Hardly a week goes by — if you pay attention, as I still do — without an incident of threats, violence, or other unsavory activity at a youth baseball or soccer game, usually involving not kids but adults. I was surfing TV last night and a cable talk show was up in arms over a mother on Long Island threatening a Little League manager and others when her son did not make the team’s travel squad (that’s her pictured below). Often it’s a coach attacking an umpire, or a rival coach, with words, fists or even a bat. Or setting a horrid example by cheating again and again.
Even at a higher level of ball the adults in authority sometimes ruin it for children. This past Sunday, my son and I went to the local minor league baseball park, which had just opened for the team’s first season, for a game on Father’s Day. Yesterday the game ended with the opposing team’s manager nearly getting into a brawl with the umps — in an area where kids gather for autographs after the game. The manager? As a Mets fan, my all-time favorite player — former Red Sox great Billy Buckner, who blew a ground ball, and the 1986 World Series, by giving my team a second chance to win.
It’s disheartening that so little has changed since my days as a Little League manager (still the only local coach, ahem, to pilot a team here to the Final Four in New York State) and the many pieces in the media critical of adults who wreck youth sports. A few years ago I wrote a book partly about this, titled Joy In Mudville, an otherwise comic look at coaching my son one season. Here’s a rather timeless excerpt that relates to parents’ misbehavior.
The American Psychiatric Association recently sponsored a symposium entitled "Youth Sports: Character Building or Child Abuse?" Youth baseball takes place in a cultural milieu where fistfights between adults can break out on a ball field filled with children. It’s the kind of world where an umpire kicks a twelve-year-old catcher out of a playoff game for not wearing a "cup." The catcher was a girl. Coaches, parents, and league officials argued about it for a week. Then the lawyers got involved. Only in America.
Although our season had ended early, the playoffs rolled on, climaxing in a typical Little League altercation.
The Giants and Rockies would meet in a three-game series to decide the champion. The Giants, coached by a burly Valley Cottage fellow, were heavily favored over the Rockies, managed by a Nyack photographer. It was another hot day at Memorial Park. Starting in the first inning, from near the Giants’ bench, the father of one of their players started heckling the veteran umpire on every close call. The ump called time and warned the father to cut it out, but the tall, muscular man said, essentially, "You and what army?" The Giants’ manager claimed he couldn’t control this guy.
So the ump threw the father out of the game (that is, out of the spectators’ section). Easier said than done, without the aforementioned army. Finally, under threat of forfeit, the heckler promised to not say another word to the umpire — and spent the remainder of the game taunting opposing players, reducing some of them to tears. After all that, the Giants ground out a 10-5 win. When the Rockies’ manager said he’d play the next day only if the league sent a board member to ump the game, one of the Giants’ parents called him a "wimp."