Stepping from a baseball dugout after his pre-adolescent players had cleared it of their bats, mitts and empty Gatorade bottles, coach Chris Janes reached for a Marlboro. He lit it and cupped it in his left hand, concealing the adult addiction from the few straggling youth ballplayers heading for their parents’ cars.
It was mid-May, and the past six months had been chaotic, unsettling and somewhat mystifying for the suburban Chicago father of four sons. But to anyone who knows Chris Janes — although, in all honesty, very few people know him well — his next words would be unsurprising, for Janes is not a man who backs off his core beliefs, or backs down from a fight.
“Yes, I’d do it all over again,” he said, taking a drag on the cigarette. “I thought it was the right thing to do then. I still think it was the right thing. Even after everything that’s happened, the death threats and all that, I believe it was the right thing.”
Janes has played many different roles in life: eldest sibling of six, high school and college quarterback, first in his family to attend college (at a small school in suburban Chicago then called the College of St. Francis), husband, father, youth sports coach. But to the general public of Chicago, he’ll forever be regarded as the rival youth baseball coach who blew the whistle on Jackie Robinson West. His formal complaint to Little League International in Williamsport, Pa., eventually caused the vaunted South Side team to be stripped of its much-heralded 2014 Little League national title. Little League officials in Williamsport ruled that JRW directors fielded ineligible players and later falsified league boundary maps to conceal their actions. Mountain Ridge from Las Vegas, which lost to JRW in the national finals, became the U.S. champions.
As one might imagine, leveling allegations of cheating against the beloved hometown champs — no less, a squad of African-American youngsters presumably from some of the poorest neighborhoods of this Midwestern metropolis — did not endear him to fellow Chicagoans. After all, the boys were feted with a major downtown celebration that drew tens of thousands of adoring fans. Chicago magazine named them “Chicagoans of the Year” and Mayor Rahm Emanuel dubbed them “the pride of Chicago.” For weeks last summer, JRW was a national feel-good story, and President Obama invited the team to the White House. So among the cascade of epithets hurled Janes’ direction on social media: “lowest of the low,” “super hater” and “racist devil.” “Shame on you #ChrisJanes you really are a loser!” And that was only the beginning of the largely anonymous hate spewed his way.
Indeed, when Janes decided to file the complaint last fall, he had little idea that he was walking himself into something far larger than a dispute over baseball played among 12-year-old boys. In a country still riven by racial turmoil, he was stepping into a virtual minefield of social and cultural discontent. His life hasn’t been the same since.
The undoing of Jackie Robinson West’s triumphal journey to fabled Williamsport began last fall when Janes connected with Mark Konkol, a reporter for a local Chicago news website, DNAinfo.com. Konkol, a beefy native Chicagoan who had shared a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times by investigating the impact of gun violence in the city, lives on the city’s South Side, and he had been hearing rumors that JRW loaded its World Series team with ineligible players from suburbs outside JRW league boundary lines. Smelling a story, Konkol began to ask around, and a relative pointed him toward Janes, who coached the relative’s son in the neighboring Evergreen Park Little League.
Meanwhile, Janes, a vice president for the Evergreen Park league, had been receiving excessive grief from parents of EP players. As part of Jackie Robinson West’s march through the national tournament last summer, in the sectionals, the ultra-talented JRW squad had beaten Evergreen Park by an outrageous score of 43-2 in a game cut to four innings by the mercy rule. Upset parents questioned Janes just how their All-Star team suffered such an embarrassing thumping, especially since their boys had beaten JRW as 10-year-olds in 2012. Janes replied that he believed JRW recruited ringers from the suburbs, although, at the time, he had no specific proof. In fact, Janes and other local coaches long had suspected that JRW was recruiting outside players. Year by year, JRW player faces would change, especially among the most gifted of the All-Star athletes, according to Jim Walsh, an EP coach for more than a decade. “Each year, they reload with new kids, and we have to be ready for them,” Walsh said.
But, after the South Side team became a national news story with its exciting Little League victory over favored Las Vegas, the evidence against JRW was not hard to amass. A handful of JRW players had received public congratulations from a congresswoman, a suburban mayor and others who hailed from outside JRW’s boundaries, with each specifically noting that players lived or went to school in their locales, outside the area served by JRW. So Janes scoured the Internet, documented such information and submitted his findings to Little League. Konkol, in turn, detailed the alleged infractions in a lengthy account for DNAinfo. Konkol’s first story, which ran in mid-December, was rooted in the fact that Janes had filed a formal complaint alleging the cheating.
