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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people lined Chicago's streets on Wednesday to cheer on an all-African-American Little League baseball team whose U.S. championship has brought pride to a city struggling with crime and budget problems.
The Jackie Robinson West team of 11- and 12-year-olds from Chicago's South Side beat a team from Las Vegas, Nevada, last week to become the top U.S. team in the World Series played in Pennsylvania, but lost the international final to South Korea on Sunday.
However, no one in the nation's third-largest city seemed to care that the 13 pre-teens lost the last leg of the series - feeling the national championship replaced negative news about gun violence.
"Being a black male from the south side, people think you will be bad, a criminal. So for them to do this for the city is a big deal. They are showing kids there's more out there than gang-banging," said Darletta Smith, 48, a resident of the south side who watched the team's games on TV with her children.
Smith and thousands of other supporters wearing the team color of yellow packed Millennium Park for a rally to greet the players, who drove through town waving to crowds from the top of a double-decker bus as news helicopters flew overhead.
Through the month of August excitement built over the team. Little League games became ubiquitous on Chicago sports bar televisions as people watched Jackie Robinson West - named for the player who broke the color barrier in the major leagues in the 1940s - advance in the tournament.
Last week, television ratings for the team's games soared to levels that are the envy of Chicago's professional sports teams. Nielsen ratings reported that 422,000 viewers tuned into the Aug. 21 game, much higher than regular viewership for the struggling Cubs and White Sox baseball teams and higher than many games featuring the popular Blackhawks hockey team.
Local media reported that more than 800,000 Chicago viewers tuned into the final game on Sunday.
"It is really hard to be a professional baseball fan in Chicago some years. But this year I had a team to believe in. I had a team to follow. I had Jackie Robinson West and they are winners," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said at one of Wednesday's rallies for the team.
Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Jim Loney