley, director of Jackie Robinson West, which his father founded in the early 1970s. "The story is we are the national champions."

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, whose son DJ Butler is known as "Juice Man," is a Union Pacific railroad engineer.

The team united Chicago, which is still one of the nation's most segregated cities. Televised games last weekend were the most-watched telecasts in the city, with 623,900 viewers Saturday and 810,500 on Sunday. Mayor Rahm Emanuel organized all-city watch parties. Fans lined up Tuesday to buy 7,000 team T-shirts at a South Loop sporting goods store ahead of the parade.

The team's poise under pressure delighted a city worn down by gun violence.

"For the city of Chicago, so much is happening and people are forming views of young African-American men. These 14 boys just stand out," Clay said. "There's greatness if you cultivate it and make it happen."

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 that their parents made the effort to enrol them in those special programs.

"The same parents who get their kids involved with Little League are the parents who get online and go through this somewhat burdensome process of enrolling them in the magnet schools," said Michael Reynolds, a sociologist at NORC at the University of Chicago who has researched poor inner-city schools on the south and west sides.

The team also underscores the fact that Chicago is home to a significant middle-class black community on the South Side, Reynolds said. Meanwhile, supportive parenting knows no boundaries.

"In every school you see kids doing really, really well and it's always the case that the parents are very involved," Reynolds said.

Said Coach Butler at Wednesday's rally: "The values of dignity, winning with grace, losing with grace, we can't take credit for that. Those come from their parents."

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