CHICAGO (AP) — 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 neighborhood 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 percent 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 honor. 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."