South Side of Chicago
He is ALWAYS there. Every game. Todd Prince sets the tone and embodies the incredible civic pride, spirit and volunteerism that define Jackie Robinson West Little League.
Todd didn’t grow up far from Jackie Robinson Park on the south side of Chicago where the league plays its home games. He first became involved as a coach when his son had a desire to play baseball. As the seasons went on, he became more involved. Now 20 years later, he serves as league president, overseeing all age divisions and a total enrollment of more than 200 kids.
“What I am probably most proud of is that our kids continue to play baseball after they age out of our program. Many use their experience with us and play in college, where they complete their degrees,” Prince told me while we sat and watched a Saturday afternoon game from his perch atop of the grandstand at the main field of Jackie Robinson Park.
“Every year we have four or five kids who are graduating from college, where they played baseball. We’re so proud they are able to change their lives by giving them the opportunity to play baseball. We even had one young man drafted in the first round, by the Brewers in 2016. We are all keeping an eye on and rooting for Cory Ray.” The center fielder is currently playing with the San Antonio Missions in the Pacific Coast League.
The Jackie Robinson West season generally runs from late April until July, with the early schedule dependent on the unpredictable spring Chicago weather. Every age level, from 8-12, also has a Sunday games schedule for the kids who want to play even more. And then fall ball starts in August and runs until October or early November.
“When winter comes, we move indoors and keep the kids engaged,” said Prince. “Curtis Granderson built a facility at UIC (University of Illinois, Chicago) and he invites us to work out and play some games once or twice a week throughout the winter. We are so grateful to him.” Granderson grew up 20 miles south of Jackie Robinson Park.
Prince’s program is also embraced by the Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, who has a passion for the Grassroots game. “Theo is a big supporter and comes out to see us,” said Prince. “When he began with the Cubs, he and his brother, Paul, started the Urban Classic, bringing a team from Boston to play our kids. We started with just the two teams, and now every year we have six to eight teams plan in the classic.”
The Chicago White Sox have also been a great partner also, establishing the ACE (Amateur City Elite) program, for players after they age out of Jackie Robinson West and other area youth baseball programs. ACE provides “inner-city kids with educational opportunities and avenues to further pursue a career in collegiate or professional sports.”
“Our overall goal is to build good character in these kids and hope that they become productive citizens,” said Prince. “The game can take you a long way if you work hard. The kids playing today see the older kids who came through the league getting into and graduating from college, and that motivates them. Seeing someone who went through it before you helps you a great deal, and the older kids love to give back.”
With a loving and caring support structure in place, the Jackie Robinson West Little League program stands tall. And that is the essence of grassroots baseball.