Acting like a grown-up Little League: Parents are alarmed by the incivility of some of their peers.

May 03, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

It's great to be a member of the Toppers or even the team's opponent: Two dozen fans cheer not only for hits and runs, but for every pitch, catch, near-catch, or just about anything a 10-year-old can do on the baseball diamond.

This makes Suzy Beegle very happy. Last year, she was ready for her son Max to quit baseball because his old team featured a coach who yelled too much and fellow players who belittled team mates.

"We want the kids to have fun. We want them to learn some skills. We don't want them maimed for life by Little League," said Beegle, who was watching her son play a recent Saturday morning game at Gilman School.

Across the country, organizers of youth recreation leagues say ill-behaved parents remain a dilemma for youth sports from baseball to soccer, and it's a problem that may even have worsened.

Exactly why is unclear ` perhaps it reflects society's increasing incivility or takes a cue from the various pro sports where sportsmanship is in such short supply.

But nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the stands at a Little League game where too many parents don't know how to act appropriately ` or, just as troublesome, don't bother to get involved at all.

"Anybody who's been in Little League long enough has seen it," said Lance Van Auken, spokesman for Little League Baseball Inc., the Williamsport, Pa.-based national organization. "It's something we are trying to address."

The horror stories abound.

Fathers who loudly criticize their own child's play, or argue an umpire's call. Children can only cringe when parents from opposing teams start yelling at each other.

"If you just took 20 kids out and dropped them off at a diamond and walked away, they would create their own rules, play their own game and do just fine," said Fred Metschulat, president of the Towson Recreational Council. "Sometimes, we lose sight of what this activity is supposed to be about."

Organizers say the problem is most acute in the leagues for players 10 and younger, perhaps because parents are inexperienced spectators of youth athletics. While most adults know to be supportive, often one or two believe their child deserves more playing time or consider winning more important than haviing fun.

"There's always some parent on whatever team I've had that goes beyond the normal bounds and finds themselves embarrassed ` or at least should have been ` at some point," said James J. Fabian, a Lutherville lawyer and longtime youth baseball manager.

Thom J. Young, commissioner of boys baseball for the Perry Hall Recreation Council, said his league has begun to have problems finding volunteer umpires, in part because of criticism from parents.

"I won't have a problem with a child this year, but I know I'll have a problem with some parents this year," said Young, a sales manager for an appliance distributor.

The problem has grown so acute that Little League officials recently commissioned consultants to produce guidelines leagues can use to explain appropriate behavior to parents.

"Respect and support volunteers and umpires," the league guidelines recommend to moms and dads.

Al "Little Al" Herbeck, co-author of Little League's "Know Your Baseball" education campaign, said the worst parents are the ones who criticize coaches and umpires as if they were paid professionals like in the majors.

"Every good play should be cheered," said Herbeck. "The whole program should be geared around the positive."

That's almost exactly describes the philosophy of the Toppers and Jonathan M. Genn, the team's coach and the loudest cheerleader on their field. During a game, the Baltimore lawyer shouts only encouragements to his players.

"If we don't have anything positive to say, we don't say anything," said Genn, 41.

Genn said the highlight of last season came when one player got his first hit on his last at-bat of the last regular season game. The celebration that followed meant more to the team than the Roland Park Little League championship it later won.

"Every parent and every one of his teammates was cheering," Genn recalled.

Dr. Vincent M. Fortanasce, a Los Angeles area doctor and author of "Life Lessons From Little League," said baseball games provide a critical opportunity for the emotional bonding of a father and child.

Athletics at that age are not about winning, which most 10-year-olds don't even care that much about, he said, but about building self-esteem, and learning a sense of sportsmanship and team play.

"Competition is an adult value. What a child needs to learn is to respect other children and respect themselves," said Fortanasce, a practicing neurologist and trained psychiatrist. "Acceptance is the greatest gift we can give to our child's self-confidence."

Little League Expectations of Parents

I will make every effort to:

* Attend my child's games

* Be a supportive parent for the manager and team

* Communicate with the manager in appropriate ways

* Cheer for all players on the team

* Be a positive role model

* Be there when my child is successful or when struggling for success

* Respect and support volunteers and umpires

* Understand that the game is very difficult to learn and play

Source: Little League Baseball Inc.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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