This is when I first met Janes. A youth baseball coach myself, I had been researching and reporting on radical changes to the sport at the youth level. Last spring, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the dramatic proliferation of travel club baseball and the accompanying siphoning of talent from community baseball leagues. In so doing, I had followed the JRW team to Williamsport to watch their run in the Little League tournament, which was nothing short of miraculous.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that this South Side team was one of the most talented and most exciting youth baseball teams ever assembled. The Little League tournament is broadcast nationally on ESPN, and this all-black squad of sluggers, rubber arms and, especially, warp-speed sprinters quickly drew fans nationwide — especially among black Americans. These boys hit the ball hard, stole every base they could, took each extra base remotely available, and generally distracted and confused their opposition throughout the tournament. It was as if the spirit of their namesake, speedster Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, lived inside these kids.
At Edward J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, their blue-gold Great Lakes merchandise sold out within days of their arrival. They became a cause celebre among black Major Leaguers, with stars like Carl Crawford and Andrew McCutchen expressing support. Coupled with the appearance of star female pitcher Mo’ne Davis of Philadelphia, ESPN drew monster ratings for the youth tourney. And with Major League Baseball focusing on bringing the game back to urban areas, the rise of JRW could not have come at a more opportune moment for baseball as an institution in America, the first sport to desegregate its ranks by admitting the great Number 42, Jackie Robinson, in 1947.
So when the cheating allegations surfaced in the media in mid-December, several months after Janes had filed his complaint, I quickly contacted him. The next morning, he and I met at a suburban diner on a typically dreary, cold December day in Chicago. Dressed in a casual tan overcoat and faded blue jeans, Janes looked much like any suburban dad on a day off work. He arrived late and harried, which is not his typical state. But 15 minutes earlier, Janes had found himself on the phone with a Chicago newspaper columnist suggesting that his motivation for filing the complaint against JRW was racially tinged. Janes explained that he viewed the issue in a moral sense, not racial. “I just wanted to expose the cheating,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the JRW kids being black.”
As it turns out, Janes himself is married to an African-American woman and has four biracial sons. So defending himself against charges of racism is not something that Janes had ever prepared for, or had ever remotely considered might occur to him. “Should I have told her my wife is black?” he asked me plaintively.
After ordering a Denver omelet, Janes tossed his menu onto the table and shrugged. He remained agitated, still trying to mentally process the uneasy encounter with Mary Mitchell, an African-American writer for the Chicago Sun-Times who is known for taking up black causes around the city. For several years, Mitchell had been an ardent media supporter of the players, coaches and parents of Jackie Robinson West, well before the Little League on the city’s predominantly black South Side burst into the national zeitgeist.
In 2014, Mitchell’s long crusade finally paid major dividends. She got to follow the Little League team to Williamsport, was provided insider access as she chronicled its magnificent tournament journey, and then celebrated its hard-fought U.S. Championship. Along the way, her boosterish writing made her sound almost as if she were a team parent. She did as much as any single journalist to set a media agenda lifting the JRW boys, their coaches and their loved ones onto a pedestal above their peers.
At the time, Mitchell’s mission seemed noble. After all, the JRW Little League is rooted in the midst of several challenging Chicago neighborhoods, where crime, poverty, underperforming schools, drug dealing and other societal ills can make everyday living nothing short of a treacherous human struggle.
The JRW Little League was founded in 1971 by Joseph Haley, a teacher who, troubled by negative influences creeping into his South Side community, wanted to provide inner-city youths with a positive outlet. Over the years, even as black youths turned away from baseball and toward football and basketball, JRW blossomed into one of the most successful and heralded youth baseball leagues in Illinois. “Every black kid on the South Side wants to play for Jackie Robinson,” explained Carlton Hondras, whose son, Trey, was a star player on JRW’s World Series team.
