The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

JRW and Leaving Your Bias At The Door

Two players from the Jackie Robinson West team at last year’s Little League World Series.  Source:

You know, throughout my career, indeed throughout my entire life, I’ve found that usually, the simplest explanation for something is often the most plausible.  I wish Dave Zirin of the Nation believed the same.

I know I’m maybe a few days late to the debate, but I’ll weigh in on this anyway.  Last week Zirin wrote an article about the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team from Chicago, whose U.S. title was stripped after proof arose that several of its team members came from areas far beyond the league’s boundaries.  It seems this was somewhat of an open secret, as many people in the Chicago area were familiar with JRW’s stretching of the rules.  Unfortunately it caught up to them, and now the Las Vegas team that the JRW squad beat in a scintillating game last August is officially-sanctioned U.S. champion.

Back to Zirin’s article.  Entitled “Gentrification Is the Real Scandal Surrounding Jackie Robinson West”, he goes on to make the claim that baseball programs like JRW’s are squeezed by the swift changes taking place in our large cities:

“This is because twenty-first-century neoliberal cities have gentrified urban black baseball to death. Boys and Girls Clubs have become bistros. Baseball fields are condos and in many cities, Little League is non-existent. The public funds for the infrastructure that baseball demands simply do not exist, but the land required for diamonds are the crown jewels of urban real estate. That’s what made JRW such a profound anomaly. In Chicago particularly, which under Mayor Rahm Emanuel has seen school closures and brutal cuts to physical education programs, their success made people believe that—with apologies to Tupac—flowers could in fact grow in concrete.”

Zirin got a lot of pushback, mostly from people intimately more familiar with Chicago than he is (I don’t know where Zirin is from, but he’s currently based in Washington, DC).  A week ago my blogging buddy Daniel Kay Hertz put together a damning but on-target critique that was perhaps the best response to Zirin’s off-kilter rant.  Hertz said that JRW had absolutely nothing to do with gentrification, and that in fact Zirin was using this to fit his own bias:

“On a nitty-gritty level, I would be interested if Dave Zirin can think of a single example on the South Side of Chicago of a) Boys and Girls Clubs that are now bistros, or b) public baseball diamonds that are now condos. Actually, I’m not that interested, because I know the answer, which is No, because a) those things did not happen and b) Dave Zirin made them up.

One reason I know that Dave Zirin made them up is that black neighborhoods in Chicago, particularly on the South Side, almost never gentrify. I know that they don’t gentrify partly because I live in Chicago, and I pay a lot of attention to neighborhoods and neighborhood change here, and I go places, and talk to people, and I see and hear that they don’t gentrify. I also know that they don’t gentrify because literally less than six months ago there was a widely-reported study by a very well-respected urban sociologist that documented, in rigorous detail, that black neighborhoods in Chicago don’t gentrify.”

After that, it got ugly for a couple of days as Zirin and Hertz responded to each other.  You can follow up on the subsequent debate if you like, without my linking to it.  It’s since died down.  But it’s clear Hertz won this hands down and I agree with him.

I wish Zirin had thought to investigate how gentrification manifests itself in different cities, as I have.  If he did, he might have come across pieces I’ve written on gentrification types, where I suggest that combinations of historical development form and historical levels of black population can produce different gentrification outcomes in cities — an expansive one, a concentrated one, a limited one, or even one that has yet to take off.

I wish Zirin had stopped to think that the New York, San Francisco, Boston or DC experience is not every big city’s gentrification experience.  If he did, he would have found two things about the area that JRW generally serves: it’s generally middle class, physically closer to the poverty and crime many associate with the South Side, but miles and miles away from the hotbed of gentrification activity on the North Side.

Remember what I said about the simplest explanation being the most plausible?  Here’s why I see Jackie Robinson West ended up in this sad position.  Baseball has been declining in popularity among African-Americans for more than 30 years.  And I say this as a former inner-city (Detroit) Little Leaguer who played high school ball.   I was a junkball lefty who pitched and threw a decent curve and slider.  But basketball and football rule cities now, whether the black kids who play are impoverished or not.  I’m guessing JRW’s leaders, lovers of baseball, found it increasingly difficult to field not only a championship-quality team, but a competitive one.  So they stretched the boundaries.

And in doing so, I’m guessing they tried to employ the same kind of team-building practices that characterize Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball teams.  Unfamiliar with AAU?  Anyone who wants can establish a club team that competes with other clubs affiliated with AAU.  Teams play extended spring and summer schedules that provide competition and exposure that go far beyond their high school teams, and there are no rules regulating boundaries for participation.  Suburban Chicago players playing for a city-based AAU team?  No problem.  Downstate Illinois players playing for a city-based AAU team?  Still no problem.

How are those who love baseball supposed to compete with that?

Look, I love baseball and I love cities.  I think Zirin should really think about what’s good and bad about both before writing misguided pieces.  Stories based on ill-informed narratives don’t serve anyone.

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