Win or lose, youngsters from Chicago will leave a lasting impression on the Little League World Series.
The Jackie Robinson West team is comprised of all African-American players. On Thursday, their league will make its first appearance in 31 years in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania -- the latest indicator that baseball is making small strides in an effort to lure young African-Americans back to the game.
The number of African-Americans in the major leagues has dwindled steadily since the mid-1980s, when they comprised about 19 percent of rosters; the number stood at 8.1 percent on opening day this year.
Jackie Robinson West, representing the Great Lakes, got off to a good start. It beat Northwest champion Lynnwood Pacific 12-2 in its first game Thursday.
Still, No one is ready to proclaim the sport is back in talent-rich inner city neighborhoods because of Jackie Robinson West's success. However, programs such as the Little League Urban Initiative, Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities) and Urban Youth Academy clearly are making a difference.
Two girls will be competing in the Little League World Series for just the third time in the tournament's 68-year history.
And their playing days don't have to end there.
Unlike many of the 16 girls that have preceded them, there's a future for Philadelphia's Mo'ne Davis and Canada's Emma March to pitch beyond the fields of South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They could play in high school and beyond.
A 17-year-old female high school pitcher from Florida recently threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays and another woman is pitching in the NCAA.
Davis, a 13-year-old, has been dominant leading up to the series. She threw a complete-game and only gave up three hits in the team's victory in the regional final last week to reach South Williamsport.
Davis said girls should be given a chance to play baseball beyond Little League if they want to.
"You never know what could happen," Davis said.
March and Davis will make their LLWS debuts on Friday.
Kathryn Johnston was the first female player to appear on a Little League roster in 1950. A rule prohibiting girls from playing was passed in the 1950s, but that was overturned in 1974.
Little League doesn't keep track of how many girls play baseball, but most tend to gravitate toward softball as they get older, said Lance Van Auken, executive director of the Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum. He said it's very rare to see girls competing in baseball beyond Little League, but added that it "doesn't mean it's not happening out there."
Chelsea Baker, a 17-year-old high school knuckleball pitcher in Florida, recently threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays. She said she has received interest from colleges, but no offers yet.
"I tried to play softball, but it wasn't the same for me," Baker said. "My next goal would be to play college baseball."
Billy Connors, a former pitching coach for the Yankees, Royals, Cubs and Mariners, said girls who work hard and receive proper coaching and development "absolutely" can have success on a higher level than Little League. He cited Baker as an example.
"She's doing it," Connors, a member of the Schenectady, New York, team that won the 1954 Little League World Series, said of Baker. "She's a pretty good pitcher."
Ghazaleh Sailors, a pitcher at NCAA Division III University of Maine at Presque Isle, said that she was harassed in high school for playing baseball. She said she never thought of playing softball and doesn't want to be known as the only female NCAA baseball player.
"They think I'm a gimmick," Sailors said. "I'm not here to be a gimmick, I'm here to play baseball."
Van Auken said the publicity surrounding this year's tournament could lead some girls to stick around in baseball longer, rather than move to softball.
He cited Davis' 70-mph fastball as a talent that could lead her to success in baseball in the future.
"That's a really good fastball for anybody in the Little League World Series," Van Auken said.