By day, John Spencer evaluates or treats hardened criminals and other sociopaths. Evenings, he is a coach, umpire and league director for preteen baseball players.
Sometimes, the contrasts aren't as sharp as would be expected."It can be a little disheartening," said Spencer, a forensics psychologist who has also been active for two decades in youth baseball programs. "You'd like to think that you're going to an ambiance that would be conducive to a fun time, that the focus would be recreational.
"But it can be a microcosm of the world. . . . It really does become the law of the jungle," Spencer said.
In Whiteville, N.C., one coach of 10-and-younger players on May 18 slashed a rival coach's throat with a pocketknife, blood splattering on one player's shirt.
Spencer agreed that the shock of the Whiteville slashing may not be that it happened, but that such violence doesn't erupt more often at youth games.
Across the nation, more than 2 million children each year play Little League baseball and tens of thousands more play in spin-off organizations such as Knothole, Baseball USA, Khoury League or Dixie League. Many enjoy youth baseball for what lumber-yard clerk Carl Stotz intended when he started the first three-team Little League in Williamsport, Pa., on June 6, 1939: "to assist youth in developing qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being, with proper guidance and exemplary leadership."
It doesn't always work out that way, though.
"There may be only one incident in Little League a year like the slashing, but maybe a million kids are going to be embarrassed and think less of an adult or even their parents," said Bill Geist, a CBS News feature correspondent and author of a new book, "Little League Confidential."
- In 1990, a Little League coach was hospitalized in intensive care in Willow Springs, Ill., after being assaulted by a rival coach and player.
- A manager was clubbed with a bat by a rival manager in Terre Haute, Ind., in 1989.
- In 1989, El Centro, Calif., league play was suspended after an umpire was threatened by a knife-wielding parent.
- In 1989, competition in a Houston suburb was halted after a coach whose team was in a playoff race protested another team's use of a too-old player - who had cerebral palsy and was batting .167.
Ray Recchi, youth coach and columnist for the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, wrote last week that so far this season in his league, a parent tried to scale a fence to get at a coach who ordered his son to bunt; coaches had to be restrained after one threw a clipboard at the other, and police were called to quell a brawl spurred when a manager was ejected for profanity.
"The kids . . . seldom cause problems," Recchi wrote. "In fact, accusing adults of childishness for arguing or fighting is actually an insult to children."
"I think some of these people might not know what the real reasons for Little League are," said Stotz, now 82. "It's for the kids."
"He got a lot out of it," said Tony Drabek, former Little League coach in Victoria, Texas, whose son, Doug, went on from the neighborhood team to become a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He learned the game, and he learned to win and lose gracefully. And I think all the kids learn how to get along with each other when they're in Little League."
But the elder Drabek also remembered other coaches who "instead of teaching the kids sportsmanship, it was win, win, win."
Doug Drabek joined hundreds of Little League players who have made the major leagues beginning with Joey Jay, a 20-game-winning pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s. He was followed by Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Palmer and likely Hall of Famers such as Nolan Ryan and Mike Schmidt. Other Little Leaguers include Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., rock star Bruce Springsteen and actors Tom Selleck and Danny DeVito.
Sheryl Mahler doesn't know whether any of her four sons will follow their father, former Braves and Reds pitcher Rick Mahler, to the big leagues, but she doesn't like the start they've gotten in youth baseball in West Palm Beach.
"I would hate for another parent to go through what I just went through with Ricky," she said of her oldest, a 9-year-old whose harsh introduction to organized baseball brought him home crying and wanting to quit.
"Coming from the major leagues, it's really a surprise to see how intense these games are. These coaches and parents are really out there to win," Mrs. Mahler said, adding that she may become a coach next year to protect her other children from having experiences that sour them on the game.
Geist, who has coached his son and daughter from their early childhoods, said the intensity can be almost unavoidable.
"There's something that makes your sap rise; you want to protect your young," Geist said, recounting his fury at an umpire that had his daughter in tears the night before. Also, he decided after driving into New York City that "the same people who cut you off on the highways are the people who are doing little things in order to win these games. There's something deeply psychological going on."
Indeed, say psychologists.
Thomas Tutko, a San Jose State University psychologist who authored a book titled "Winning is Everything and Other American Myths," said youth sports for many are "child abuse in a subtle, emotional way."
Coaches who overemphasize winning, parents who push their children to excel until they burn out, and parents who have gifted children and "start picking on everybody else" create an atmosphere of pressure that makes it "really hard for a mature, child-oriented coach to do well."
"Parents too often are trying to undo their own frustrations and living through their kids," Tutko said.
Spencer said rootless suburban neighborhoods help make children's fields a battleground.
"You don't know your next-door neighbor. The days of the Sunday afternoon church-picnic game are gone. Everybody's trying to get theirs. Maybe you can't afford the car the Joneses have, but your son can play shortstop and theirs can't," he said.
Tutko said he believes there are many values to be learned from youth sports, but it would be better to save "the adult model" for teen-agers and use "alternative approaches" as in some communities.
Some leagues rotate rosters every week or two so there are no team standings. In some leagues, no scores are kept in tee-ball or coach-pitch leagues. In many leagues, every player must play; in some, every player must play in the infield at least part of the time.
Speaking out on youth baseball
- "Little League is so special because it promotes ideals of sportsmanship, teamwork, citizenship and a feeling of family - it is fathers and daughters, mothers and sons together in a healthy arena." - President Bush, paying tribute to Little League Baseball's 50th anniversary in 1989.
- "He tried to take my head off over a stinking ballgame." - Marty Butler, a Whiteville, N.C., coach who received 50 stitches in his neck after being slashed by a rival coach in their 8-, 9- and 10-year-old league May 18.
- "Little League is for the boys to have fun. Let's leave them alone to play the game." - from a card Little League founder Carl Stotz handed to parents he felt were too intense.
- "And all I ever said back to him is that it was supposed to be a kids' game." - John Hills, hospitalized in intensive care in Willow Springs, Ill., in 1990 after a rival coach and player inflicted a broken nose, fractured ribs and other injuries.
- "To participate in this highly popular sport, all you need to do is get a small child who would be infinitely happier just staying home and playing in the dirt . . . then you and other grownups stand around the perimeter and leap up and down and shriek at these children as though the fate of the human race depended on their actions." - from "Dave Barry Turns 40" by The Miami Herald columnist.
The UCLA Sports Psychology Laboratory, funded by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, recently measured attitudes among nearly 2,000 southern California boys and girls who participate in sports. Here, in order of importance given by the children, are the rankings of the factors they said contributed most to their enjoyment:
- 1. Positive coach support.
- 2. Learning-effort.
- 2. (tie) Positive team interactions.
- 4. Positive parent interactions.
- 5. Sports ability.
- 6. Feeling fit.
- 7. Winning.