JRW’s home field, Jackie Robinson Park, is a long rectangular patch of deep green among gray city streets and uneven sidewalks at the corner of 106th and Aberdeen. It doesn’t look all that different from any other grouping of youth ball fields, but, true to Haley’s original vision, the park serves as an urban oasis for young athletes. It is an unwritten law on the South Side that Jackie Robinson Park is sacred ground, that the neighborhood’s corner drug dealers and pistol-toting gang bangers take their business elsewhere. And they heed this law, out of respect for the children at play, out of fealty to the dedicated parents and volunteers who run the highly-touted JRW Little League. “Those fools running the streets, they leave us alone,” said Jason Little, a JRW coach and a former corrections officer.
And now along comes Janes, a white guy from mostly white Evergreen Park, a suburb just a few miles to the west, trying to tear down these inspirational Little League victors in their moment of national glory. Was this allegation born of racism? To a longtime black newspaper columnist like Mary Mitchell, who has spent decades chronicling racial injustices toward African-Americans, it had to be.
“Mary just kept asking why I was doing this to Jackie Robinson,” Janes said. “She kept asking if it was because I was white. I kept telling her that I’m not a racist. I just know she’s going to slaughter me tomorrow in her column.”
Janes was a rookie dealing with the media, but he was clear-eyed enough to see this freight train roaring down the tracks, headed straight for him. The headline on Mitchell’s column the next morning: Jackie Robinson West team’s rival says he’s not a racist.
The implication from that headline, of course, is this: While Janes says he’s not a racist, dear Reader, the jury’s still out.
There’s no specific look or résumé for a whistleblower, that freethinking individual who publicly exposes misconduct or dishonesty within a cohesive group, often at a steep cost to his or her own reputation. But if there were such a human template, Janes would not fit the profile you’d draw up. Little about him on the outside says natural-born crusader.
Then again, many whistleblowers insist they are not a special breed, just regular folks caught in an untenable and unjust situation that needs to be rectified, and only they can do it. Jeffrey Wigand, the medical doctor portrayed in the movie “The Insider” who exposed tobacco companies for dishonestly marketing its cancer-causing products, said, “We were just ordinary people placed in some extraordinary situations and did the right thing … as all should do.” But those ordinary people often see their lives altered in negative ways. For example, college recruiting whistleblowers are regularly ostracized by fans. Wigand’s marriage fell apart and he left his lucrative profession.
But ordinary person Chris Janes rather fits that description.
Now in his late-30s, Janes has slightly sad, droopy eyes and a close-cropped haircut. In several of our meetings, he typically dressed in middle-class suburban dad wear — khaki pants, crew-neck sweaters. He doesn’t particularly stand out physically in a crowd. In his Everyman face, Janes could pass for a modern day Richie Cunningham, now matured into parenthood.
His childhood, however, was not something out of “Happy Days.” His mother and father split when Janes was less than a year old, and Janes never saw his father again. He grew up in Justice, Ill., a working-class suburb on the fringe of Chicago, in a household headed by his stepfather, an ironworker, and his mother, a traditional homemaker. The couple had five more children. As an adult, Janes has grown estranged from those half-siblings and his mother. He doesn’t care to talk about his family life, but his closest friend noted that at least one of Janes’ half-siblings has had drug and legal issues. “Chris was sort of the redheaded stepchild,” said Matt Martus, whom Janes has known since their college football days in the mid-1990s, when Janes was the quarterback and Martus the running back. “I just know it was kind of a rough life for him.”
Today, Janes looks every bit the part of a suburban father of four boys all under 15. Traditional men’s haircut. Less-than-flashy earth-toned clothes. Clean-shaven. All-American athlete look, only all grown up and on the verge of middle age. He coaches his boys in baseball and basketball and spends much of his precious little spare time hitting the gym to keep in shape. It shows. He’s not a large man, but his shoulders and chest are broad for his size, and there’s no trace of a spare tire around his mid-section. To earn a living, he manages a retail store that sells low-cost brand name clothing, in downtown Chicago.
He has the typical twin worries of modern American parents: How to limit and monitor his kids on social media. How to afford college for his quartet of boys. “Looking at the math — for about a whole decade, I’m gonna have two off at college at one time,” he said, wincing. “Not cheap.”
He’s slightly old school. He doesn’t use social media, and, in fact, has little use for its existence. He’s quite bright, although he occasionally misuses a college-level word.
