Parents, coaches hit lows
Every kid's Little League nightmare used to be getting stuck in right field.
Not even close.
Proof that parents aren't nearly done wrecking kids' games came in two stories that crossed paths last week.
One of them may have set a new low in youth-league coaching -- and to get a sense of just how low, the story it slithered under involved a few dozen 8- and 9-year-olds watching a parent go after an umpire who was all of 15.
One of the coaches at that game in Carteret, N.J., called it "the most outrageous and horrendous thing that I've ever dealt with."
And that was the lesser of the two evils.
You never know when a story about yet another sadistic Little League parent or coach -- all too often, one and the same -- is going to get traction with the public.
The most encouraging thing about the case of 8-year-old Harry Bowers is that it already has traction with prosecutors in Fayette County, Pa.
They stuck Bowers' T-Ball coach, Mark Downs Jr., 27, with two counts of criminal solicitation to commit aggravated assault and one count each of corruption of minors, criminal conspiracy and recklessly endangering another person.
He is accused of offering one of Bowers' teammates $25 to knock Bowers out of the game during warmups.
But wait, it gets worse.
What teammate alleges happened
Bowers is coping with autism, a speech impairment and a memory problem, which can make catching a ball tough.
And just before a playoff game in late June, 8-year-old Keith Reese said Downs told him to warm up with Bowers in practice. This, Reese said in a preliminary hearing in Uniontown, Pa., last week, is what Downs told him next:
"He told me if I would hit [Bowers] in the face, he would pay me $25," Reese said.
Reese's first toss hit Bowers in the groin. Downs then allegedly told him, "Go out there and hit him harder."
"So I went out," said Reese, one of the team's stars, "and hit him in the ear."
The bylaws of the R.W. Clark Youth Baseball League state all players must play three innings in every game. After her son was plunked twice, Jennifer Bowers said Downs told her, "The balls must be after him. He should take the day off."
Even more incriminating was something Reese's father, Keith Reese Sr., testified that Downs said after the game.
"He told me, 'I did something ignorant. I told [Keith] I'd give him $25 to hit Harry in the face to take him out of the game,'" the elder Reese said.
Downs, who will be arraigned Sept. 15, didn't testify at the hearing.
But attorney Thomas Shaffer denied the allegations, explaining that the confusion was understandable.
According to Shaffer, Downs jokingly offered a $25 bounty during a previous game to "anybody who can line drive the ref with the ball" -- after Downs was cautioned by the umpire in that game.
Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
Either way, more and more of these incidents are bubbling up in recent years, though it's difficult to say whether that's a function of a growing hysteria or simply more extensive reporting.
Earlier incidentsin high school
In 1996, most such episodes were taking place at the high school level.
During one notorious six-week stretch that fall, a soccer player in New Jersey suffered a concussion and needed 16 stitches to close the wounds after being kicked in the head and a referee in New Mexico was knocked unconscious after being hit from behind by a football player who took a 30-yard running head start.
More troubling, still, was the story of the father of an offensive lineman who sharpened the chin-strap buckles on his son's helmet to a razor's edge so opponents blocking him would suffer deep cuts.
The most troubling part? The father accused by the school principal of devising the weapons was a pediatric dentist.
Four years later, when a sparring match between two hockey dads in Massachusetts ended tragically, one expert said reports of parents fighting with referees, coaches or other parents at kids' games averaged one a month.
The episodes cut across all boundaries of geography, class and sport, and the age of the kids in those contests was getting younger and younger.
In January of that year, police in Kirkland, Wash., were called after a coach broke a parent's nose with a head-butt -- after a wrestling match between 6-year-olds.
So maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Parents used to view sports as a chance for their kids to get some exercise, maybe develop self-esteem and absorb a few lessons about competition along the way.
Now, they view it as an investment.
And even though a number of states have increased the penalties for grown-ups fighting at kids' games, some of those parents are determined to see that somebody pays.
XJim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.
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