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."
The issue of adult violence in youth sports becomes scarier every year. Parents assault coaches with far more than words, and "Kill the ump!" no longer is an idle threat. In Riverdale, Georgia, a coach shot a father in the arm after the dad complained that his son was not pitching enough. A T-ball coach in Wagoner, Oklahoma, was sentenced to twelve days in jail for choking a fifteen-year-old umpire during a game. T-ball, incidentally, is a game played by five- and six-year-olds.
The majority of managers control their emotions -- and a lifetime of sports frustrations -- fairly well, but some believe in winning at all costs, leading to what is known as Little League Rage. In a recent article on this subject, The New York Times reported, "Adult misbehavior is becoming a familiar blight on children's games in all sports....Fathers yell at coaches. Mothers belittle players. And umpires are attacked. Game officials have long taken verbal abuse, of course. But now they are shoved and spat on, even stabbed and shot."
The national umpires' association plans to offer members a new benefit: assault insurance. Still, it's getting harder to find umps to absorb threats and abuse for $15 to $25 a game. Youth leagues in Houston, Texas, now require background checks on all coaches. Some leagues have stopped keeping score to dampen competitive flame-outs. A league in Jupiter, Florida, recently became the first to require all parents to take a one-hour "ethics" course.
"Parents and coaches have lost perspective on what sports is about," an official with the umpires' association observes. Consider the following incident: A youth baseball manager in Boca Raton, Florida, was recently charged with disorderly conduct for "mooning" players and fans from the pitcher's mound after his team lost a tournament game. Witnesses said he stood on the mound, yelled at the opposing team, pulled down his pants, and exposed his back side. Then he turned around and did it again. He later told police he was simply bending down to pick up some caps and gloves. "I know my pants are constantly falling down," he explained. "My wife calls it plumber's butt." Good line, but it sounds like his upstairs pipes are leaking.
A couple of years ago, ABC News documented the climax of a typical Little League season in Hagerstown, Maryland, for a two-hour Peter Jennings special. Jennings wanted to find out "what makes Little League so exciting and occasionally terrifying." He certainly got his wish. The league's all-stars -- one of them a very talented girl -- advanced far along the road to a state title. Their manager admitted, however, that he was a "sexist" and didn't believe girls should be on the team or allowed to play Little League at all. "Girls should be cheerleaders," he affirmed. Another manager got thrown out of a game for arguing with umpires, then verbally attacked a league official, leading to a one-year suspension.
The ABC microphones overheard a parent tell his boy, after he struck out in a big game: "When you get home I'm going to get you tonight, because you let me down...I'll get you, buddy." Confronted with this evidence, the father told Jennings that sometimes his son gets lazy and he has to hit him. His wife, sitting next to him, looked forlorn, and told Jennings that she didn't agree with this philosophy. A viewer had to worry about what happened to her when she got home.
One player in the league, a talented catcher, gained a reputation as a troublemaker, harassing opposing players, umpires, and even his own coaches. "He's bad," his father told Jennings, "but not all bad." When the kid got passed over for the all-stars, Dad ambushed the manager, knocked him down and kicked him, then told ABC he was "glad" he did it.
And this all happened at the end of one season in one league.
Looking ahead to another season, I worried about violence, even in our relatively sane league, for I'd heard stories about local coaches and fathers going Duke City out in the parking lot after a game.
Perhaps that's why I always taught our Little League teams to have fun and not worry about hitting home runs. Most coaches say they don't care about winning, and all of us lie, but I rarely pushed the competitive buttons. This led to a mixed record over the years. Winning is nice -- for one thing, it helps get parents off your back -- but I'd gladly settle for breaking even every year.
Still, I enjoyed being back on a ball field and helping a few kids, while making sure that my son had fun and avoided playing for an evil manager. These are typical reasons dads coach Little League. Even the lunatics don't want their kid playing for another lunatic.