But his personable demeanor and Everyman appearance belie a certain revolutionary character trait: He has a crystal clear sense of right and wrong, and he’s not afraid to fight for someone he believes has been wronged. Martus recalled an incident from college in which a woman in their group was being mistreated by a drunken student amid a football trip to Creighton University in Nebraska. “I told Chris he needed to back away, that I had a conversation with this ignorant guy,” Martus said. “But Chris just went up and started pummeling the guy. Chris wasn’t afraid to fight for what he felt was right.”
Despite this somewhat pugnacious nature, Janes devoutly believes in fair play, especially in children’s sports. In our several interviews, Janes was outspoken against the rapid advancement of travel club sports. He argued that travel sports creates an uneven playing field for families who can afford thousands of dollars per year to put their kids onto professionally coached teams, leaving behind kids of more modest means. “He doesn’t believe in that for the little guys,” Martus said. “He believes everyone should have equal opportunity. I guess that does make him kind of a rebel, huh?”
With Janes guided by this philosophy, it becomes more understandable why he would take on a crusade against a Little League team stacked with expertly-trained travel players.
But perhaps even more, Janes thinks that, with its high-caliber players, JRW showed poor sportsmanship when its All-Star team demolished the Evergreen Park All Stars by 41 runs in that Little League sectional game last summer.
“It’s an eye-popping score, isn’t it?” Janes asked me. “No one ever sees that score [in Little League], because no coach lets it get to that point. They stop runners at third. They bat a right-handed kid left-handed to get an out, or they do something, anything, to stop from scoring, if they can. But sending home a runner from first on a single, when you’re already up by 31 runs? Stealing second and third base when you are up by 31 runs? What is going on? Jackie Robinson just poured it on us.”
At the center of this issue is the extraordinary expansion of travel club baseball in recent years. All of the 2014 JRW players — and most of the players on other teams that made it to Williamsport — also played for elite travel teams outside their community leagues. But Evergreen Park has held firm that no travel players are permitted in its Little League. This places the community at a severe disadvantage at tournament time. “For Chris, he’s not about turning his kids into college athletes. That’s not what motivates him in youth sports,” Martus said. “He wants kids to turn out to be the best adults that we can make them. That’s what Chris strives for with his own kids and with the kids he coaches.”
There’s a price in holding firm to this ethical standard. Evergreen Park has lost dedicated, athletic players to full-time travel squads. Meanwhile, JRW has fielded talented players like Pierce Jones, a tall slender outfielder with a sweet swing, and Trey Hondras, a power-hitting, long-limbed first baseman whose handsome looks drew the attention of pre-teen girls nationwide. Both are elite-level travel ballplayers, with Jones so talented and precocious that he “played up” on travel team for 13-year-olds in 2014.
Last summer, JRW’s Little League tournament play in the southwest Chicago-area district opened with a game against Evergreen Park. These two communities had long been local baseball rivals, but such rivalries grow most intense in the 12-year-old year, that final magical season of Little League for boys, when they are young enough to be considered children yet old enough to play the sport at a highly athletic level. The tournament teams consist of All-Star squads selected from players throughout each community’s Little League. Two years earlier, as 10-year-olds, this group of Evergreen Park All-Stars beat JRW’s All-Stars. However, in 2012, that JRW team did not boast the same players as in 2014.
For Evergreen Park, it was inauspicious start. Jones, who would smash three homers in one game in Williamsport, cracked a home run in the very first inning. But in that game, and through much of JRW run through Illinois and regional tourney games, the showstopper was Hondras, who launched two round-trippers in the first inning alone against Evergreen Park. One was a tape-measure shot, soaring high over the center field fence.
“We were playing in Hegewisch, and it was a short fence, about 210 feet,” EP coach Walsh recalled. “But one of those Hondras homers, I swear, it must’ve gone 400. I’ve been coaching 15 years and I’ve never seen a 12-year-old hit one farther.”
Months later, Carlton Hondras vividly recalled his son’s Ruthian shot. “That ball traveled over the fence, over a house, and into the street in the next subdivision over. I think it even hit a parked car. You shoulda seen it. Damn!” Carlton told me with a big smile on his face. Before even one inning was recorded, JRW was winning 13-0 and JRW was on a road toward Williamsport.
