CHICAGO -- It was a celebration fit for a champion, albeit a group of youthful winners who have a return to school to look forward to on Tuesday.
But the latest stop on the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars Little League World Series victory tour, with the White Sox honoring this squad prior to the second game of Saturday's split doubleheader with Detroit, instantly became another special moment. The players, coaches and members of the organization had the chance to do everything from mingle with Major Leaguers to run the bases at U.S. Cellular Field.
Each player left with a back-to-school package, including a White Sox backpack, a copy of "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season" and $100 in school supplies on behalf of the team. They also received a White Sox jersey in their Little League number signed by every 2014 White Sox player.
White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and executive vice president Ken Williams presented a $20,000 donation to the Jackie Robinson West Little League, with Williams praising the kids as role models during a private session before they took the field. A special plaque commemorating this memorable season will be unveiled at U.S. Cellular during the 2015 campaign.
Public address announcer Gene Honda introduced each player, and each player proceeded to circle the bases after his name was read. The crowd roared its approval, as the players were greeted around third base by a line formed by the White Sox and at home plate by Illinois governor Pat Quinn.
"They are our heroes forever," said Quinn. "The way they played that game last week when they won the championship. They came from behind, the double play at the end. They know how to play the game, and they showed us how to play it right in life, too."
As the group was gathering near the White Sox dugout, Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter came over from the visitors' side to offer congratulations and shake hands. Tony La Russa, the legendary manager and part of the most recent Hall of Fame class, also talked to the team before he was honored Saturday and threw out a ceremonial first pitch.
"It's crazy because he's a Hall of Famer and we're just some regular kids that made it to Williamsport," said Trey Hondras, one of the six JRW players who also take part in the White Sox Amateur City Elite traveling baseball program. "I'm real happy. I'm excited we're on this field and get to jog around and see the players. It's real exciting."
"This whole experience has been unreal," JRW manager Darold Butler said. "It's something I'm glad they're enjoying. Right now it's a dream. A big dream."
Quinn told the media a story of how he hosted the JRW All-Stars at the governor's mansion last year after they just missed qualifying for the Little League World Series. At that point, he told them that 2014 would be their year.
Not only did it turn out to be their year in regard to on-field success, but it's a year these players never will forget. The people who watched them achieve seem to feel the same way.
"How they inspired our whole state, our whole country really, with the way they played, the composure," Quinn said. "This is an opportunity for all of us to invest more in youth sports and programs that help kids after school, on the weekends and in the summer. We really have to take a lesson from JRW. Those are our favorite letters in the alphabet: Jackie Robinson West."
"Our boys, they deserve every bit of it," said Butler, whose team is going to Disney World on Friday for the weekend. "They brought not only a city but it seemed like a nation together and it's a beautiful thing for 11, 12, 13-year old boys to have that kind of impact. A lot of the players' favorite players are Chicago White Sox, so it's a beautiful thing. I'm glad the White Sox are showing so much love and I'm super proud of the guys."