After days of watching baseball games on screens hundreds of miles away, fans of the history-making Jackie Robinson West team finally got a chance Monday to congratulate the boys in person.

Hundreds turned out at Midway Airport and the Far South Side's Jackie Robinson Park on Monday evening to snap photos and hug and high-five the 13 boys whose team was the first from Chicago to reach the Little League World Series finale in more than four decades.

The excitement will continue Wednesday morning, with a welcome-home rally and parade, beginning on the Far South Side and winding north to Millennium Park.

But the celebration began Monday at Midway, where dozens of people with blue and gold balloons, signs and gift bags greeted the players with thunderous cheers as they got off the plane.

Later, at the team’s home baseball field on the Far South Side, fans brought cupcakes, balloons and pom-poms to give the boys a proper homecoming.

“They have the support of the whole community,” said Angelique Cotharn, holding a fistful of blue and yellow helium balloons. Cotharn said she has lived across the street from team member Marquis Jackson and has watched him play since he was as tall as a baseball bat.

Cotharn was among hundreds who gathered at the park, in some cases merely to catch a glimpse or take a cellphone photo of the national champs, who were dropped off there by a black charter bus fresh from Midway.

“No other way to celebrate a winning team for the United States of America,” said Charlene Williams, who said she has lived in the Roseland neighborhood for 46 years, clapping in anticipation of the boys’ arrival at the park. “No other way.”

Team members were greeted with handshakes from Mayor Rahm Emanuel as they stepped into the park and stood for photos before making their way into the bleachers.

After a packed day comprised of an appearance on “Good Morning America” and then a flight to Chicago, team pitcher Ed Howard, 12, said he was ready to go home, maybe get a home-cooked meal of macaroni and chicken and then sleep.

“It’s crazy. I didn’t think it was going to be this big,” Howard said of fans who surrounded him, including one who later asked him to sign his name on her hand. “I thought it was just playing baseball, coming back home.”

Lawrence Noble, 13, an outfielder, worked his way from the crowd with his family. He said the day had been surreal for him, what with TV appearances, police escorts to and from the airport to the field and the sight of hoards of folks waiting to take his photo.

“I never expected this many people (cheering) for a Chicago Little League team,” Noble said.

His big plan for Monday night? “Go home and lay in my own bed.”

Many fans at the field repeated the sentiment so many Chicagoans have expressed about the team’s inspirational wins, that they’ve generated positive publicity for the South Side.

Briana Garrett, 17, said she came to the field Monday night with her mom from their home just down the street because of the happiness the team brought to the neighborhood.

“Being able to see something positive in the neighborhood, that’s why everyone wants to come here.”

mmanchir@tribune.com
Twitter @TribuneMM