But on the Evergreen Park side, there was no joy. A couple of player parents squabbled with each other amid the baseball beating. Other parents silently watched their unknowing kids get walloped on the field, a sense of inner horror filling them, a certain horror that only a sports parent can truly understand. A couple of innings into the game, one Evergreen Park mother sat alone, apart from the other parents, breaking down in tears as she watched her son’s team decimated in such embarrassing fashion. “I guess my son learned a lesson,” the mother, Cheri McKeown, told me, reflecting back on that inglorious day for Evergreen Park baseball. “If you play by the rules, you get pounded.”
It’s uncertain whether either Hondras or Jones, as well as several others, were eligible to play for JRW. Carlton Hondras lives in suburban South Holland, and Trey attended a middle school in suburban Homewood. Carlton Hondras said his son had various residences. Other players attended school, and their parents lived in suburbs, south of the city limits.
Janes was not a coach specifically for the 2014 Evergreen Park All-Star team of 12-year-olds. In fact, he was busy coaching his younger son’s team in tournament action that day. But as league vice-president, he felt the pain of parents like Cheri McKeown, and he felt the wrath of their disenchantment. “My parents,” as Janes called them, “they were not a happy bunch, and that’s putting it mildly. I felt like I needed to do something to prove that we didn’t deserve to lose like that.”
Janes has paid dearly for that decision. When Little League International revoked JRW’s title on Feb. 11, it found that JRW and the Illinois District 4 Administrator falsified a boundary map to place players on their team “who did not qualify to play because they lived outside the team’s boundaries.” Afterwards, much of the backlash in Chicago was directed not at the JRW coaches and league officials who broke the rules, but specifically at Janes and Konkol, the reporter — the men who blew the whistle.
The two immediately were blasted on social media. “Fucking snitch!” one tweeter called Konkol. “Dude better stay out of Lawndale,” another South Sider warned Konkol. To this day, there are several videos posted on YouTube excoriating Janes and making veiled threats.
The JRW drama has been filled with finger-pointing in all directions. In Chicago, it broke down, as it does so much in America, along racial lines, with most blacks backing JRW and wondering aloud if race played a factor.
At one point in the controversy, in February, a South Side woman accused Evergreen Park of recruiting players from outside that community’s boundaries, as well. The woman, who lives on the city’s South Side, told a Chicago television station that her son played in the Evergreen Park league in 2011, even though he did not live in there. She said an Evergreen Park coach fudged residency documentation to allow her son in the league.
Janes maintained that his league does not actively recruit players. He said if a player wants to play in the league and doesn’t live inside Evergreen Park, the league usually won’t turn away the player. But, he added, such players are not permitted to play on the league’s All Star teams. “We want to help as many kids play baseball as possible,” he said. “But it’s another thing to put players with questionable residency on your tournament team.”
Some others also blamed Little League for penalizing the children who won the title. Nationally, some news organizations weighed in. The Washington Post published an editorial saying Little League was using JRW as “scapegoats” for its own lack of proper policing of the game. Chicago Mayor Emanuel, then locked in a mayoral contest with black and Latino opponents, called on Little League to keep the title with the kids.
Within hours of JRW being stripped of its national title and its second-place finish to South Korea in the world championship, longtime civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr. assembled a press conference to denounce the decision as racially motivated. “It is not about boundaries, it is about race,” Jackson told a throng of reporters at his Rainbow Coalition/Operation PUSH headquarters on Chicago’s South Side. “This is persecution. This is not right. This is not necessary. It is not fair. This is another layer of our struggle for a more perfect union.” Mitchell, the black columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote that “the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, and is a reminder that throughout history — no matter what the offense — African-Americans seem to endure the harshest penalties.”
An activist South Side priest, Father Michael Pfleger, took aim squarely at Janes, suggesting that Janes was part of a societal conspiracy to destroy black youth.
“This is America. And I know racism runs deep in the DNA of America,” Pfleger said. “And what this individual from Evergreen Park has continued to pursue has been both mean-spirited and it’s been personal. When you look at birth certificates and voter registration and spend all this time hunting, with this witch hunt that’s been going on for the last number of months, I can’t help but question whether the same thing would have been done from another team from another place, another race.”
