When parents foul up the game

Adults' errors mar Hagerstown baseball


HAGERSTOWN -- A local Little League's unsavory side is exposed on national television. The grown-ups follow this act by fighting bitterly for control of the baseball program, staging one coup after another.

A father critical of league officials is arrested when he defies an order to stay away from the fields. Two candidates for the league's board turn out to have criminal records. Finally, the home office in Williamsport declares the local program's charter "on hold."

Are we having fun yet?

"It's a mess, and it's a shame," said Kelly Cromer, who, as president of Hagerstown's National Little League, convened a meeting last weekend -- only to see parents vote to oust her and the rest of the board. "It's been a terrible, terrible year."

Allegations of cheating, an undue emphasis on winning, sexism, assault and battery -- all have come up in connection with the baseball program known around Hagerstown simply as "National."

It's been so bad that Gary Wolfe, 13, hesitates to admit that he played in the National Little League from T-ball until last year.

"That's sad when your kids are embarrassed to talk about their own league," he said, waiting for a ride home from school this week. His grievance: managers' bias toward their children in selecting all-star teams.

For years, National was better known in baseball circles for its spirited charges toward the Little League World Series -- including the 1950 and 1968 teams that made it to Williamsport. The National program, which is Maryland's oldest chartered Little League, has been a Hagerstown institution for more than a half-century.

It is one of four Little League programs in the Western Maryland city. This year, about 265 children played on National teams.

Evening after summer evening, parents deliver their youngsters to Staley Park, where children learn to ignore the surrounding industrial grunge and keep their eyes on the ball. Two summers ago, the setting caught the fancy of an ABC News crew.

Lost in the lights

National would soon find that the limelight can be unflattering.

In July 1998, almost a year after ABC left Hagerstown, the network presented "Peter Jennings Reporting: The American Game." The anchorman quoted Walt Whitman. He rhapsodized over the heroics of National teams past and present.

And he found some dirt.

He found managers arguing with umpires. A manager with a girl on his team told Jennings: "I'm a sexist." One father attacked a manager who did not recommend his son for an all-star team.

In perhaps the most shocking scene, a father angry with his son's play told the boy: "I'm on camera with a microphone, but I'm going to get you tonight because you're letting me down."

The show was the talk of Hagerstown.

"There weren't too many places you would go where people didn't say, `Did you see that?' " said Debbie Everts, district administrator for Little League programs in Western Maryland.

Bob Blackburn, a chef at Rocky's University Pizza in Hagerstown, said publicity about National has him wondering whether he should allow his 4-year-old twin sons to play T-ball as they get older.

"I don't want them going there if there's a problem like that," he said. "But they're the ones who are going to suffer. They want that hat. Every kid wants a hat."

Many thought that the documentary painted a distorted picture by devoting inordinate attention to isolated examples of questionable behavior at the expense of wholesome moments.

Still, Donnie Mertz, a former umpire and manager who has long been critical of what he sees as a lack of sportsmanship at National, said: "The ABC special really opened our eyes. And the few of us who didn't like the way the program was run, that gave us more credibility."

Outside the lines

So much so that within two months of the broadcast, Mertz was league president. It was a remarkable development, considering that a few years earlier, he'd been stripped of membership after one of his clashes with the league's board.

He immediately set out to make changes.

"I didn't like the experience my kids were getting," said Mertz, a 44-year-old air-conditioning technician and father of eight. "Most of the emphasis was on the all-star team."

But he met resistance. He questioned whether coaches were violating rules prohibiting out-of-season team practices. He says he was trying to move toward strict compliance with Little League Baseball's regulations, but Kelly Cromer says board members saw a "dictatorial style."

In January, Mertz stepped down, and several board members followed suit. Cromer, a 34-year-old law student, took over as president.

She and one of the league's managers were married in July -- at home plate at Staley Park.

But the rest of the season was not so joyous.

Cromer promised to arrange an election for board members, but regional Little League authorities said she was not following procedures. Parents worried that National could lose its charter, meaning that players would not be able to play in postseason tournaments.

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