At the end of this wild day, I met Janes for coffee in a Dunkin’ Donuts a few blocks from his Evergreen Park house. He seemed overwhelmed, and emotionally intoxicated, by the day’s massive media attention toward him and toward the JRW story. He had granted interviews to all the Chicago television stations, the Associated Press, ESPN and many other outlets. “I gotta admit, being on ‘Outside the Lines’ was pretty cool. I love that show.”
But mostly, he seemed spooked by the magnitude the story had taken in the daily news cycle, and he was visibly upset by the public accusations of racism. He asked why Rev. Jackson and Father Pfleger would level such charges when he stridently believed that race played no role in the matter? Janes also conceded that he was worried for his family’s safety. His wife Andrea initially had been supportive of his cause, but now she had grown concerned about threats the family was receiving by phone and social media. One caller to their home ominously told them, “I hope you burn in hell.” Andrea called police and authorities dispatched a cruiser to park in front of their modest two-story brick house for a couple of days. “Why would these men of the cloth incite that sort of anger?” Janes asked. “Nothing good is going to come from that. You are putting people in harm’s way.”
After about 10 minutes, Janes cut our meeting short at the Dunkin’ Donuts and headed to the Evergreen Park Police Station to file a report about the harassing phone messages. “Happy wife, happy life,” he said, before stepping into his car.
“My wife’s not so happy today.”
While Janes has been extremely accessible to the media, Janes’ wife Andrea has declined to become involved. When I asked if I could interview her, Janes said, “She wants no part of it, to be honest.”
As the JRW saga continued to receive media attention, Matt Martus began to grow concerned about his old college pal. Janes had always been a close friend, but he could be distant, preferring to handle struggles in his life on his own. “If he’s going through a bad time, he won’t reach out,” Martus said. “If I don’t hear from him for a while, I’ll call him, because I know he can get depressed. Sometimes he unloads, sometimes he won’t. It takes a lot to get inside Chris. He won’t let you go there. He doesn’t trust easily. I guess that comes from his stepchild stuff.”
Martus was right to worry. Janes turned down no media interviews, and he had been ardently defending his role in JRW’s downfall to anyone who would ask. Clearly, Janes felt that if people only heard his side, and saw that JRW had broken rules, he would be vindicated. This did not happen. “If I learned anything, it’s that people easily can be misled by their preconceived notions and by misinformation,” Janes said.
Not only was Janes not vindicated, but JRW had hired attorneys to explore their legal options in the matter, and those attorneys were not shy about flipping media attention away from the cheating allegations and onto Janes. In an interview on WTTW television, JRW attorney Victor Henderson was asked if he thought race had played a role in Janes’ decision to file the complaint. His response: “People make mistakes all the time.”
Henderson bizarrely then went on to equate Janes with an abusive spouse. Asked if it was relevant that Janes is married to an African-American woman, the lawyer said, “Relevant, maybe on some level. But I mean, there are men who are married to women and are engaged in domestic violence. So I don’t think that because you are involved in an interracial marriage, I don’t think that it follows that you can’t be a racist any more or that race can’t be a consideration, any more than if you’re a husband married to a wife that you can’t get involved in domestic violence. I don’t think that one necessarily follows the other.”
Henderson added that the real issue is whether JRW was unfairly singled out for scrutiny and whether other teams complied with all the rules. He questioned why JRW’s player roster was scrutinized so heavily and other team rosters were not.
Henderson’s legal team did not stop there in trying to flip blame onto Janes. In early March, Henderson sent a letter to the offices of the Cook County state’s attorney and the Illinois attorney general asking for a criminal investigation into Janes. Henderson wanted to know if laws had been broken because, along with his complaint, Janes had sent Little League officials residency information gleaned from drivers’ licenses and other government-held records about the JRW parents, records that are not available to the public.
So now, not only did Janes have to worry for his family’s safety, but there was a possibility that legal authorities would investigate him. (Neither office has opened an investigation, according to spokespeople.)
With all this brewing, that very night, a bewildered Janes — faced with a possible criminal investigation and a disrupted family life — walked to a neighborhood tavern to watch a Chicago Blackhawks’ game with buddies from his baseball organization. One beer led to another, and then another, and before long, Janes was deeply drunk. He was so intoxicated that, on his walk home, he turned down the wrong street. Then, believing he was outside his own house, he accosted a woman he seemed to think was his wife, followed her up her front steps, beat on her front door, hurled obscenities at the house, and argued heatedly when the woman’s husband greeted him at the door. The couple called police, and Janes was charged with several misdemeanors. The case is still wending its way through the Cook County courts, but Janes apologized and readily expressed contrition for his behavior.
“I got obliterated and acted like an idiot,” said Janes, who added that he can recall nothing of the incident.
His mug shot appeared all over local Chicago media and was posted repeatedly on social media by his detractors. With sad bloodshot eyes and a scruffy unshaven face, Janes looked like a man whose life had veered well off course.
“Chris internalizes stress, and I know that he can start to put ‘em down when he gets depressed or stressed,” Martus explained.
“It really bothers him that he could put his wife and kids possibly in harm’s way, that his actions have hurt his family. I know he feels what he did was right with Jackie Robinson, but to me, it just shows that it really doesn’t pay to be the whistleblower.”
As Little League Tournament action opens around the nation on June 29 this year with district play, culminating in the World Series in late-August, for the first time in 44 years, JRW will not take part in the competition. In March, JRW broke ties with Little League International and joined Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken Baseball, a governing body that has more liberal residency policies.
Janes, however, will be coaching Evergreen Park’s team of Little League All-Stars at the 12-year-old level, which includes one of his sons. He said this episode in his life continues to baffle him, although he conceded he has a better appreciation for the fragile state of America’s race relations. “Even with Obama, I think things have gotten worse,” he said.
Janes acknowledged that the JRW debacle probably has not helped to instill racial harmony in his home community. Evergreen Park, once an enclave of whites, has slowly integrated over the years, and it is now roughly 20-percent minority. Most EP Little League teams have a few black kids. But to some blacks around Chicago, the suburb’s history of black exclusion remains a lingering frame of reference, and some still view Evergreen Park as unfriendly to minorities. Just last year, Evergreen Park’s police force was accused of racially profiling minority drivers who pass through the suburb. Janes defended his community, saying that he and his interracial family feel comfortable there. So it bothered him that several black families did not return to the league this year. “I imagine that’s because of the mess with Jackie Robinson,” he said with a frown.
While we talked outside the dugout in mid-May, I mentioned to Janes that my wife also is African-American and I have two biracial children. And in my experience, I said, marrying outside one’s race does two things to your psychology. As a white person, suddenly, race becomes present in your everyday life, where before it was more remote and intangible. But you also can feel shielded against a personal charge of racism. You’re now smack in the middle of America’s oldest and most complicated struggle, and you feel as if you have license to talk more candidly about the subject because you’re guarded by an invisible cloak.
Janes nodded in agreement, but then shifted the subject back to baseball.
“This whole thing was never about race,” he said adamantly. “It was about those guys cheating. So when you ask me to look back and ask myself, ‘Would I do it again?’ Hell yeah.”
Update: At a press conference held on June 24, 2015, at the Ray & Joan Kroc Sports Center in Chicago, Jackie Robinson West officials and their attorney Victor Henderson released a 100-page report of their own investigation. The report documents the teams’ correspondence with officials at Little League International, including emails, letters, maps and other documents that show the team was given support and approval by Little League International to play several times before it won the championship. “We are willing to stand by the mistakes that were made, but we want to be treated fairly,” Henderson said. “Little League has to be held accountable and Chris Janes has to be held accountable.”
Henderson said any protest of player ineligibility should have been made before games were played, according to the Little League rule book, not afterward. He is asking for additional meetings with Little League officials and attorneys to talk about the revocation of the national title. The group has also filed a petition in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging Little League International failed to provide information to JRW explaining why they stripped the team of its championship. The petition also alleges the league failed to cite any specific violation of its rules. The legal petition does not seek monetary damages or the reinstatement of the national title, but simply asks for additional information from, and communication with, Little League officials.
Little League International officials have not responded at this time. Mark Konkol, the DNAinfo reporter who first broke the story, was refused entry to the press conference and escorted from the building.
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$(“.author-bio p”).html(“David Mendell, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, is the author of OBAMA: From Promise to Power, a biography of President Obama. He also has written for The New Yorker, the Washington Post and other publications. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @davidmendell.”);